Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler
There are two things you need to know about haunted houses. One, there’s never been an actual authenticated haunted house. Two, it’s not the house that’s haunted, but the person.
Callie is a young architectural student who marries Mateo, a wine importer, and moves to a grand old house in Southern Spain. Hyperion House is flooded with light, it also has a mute gardener, a sinister housekeeper and a sealed, dark servants’ quarters that nobody has the keys for. And although initially happy, and taking care of Mateo’s daughter, Callie can’t help being drawn to the dark empty rooms at the back of the house, and becomes convinced that someone is living in there.
Uncovering the house’s history, she discovers the shocking truth. As Callie’s fear of the darkness returns, she comes to understand the true nature of evil.
Depending on your point of view, I suppose I am either the perfect or the worst ever candidate to read this book. Ever since I can remember I’ve always had “issues” with the dark. To give you some context, I have been known to walk/talk and, on one memorable occasion, scream while asleep. I also regularly wake in the pitch black utterly convinced that there is some else in the room. Sometimes these night terrors are so vivid I am unable to even open my eyes, I am literally paralysed by fear. The one thing that also stays with me after these events is that sense of complete and utter powerlessness. Fowler’s latest is scattered with so many moments that recapture that feeling it makes me shiver just thinking about it now.
When we first meet the novel’s main protagonist, Callie Shaw, she has just taken a huge leap of faith. She has given up her old life, thrown caution to the wind, and started a brand new chapter. Moving to a new country should be the happy ending that she had always dreamed of. She has managed to escaped the rat race of London, found the love of her life and left the traumatic events of her past far behind. Everything for Callie should be perfect, so why can she not shake the feeling that something is terribly wrong.
Nyctophobia is described in the dictionary as being an extreme or irrational fear of the night or of darkness. Callie has lived with the condition for years and it is always seems to be present. That primal fear of the unknown, of what lies within the inky blackness. is ready to chip away at her self-confidence at a moment’s notice.
There is a deliciously sinister undercurrent that permeates every chapter. Initially Hyperion House appears to be quite the rural idyll, but the longer Callie and her new family stay there, the more unsettling things become. As Callie begins to uncover the history of the structure, and the families that have lived there before, she starts to realise that everything is far from normal. Fowler excels when it comes to setting the scene, even the smallest of details are important. The relationships between Callie, Mateo and his daughter Bobbie, the eerie stillness of the remote locale, the pervasive heat of the Spanish summer, even the unique architecture of the building, all help to play tricks on Callie’s already fragile mind. It’s a masterclass in horror watching her descend into madness. Callie has to dig deep in order to try and overcome her fears. She has to motivate herself to act, to take charge of her own life. The terrors in Nyctophobia are as much internal as external.
I’m not normally a fan of a slower paced narrative, but this is the exception to the rule. This novel relies on that slower build up to crank the tension to fever pitch, while also managing to lull the reader into a false sense of security. Just at that point when you think you can’t take any more, when you’re sure you’ve got things figured out, that’s when Fowler really starts messing with your head. I love horror like this, it’s that slow twist of the knife, that sense that something horrific is happening just outside your field of vision, the feeling of impending doom. Each new sentence, paragraph and page are used to establish an every growing sense of dread.
I’ve been a fan of Christopher Fowler’s writing for years, and he never fails to disappoint. Nyctophobia is another fine example of his work. This is a creepy, atmospheric tale that blends the psychological and the supernatural effortlessly. If you’re in the mood for a ghost story that is going to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, then look no further.
Nyctophobia is published by Solaris Books and is available now.