Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, Oct. 2014)-Christopher Fowler is a very versatile author. He’s well known for his Bryant and May mystery series, and he can do noir with the best of them. But, he’s also known for horror, but he’s not pinned into only one style of horror either. He can do subtle, he can do not-so-subtle (Hell Train), but Nyctophobia falls firmly between those two states, and it works perfectly.
When English rose Callie meets the much older Mateo, she’s smitten, and when they discover a beautiful, and very unique, house in the Spanish countryside (complete with a quaint, tiny village nearby), she’s thrilled. She’s a trained architect, and Hyperion House offers much to get her architectural gears going. It’s built into the side of a cliff, and is constructed to maximize the amount of sunlight in the house at all times, except for the part of the house built into the cliff. It seems like a miniature version of the main house, but is completely in darkness. The housekeeper, whose family has kept house for more than a few of Hyperion’s inhabitants (and insists that Hyperion is a happy house), also seems to be hoarding the keys. Mysterious rooms aside, Callie has to admit she’s very content in the house, even if Mateo is gone quite a bit on business, and she has his 9 year old daughter Bobbie to keep her company much of the time. With those dark, dusty rooms looming in the background, however, their sunny happiness is always entwined with a subtle sense of menace. But all subtlety disappears when Callie gets her hands on those keys, and begins her explorations of the dark rooms. This is where Fowler heads into just-plain-scary-sh*t territory.
To give away just what’s lurking in those rooms would spoil much of what is so great about this story, but I will say that Hyperion House has a history, one steeped in the occult, misery, and even murder, and Callie decides to research its history, possibly for a book, but we know by this time that Callie isn’t just looking to get to the bottom of Hyperion House’s secrets, she’s got some secrets of her own, and this is a bit of catharsis for her. At first Callie is convinced that what she’s seeing has to do with her own past, and the fact that she hasn’t revealed much of this past to Mateo, but things quickly become more complicated, and sinister. Fowler has great fun with blurring the lines between Callie’s reality, or what she perceives as reality, and the supernatural, and he’s not afraid to mess with his readers’ minds either. What results is a very different kind of haunted house story, and at times, a very scary, and tense one. When a story is told in first person, one always has to consider the reliability of the narrator. I’m not saying that Callie is unreliable, but, well, you’ll see.
Don’t expect a tidy wrap up here, either. I’m not a huge fan of pat endings, and this one may surprise you. This whole book surprised me, actually, not at its quality (I expect quality from Fowler as a matter of course), but at its believability. Callie is a very relatable, flawed person, and her fears and insecurities are things that many people can identify with; the longing for happiness, the fear that, if you’ve found love, the other person just might figure out they’ve made a mistake and leave, the need for fulfillment. I think most of us want those things and that those kinds of fears can linger, and become insidious, much like the darkness that clings to the deceptively sunny Hyperion House.
Speaking of Hyperion House, Fowler made it into a character unto itself, and imbued it with a rich, fascinating history. Horror fans should prepare to snarf this down in a few sittings, and possibly with all the lights on. Nyctophobia, by the way, is the fear of the dark, which Callie suffered from in the past, and it is pretty much the perfect title. Like I said, leave those lights on.