Throwback Thursday: Cold Earth

Book cover: Cold Earth - Sarah Moss (a woman's face in profile in black and white)A summer digging up Norse ruins in Greenland should have been amazing, but with a flu pandemic breaking out back home, six haunted post-docs question their choices – and their sanity. Can they rely on one another to get through the Arctic night?

I first read Cold Earth years ago on the back of loving Night Waking. Sarah Moss has subsequently become a firm favourite for me, as much for her striking (and often unlikeable) characters as for the feminism and history she stirs in along the way. For Spooktastic Reads, I decided to revisit her debut and see if it lived up to my fond memories…

Cold Earth is an epistolary account of six people who you wouldn’t pick to happily survive a long bus journey together, let alone an apocalypse. Self-indulgent Nina dominates the story, authoring the lion’s share with her letters home and looming over everyone else’s diary entries with her neuroses. She is helplessly middle-class with a vivid, unconstrained imagination: everything holds terror, from horses (big and unpredictable) to Americans (they all have guns) to the stone digging into her back (must be a gravestone) to the scuffling in the night (a cannibal ghost).

Inevitably, she has a rich memory for Gothic novels and the most lurid parts of the Norse sagas. At night, she dreams of horrors – the raiders who slaughtered the Norse farmers, raped their women, burned their priest alive in his church. She is convinced they are raising the unquiet dead by digging up their ruins (awkward, given it’s what the team are in Greenland to do).

Needless to say, her five companions – all archaeologists – pay her fears short shrift. They come alive in blistering vignettes as some dismiss her out of hand, some try patience, some push to just get the work done. Warm-hearted Catriona is no longer sure she wants to be an archaeologist; her real passion is art. Pure-hearted Jim is a good Christian boy, full of compassion but with no belief in ghosts. British-born Ben is sympathetic (but not handsome or hygienic enough for his sympathy to be welcome), and no more believing that Jim. Meticulous, well-groomed Ruth has no interest in other people, consumed by concerns she refuses to share. And Yianni – Nina’s friend, who lied to get her a place on the dig – has no time to waste on her fancies; he needs the answers concealed beneath the turf to justify the grant money spent to bring them all here.

I studied archaeology and I love this book in part for how it captures the truths of a dig: the back-breaking labour; the unwavering attention to detail; the meticulous cataloguing of finds; the repetitive, limited rations when working on a remote site (and Yianni’s provisioning is odd, even given the incredibly restrictive conditions laid on them for environmental reasons). But with the right crew, there’s camaraderie and fun to be had as you inch closer to proving or disproving a theory.

No such luck for this group: the team is laden with baggage and unburdened by any common ground; and Nina’s erratic behaviour puts both her and the work at risk. As the days get shorter and colder, Nina’s insistence that they are not alone begins to damage the rest of the group’s calm. Night after night, she wakes them all with her screaming nightmares. Week after sleep-deprived week, she gets them seeing her shadows. Someone is watching them on the hill. Someone is moving artefacts in the trench. Worse, someone is moving amongst the tents at night.

This brings us to the second reason I love this book: like The Little Stranger, it’s dedicated to its ambiguity, providing plenty of alternate explanations and mitigating circumstances – along with tantalising hints that Nina’s dreams have some grains of truth to them. But Cold Earth is a tale of archaeologists, and like a dig, it has no intention of providing easy answers.

‘Oh, Nina,’ said Yianni. ‘You wanted an ending. It’s just evidence. More evidence. One way or another.’

But whilst Nina is consumed by her ghost story, there’s a second plot bubbling away that poses a far greater threat. Initially, the flu pandemic sounds like another of Nina’s neurotic exaggerations – a couple of people are ill, so everyone will die. Yianni is reluctant to let them check email and news (satellite time is expensive), resulting in intermittent updates that grow increasingly alarming.

The question of whether the small plane will show up at the agreed time to take them home acquires a new urgency, as does the question of how much food they have left. The group aren’t equipped for an Arctic winter. Ghosts in the night may be the least of their worries. The story switches gear from stalking horror and overwrought imaginations to the lurking spectre of genuine disaster.

As a result, Cold Earth is several stories jammed together – Nina’s ghosts, Ruth’s tragedy, the flupocalypse – but I enjoy the way these tales collide with one another against a backdrop of Greenlandic archaeology and mediaeval climate change (Nina’s acerbic commentary now more on point than ever).

It doesn’t always work – whilst Nina and Ruth are distinct, the other voices are muddled at best – but I love the unguarded nature of the narrative. Told in letters home, it becomes increasingly clear these letters are never expected to be read. It relieves their stressed, fearful authors of any need to be polite, letting them unwittingly reveal themselves in their choices of what account to tell. As much character assassinations as character studies, Cold Earth ends up a damn good tale of frazzled people having a terrible time.