Festival 5 Ws Part 3: Thin Air – Michelle Paver
Ex-Ilkley Young Writer and Writing Squad member Amy Luxton explores the Whos, Whats, Wheres, Whens and Whys of the Festival!
The golden era of mountaineering in 1935.
Five Englishmen, including the protagonist, Stephen, the medic of the group.
Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, and one of the most terrifying. There are many ways to scare a reader when telling a ghostly tale, but atmosphere is always essential. From isolated forests in fairy tales to domestic Victorian haunted houses, and onwards into the modern era of abandoned hospitals, the ‘where’ of a ghost story is often the key to its success.
Paver explained that when she sits down to write a ghost story, she thinks methodically, ‘How can I scare the reader?’. In answer for Thin Air, she was drawn to Kangchenjunga – a remote peak in the Himalayas, and one that has claimed more lives than Everest. Its isolation and its history of vanishing climbers was an open invitation to scare an audience. A ghost story’s environment must feel real to have any effect, and Paver drew on her experience of travelling around Kangchenjunga whilst writing. Being camped at 13,000 feet, surrounded by snow and lightening, was just one of the anecdotes that made it into the ‘choreography’ of her story. The resulting scene midway through the book where Stephen lies in an ice storm with a single layer of canvas between him, the elements and some ghostly footsteps showcases the spine-shivering effect of a ‘real’ setting.
For me, there is something different about a ghostly or gothic story that relishes the more terrifying side of the elements. It evokes the sense being dwarfed by an unseen power, the kind of sensation found in Wuthering Heights or the opening scenes of Macbeth, that lends a very different tone to that of a story set in a domestic or indoor setting. Neither is, as a rule, scarier than the other – that all depends on how they are told – but as Paver stated, there’s true fear in the gap between known and unknown, of being lost in the darkness and the uncertainty of the elements. Paver’s ability to evoke emotion in the ‘where’ of a story is also evident in the Arctic night of her first ghost story, Dark Matter, and in her books for younger readers, The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, which have many deliciously frightening scenes set in deep woods and dark caves, on rough oceans and freezing ice fields. She admits that she is regularly drawn to cold environments, fascinated with the battle between man and wild, and Stephen’s experience of being alone in such a setting promises to deliver more thrills in Thin Air.
Because, secretly (or not so secretly) we all love a bit of a scare.
Amy Luxton is a twenty-one year old graduate of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Born in West Yorkshire, she was a long standing member of Ilkley Young Writers and is currently a member of the northern-based Writing Squad and enjoys working with themes of place and history in prose, poetry and non-fiction.