There are few things as appealing as the prospect of an Iberian idyll. The Spanish sun, the slower pace of life, the food. The isolated mansions built according to occult principles. Interested? Fortunately, readers can spare their wallets (and their sanity) by forgoing the plane tickets and opting instead for Nyctophobia, by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, October 2014).
Nyctophobia opens as Callie, a young(ish) Englishwoman and recently laid-off architect, tours Hyperion House. Callie has just wed Mateo, a Spaniard involved in the international wine business, and the new couple needs a home that can accommodate not only themselves, but also Roberta, Mateo’s daughter from his previous marriage, and, Mateo hopes, children of their own. Hyperion House is strangely built, symmetrical, with so many windows that no corner of the home is dark during the daytime. There are other oddities: Rosita and Jerardo, the housekeeper and gardener, “come with” the house. (Jerardo, by the way, is mute, his tongue having been cut out during the Spanish Civil War.) Built adjacent to a cliff, the back of the home is devoted to unused “servants’ quarters,” which exist in perpetual darkness. It turns out that the previous owner was “private,” the real estate agent’s euphemism for insane. Readers smile; they know this can’t go well.
Callie, stymied in her career, is taken in by the house, and by Mateo’s suggestion that she write about it. The happy couple moves in. Everything goes well. Until, of course, it doesn’t. Although there are hints that something is wrong with the house, for instance, Rosita’s inability to locate the keys to the servants’ quarters, despite Callie’s repeated demands, as well as the former’s insistence that the doors remain closed at all times, Callie and Mateo are remarkably happy. That changes during Roberta’s birthday party, when one of her friends goes inside to use the bathroom, only to run outside screaming, a scratch down her leg. She was assaulted, but by what? Callie and Rosita check the doors to the servants’ quarters, but they remain locked. The villagers begin to mutter.
Despite what Carrie rationalizes as an “accident,” life goes on. Mateo continues to take business trips; Callie researches the house. She learns that its owner built Hyperion House in the early twentieth century, with the goal of ensuring that his wife was never unhappy. He failed: Half-English, he enlisted when World War I began, and, when he died in battle, his wife was left to care for their children, a son and daughter. The villagers refused the family assistance, the children died, and their mother was removed to an asylum. This is all in the past, of course, until Callie finally enters the closed-off rooms at the back of the house and encounters, well, something that may or may not be related to the previous owners.
Which is, perhaps, an unnecessarily detailed summary of the book’s plot, but it’s as much as you’ll get here; I can’t go into any more detail, lest I drop spoilers. Suffice it to say that Callie’s research into the house’s history has a bearing on her family’s relationship to the house. Callie, alone in Hyperion House much of the time, with the exception of Rosita and Jerardo, is taken in by the house’s charms, but also encounters its more troublesome aspects. And she experiences a resurgence of her nyctophobia (fear of the dark), which can not only manifest without reason, but is also capable of affecting other people.
I confess that I never heard of Christopher Fowler before reading Nyctophobia (on a lark), and I’m confused as to why. Nyctophobia is a well-crafted book, and I mean that in the best sense; Fowler is clearly a storyteller in command of his work. Fowler’s prose is crisp, clean, straightforward, evincing an English diction that suits the first person narrative, told from Callie’s perspective. Of course, locating the story with Carrie serves the purpose of controlling what information is shared with the reader, who must remain ignorant of the twists and secrets that contribute to the plot. And Callie has her own secrets, too, which she shares sparingly as the story proceeds, a clever use of narration that staggers the reader’s sympathy for her.
Fowler employs imagery to great effect. This reader would be surprised if he hasn’t spent extensive time in Spain, which he describes (at least this corner of it) as hot, arid, and sun-baked. The village, painted white, slumbers under the hot sun. Hyperion House is almost a character unto itself, all rich woods and glass. And there is a scene with wasps that is so gruesome I was making faces as I read it. I leave that to other readers to discover and “enjoy.”
If the reader has any complaints, they are minor. The “locals” are almost universally portrayed in a stereotypical way, slightly cracked or superstitious. With the exception of Jordi, the town librarian who has a crush on Callie, and Rosita, the only Spaniard given any extensive attention is Mateo, and he’s absent on business for much of the story. That said, this is really Callie’s story, so the absence of fully-fleshed out Spanish characters is only a quibble.
More problematic, for some readers, will be the book’s end, which is to be expected, I think, with stories such as this. The internal logic of Fowler’s world begins to become fuzzy as the mystery is unveiled. I can’t go into detail here, of course, but several times I experienced a feeling along the lines of, “but, if this…then why not that?” And the fate of the characters will be dissatisfying to a certain stripe of reader. That said, I respected the integrity of Fowler’s vision, his dedication to seeing it out to the very end. I may not have liked all of it, but I was affected by it, and I mean that as praise.
Nyctophobia is, perhaps, not a perfect novel, but then–what novel is? Nyctophobia is a character study, both of Callie and the mansion, and a briskly plotted haunted house story. Fowler’s prose is visual, and he is a master of creepy imagery, for instance, the aforementioned wasp scene, as well as the “costumes” of the spooks that may (or may not) haunt Hyperion House. A successful and highly recommended ghost story.