The Dark: Antarctic isolation

Imagine being marooned for many months with half a dozen strangers, in the harshest environment on earth, quite literally in the dark. That’s where doctor Kate goes, to an Antarctic research station, to over-winter with the skeleton crew. She’s hiding from a series of tragic mistakes she made in her personal and professional life – and she’s gone to the ends of the earth to escape her past. But instead of the peace she needs, Kate rapidly discovers that the death of the previous doctor might not’ve been an accident. And his murderer has no qualms about killing again to protect his secrets…

This setup has all the hallmarks of a ripping thriller. Four months of bitter winter: 24 hours of black night, every night. An external environment so hostile it’ll destroy unprotected human life within minutes. A gaggle of misfits, marooned together for months with minimal contact with the civilised world. The perfect place for a murder mystery, in fact.

But sadly this author can’t quite pull it off, despite having all the props in place. In the same way that you can normally tell when an author is describing a city that they’ve only visited on googlemaps, so I got the impression that Emma Houghton’s Antarctica was well-researched, rather than written from real life. I’ve spent some small time in Arctic environments, and her descriptions struck me as ‘secondhand’, somehow – technically true, perhaps, but lacking in authenticity.

I didn’t feel the bitter brilliance of snowblindness saturating my eyes, nor struggle to take a tiny breath through my nose, terrified that if I gulped great mouthfuls of air it would freeze my lungs into tiny crystalline trees – fragile, waiting to shatter under the immense Arctic sky. The environment in The Dark felt far more… academic.

However, as a setting for an Agatha Christie-style locked room mystery, it works perfectly well. The over-wintering research crew are a mismatched bunch, all of them hiding something, and a hundred years ago this story could so easily have taken place in an rural retreat, a stately home miles from anywhere. Instead, the saturating blackness of Antarctica adequately isolates the victims and the killer, and provides plenty of opportunity for paranoia to overwhelm them…

There’s a lovely tip of the hat to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the traditions of the over-wintering crews, plus plenty of technical detail. I never warmed to the protagonist, Kate, who seemed woefully overwhelmed by… well, everything. I wouldn’t want her to be my A&E doctor, that’s for sure. The plot depends upon her making multiple mistakes, clumsily wrecking relationships and inspiring enemies in an increasingly debilitating narcotic fug. I found myself wishing for a competent investigator, someone a little less over-wrought.

Not the best ‘stranded in the snow’ story I’ve ever read, then, but an entertaining interlude in an exotic location. If you prefer a more authentic Arctic setting, where the author genuinely captures the local culture and the stark reality of life on the ice, then try Seven Graves, One Winter instead. Set in Greenland, it’s both poetic and chilling, and not simply because of the sub-zero temperatures…

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Dark by Emma Haughton is available at Amazon


Who’s stalking whom?

Find out in this quick thriller, available at Amazon

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