The funny thing about being busy is that it makes all the things you wanted to do when you were free that much more achievable. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When time is on your side and you have a stack of books to read, it can be hard to even chip away at one. When you have lessons to plan, essays to write, work to mark and affairs to set in order, reading for pleasure suddenly becomes both more appealing and more feasible. Somehow those twenty minutes you carve out of the day always come around. I suppose routine is the answer, as it so often is. It’s just a pity that routine is harder to maintain when you have nothing but time on your hands.
The days are growing shorter. Prep ends in darkness now, and this Saturday just gone, the martins gathered on the abbey roof, as they always do on a certain day every year. The following morning they were gone. All of them. They say a swallow does not a summer make, but for me, summer is always over on that day when the swallows and martins take their leave. Now is the time of cold, crisp mornings, clear blue autumn skies, mist in the trees and the musty smell of mushrooms.
It is also a wonderful time of year for ghost stories.
Thin Air tells the tale of a British expedition up the southwest face of Kangchenjunga, a mountain of fearsome repute in the unforgiving wastes of the Himalayas, as seen through the eyes of Dr Stephen ‘Bodge’ Pearce. The expedition party, an assortment of British public-school chaps (the swot, the bully, the priest and the major), have set their sights on being the first to climb the evil mountain, which has turned away all previous comers and slain several for good measure for even trying. Struggling with an unenviably rocky relationship with his brother, Kits, Stephen tags along as the expedition’s medic. From the very beginning the expedition is hag-ridden by the previous sortie led by the larger-than-life Lyell and company, whose disastrous defeat casts a long shadow over the group’s attempt – in more ways than one. It quickly becomes apparent that Lyell’s disastrous attempt to climb Kangchenjunga was less of a heroic withdrawal than it seemed at first, and as Pearce’s company scales the mountain, something sinister begins to dog them by degrees. Bullied into silence by his older brother, who alone seems oblivious of the creeping dread, Stephen begins to believe they are being haunted by a vengeful spirit. The mountain may not be the only thing determined to prevent them from carrying out the mission that Lyell started…
The story is full of men walking in the shadows of others. Kits marches in the footsteps of his hero, General Lyell. Stephen plays second-fiddle to Kits for most of the narrative, who seemingly does his level-best to keep him from stealing his place in the spotlight. The sherpas follow meekly in their wake, dismayed at their employers’ ignorance, and both a dog and a raven – stylised with the more ominous name of gorak – shadow the company on their ascent into the darkness. More chillingly still, there is always the nameless presence of something unspeakable. And then, of course, there is Kangchenjunga itself, overshadowing them all.
Kangchenjunga is not just a setting. It is an objective, an idea, an antagonist and a fierce deity. It is also far and away the standout character of the story. There are more sinister incarnations of rage at work in the tale, but one is never allowed to forget the raw ferocity of the mighty mountain. It threatens the company with its avalanches. It sends blizzards to slow them down and it reminds them of their chances with the cairns of those who have tried to master it and fallen in the attempt. One of my favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings growing up was the section of Fellowship when the company of nine attempt the pass of Caradhras and are beaten back by a mountain that is more sentient than it appears. There is something truly awesome about nature at its most raw, and Kangchenjunga is Tolkienesque in its might (interestingly enough, Caradhras’ other name, the Redhorn, is evoked at least once in Paver’s description of the mountain’s “dark-red precipices” – a colour that instantly stands out from the whites, greys and blues of the snowbound Himalayas). Stephen, a Western doctor ruled by his head, flatly denies it all, shooing away the sherpas’ fears as the darkness settles:
“This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.”
The question is: are you convinced?
This is genuinely one of those books that merits re-reading. There is so much subtle foreshadowing throughout, and a great deal of it will pass you by until the end. To read it again is to watch Dr Pearce and the company march knowingly into the jaws of doom with an even greater surety than before. You knew the mountain was a killer from the word go – Lyell, Pearce and all the others point to that endlessly – but the way in which Paver weaves the narrative forwards and backwards is spine-chillingly precise. I have deliberately avoided talk of the ghost in this ghost story, if only because the less that is said about it the better – the strength of a ghost story is often in that which is left unsaid. If you know, you know, if you don’t, give it a go. And when you’re done, seriously, skim back through and read it again. It’s almost scarier the second time around. Which is exactly what a good ghost story should be.
The first cairn. It is Dr Pearce’s first encounter with the reality of their situation – and also his first brush with the nameless terror of the mountains. For the superstitious, there is an ancient belief in some parts of the world that walking the wrong way around a sacred object, such as a pillar or monolith (or in the case of Thin Air, an urn) brings on bad luck. I remember the tradition being used to comedic effect in Tintin, but as soon as it showed its head in Paver’s narrative I knew we were in for trouble – I’m glad she made use of that old trick. Because it felt like the necessary snowball that starts an avalanche. Dr Pearce’s musing before the cairn of Dr Yates, the doctor on the Lyell expedition is both stark and satisfying in its foreshadowing – and powerful in the ensuing scene it delivers. This is definitely one of the scenes that is worth a second look.
Kangchenjunga. For all of the reasons I laid out above.
Surely the purpose of a grave is to benefit the living. Aren’t the dead beyond caring where they live?
It’s lack of knowledge which lets in the shadows.
Perhaps that’s what we find frightening. Being on a mountain forces us to confront the vast, unsentient reality that’s always present behind our own busy little human world, which we tuck around ourselves like a counterpane, to keep out the cold. No wonder that when we trespass into the mountains, we create phantoms. They’re easier to bear than all this lifelessness.
There is no justice in this world, so why should we expect it in the next?