Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I read Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver in the summer, but it’s a good choice to read for Halloween. I didn’t find it as scary as Dark Matter, but even so it is very atmospheric and chilling – in more ways than one. The setting is Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas as a group of five men set out to climb the mountain in 1935.

Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, had claimed many lives and no one had reached the summit. Held to be a sacred mountain, it is one of the most dangerous mountains in the world – believed to be the haunt of demons and evil spirits. An unsuccessful attempt had been made in 1907, led by Edmund Lyell, when only two men had returned. The group in 1935, led by Major Cotterell, attempted to follow the 1907 route up the south-west face.

Their story is narrated by medic, Dr. Stephen Pearce, accompanying his older brother, Kits. The brothers have always been rivals and this continues as they make their way up the mountain. Things start to go wrong almost straight away and Stephen is full of foreboding. He fears someone is following them and when he finds a rucksack left behind by the earlier climbers he fears he is loosing his mind. Under the most extreme weather conditions, the constant fear of an avalanche and the increasing effects of mountain sickness Stephen’s paranoia rises. More horrors keep piling on.

It’s not a long book, 240 pages, and almost half of it describes the mountain itself and the route the climbers took to get to the start of the climb and setting up their base camp. So it is only in the later part where the terror hinted at before sets in. The isolation, a sense of ‘otherness’, the extreme cold and the immense scale of the mountain with its towering pinnacles, deep crevasses, and above all the silence dominates. Were Stephen’s experiences the result of being at a high altitude, were they hallucinations – or was what he saw really there? I was never sure and that was part of the horror.

Thin Air is based on real events, although the 1907 and 1935 expeditions described in it are fictional. But the setting is real, the characterisation is excellent as is the feel of the 1930s, with its class snobbery, and racism and above all the creeping sense of dread that pervades the whole book.