I’ve never really considered myself a fan of horror. I’ve sat through the odd Friday 13th film at Uni (my date’s choice – probably for the chance that I would fling myself into their arms for protection, ppfffft) but I see little to interest me in all that blood, gore and overdramatic musical cues. That sort of thing makes me jump (as do big spiders lunging from under the sofa) but they don’t keep me awake at night. They are startling but not horrific – my feeling being that stuff inflicted on bodies (even graphically brutal stuff) isn’t half as terrifying for the reader as that little voice in your mind that says ‘there is something out there that wants to harm you’. And that little voice is what makes ghost stories, for me, scarier than horror.
Michelle Paver’s Thin Air seems to do all the things that a good ghost story really should. An intriguing story about a group of young men attempting to be the first to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga in the mid-1930s: check. Plenty of interesting characters, with detail given about each man’s strengths, faults and relationships with the others in the group: check. An extra layer of detail for our narrator, Stephen Pearce, the expedition medic including the failed engagement which drove him to join the mission and his difficult history with fellow team member Kits (Pearce’s brother): check. So far this would be an adventure story – men against mountain – until we start to get into the history of a previous attempt to do the climb and the actions of that group’s leader, General Sir Edmund Lyell: who we first see as the celebrity author of an account of his failed mission which emphasises his own heroism and general superiority. You know the sort…Kits is keen to follow in the footsteps of his hero but Stephen has his doubts. These are backed up by the beliefs of their Sherpas (although, of course, your average gung-ho hero of the mid 30s dismisses this kind of thing as laziness/superstition/native nonsense) and by the general air of menace the team begin to feel.
This book was both a fantastic description of the majesty of the Himalayas and a wonderfully creepy ghost story. In equal measures it showed why some are irresistably drawn to these mountains and why, possibly, they shouldn’t be. This would be a great read for Halloween (but make sure you know exactly where you left your rucksack…)