By Tom Barry
Acclaimed author of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series and Dark Matter: A Ghost Story visited Waterstones York to speak for her new book Thin Air, a spiritual successor to her previous work of horror. Set in 1935, the twilight of the British Empire, Thin Air follows the plight of a troupe of explorers as they attempt to summit Kangchenjunga; the 3rd highest mountain in the world, located in the Himalayan range. Kangchenjunga is regarded with a deep suspicion by the natives, who believe that there is a god who lives at its uppermost point, and views any who try to climb the mountain’s face with malevolence.
It is this malevolence that Paver considers essential to any good ghost story; if an otherworldly force means the protagonists well, it removes any fear to tension the tale might otherwise hold. It is this fear, this magical ability of mere words to make the heart race and the soul shiver, that Paver is fascinated by and views as the guiding purpose of recreational literature: to make the reader feel something. And fear is one of the oldest, most potent responses a writer can elicit. Paver’s ghosts come always with this malice, an intention to do harm and an edge of intelligence which makes them dangerous. The haunting of the characters begins subtly, just beyond their field of perception, and grows until it pollutes their, and the reader’s, every thought.
She makes a point of the fact that an effective ghost story must first isolate its victims from the outside world, from logic, rationality and technology, in order to leave animal terror to take over.
Paver herself bears all of this invocation with a gentle humour, unafraid of appealing to any passing apparitions on the night following Halloween. Her fixation on the natural, and the supernatural, can be seen in all her work to date. She makes a point of the fact that an effective ghost story must first isolate its victims from the outside world, from logic, rationality and technology, in order to leave animal terror to take over. This is why both Dark Matter and now Thin Air are both set in the 1930’s, before the world, already made small by the rising tide of globalisation, became permanently interconnected. I ask if Paver would consider herself a technophobe: she prefers tech-sceptic. She continues to type her manuscripts on an (in hardware terms) ancient desktop computer, crucially lacking in any internet capability. This allows her to work without distraction, the constant distraction that has leeched some of the vitality of and necessity for stories and storytelling.
She scoffs at the idea that children should be protected from the more sinister themes in some of her books, blithely relating an anecdote from a similar event where her audience, when asked how many of them had read Dark Matter, up shot a forest of 11 and 12-year-old hands. Children are the most honest and perhaps harshest critics in her opinion; they won’t continue reading past the first paragraph if they are uninterested in what comes next. When pressed finally for a clue as to her next publication, Paver is resolutely tight-lipped, excusing herself with characteristic self-deprecation: she doesn’t even tell her own mother, let alone her publisher, about a new project unless she feels it is close to completion, as any negative response (particularly from a room of strangers) would prove disastrously discouraging to her. She pleads “I am a better writer than I am a speaker. I wouldn’t do what comes next justice if I told you now”.
Thin Air by Michelle Paver is available now at Waterstones (waterstones.com/book/thin-air/michelle-paver/9781409163343) and other bookshops.