Callie, an unemployed London architect, has just escaped her troubled life and infuriatingly critical mother by marrying a charming, wealthy Spaniard. With no reason to want to stay in London, she’s happy to Andalusian Spain as he has longed to do, and is even more excited when she finds Hyperion House. It’s a fascinating, unique piece of architecture – built into a cliff, most of the house is designed to be flooded with sunlight, while the smaller section within the cliff is left in total darkness.
The house is isolated from the nearest village but comes with a gardener and housekeeper who have worked there for their entire lives. With no job and no obligations except looking after her husband’s young daughter, Bobbie, Callie decides to investigate the mysteries of the house and write a book about it. However, the dark rooms at the back awaken her nyctophobia – fear of the dark – and exploring them fills her with dread. Her fear might not be unfounded – there seem to be ghostly people living in the back of the house, caged in the darkness. At first Callie only catches glimpses of these ghosts, but they become increasingly malevolent, and she’s convinced that what they want is to escape and take over the happy lives of the people living in the light.
When it comes to horror, the stories I find most disturbing are the ones that cut closest to the bone. Zombies might be interesting, but I don’t seriously expect to see one. Bizarre science experiments can offer great ideas, but it’s a bit remote for someone who doesn’t work in that field. But the fear of an unseen presence, in the darkness, at home, is something primal that just comes to me naturally (I’m sure everyone thinks about it at some point), so a story about ghosts in mysterious locked rooms is pretty likely to keep me up at night.
And this is one of the things that I thought the novel did well. It moves very slowly and takes a while to build up any kind of tension or intrigue, but when Callie finally starts exploring those dark rooms, it’s incredibly creepy.
The house itself is interesting, and I particularly like the way the author entwines setting, plot and character. Hyperion House is not just a well-lit house with big windows. It’s designed so that the bright side captures and reflects all the available sunlight, from dawn until the very last moment of the sunset. It’s filled with clocks, so that the housekeeper knows exactly when to start turning on the lights, and the occupants never have to be in dark or even dim light before they go to sleep. Such a marvel is perfectly suited to the hot, sunny Spanish climate. As someone who tends to move around to the warmest, brightest parts of the house, I thought this sounded absolutely wonderful. Nevertheless, it’s clear that it can be disconcerting. Callie notes that the shadows don’t move, which is faintly disturbing. She finds it increasingly difficult to be in the dark, and develops some health problems from the constant exposure to light.
Eventually, Callie figures out that the architect designed the house to protect his wife from her own nyctophobia, the same fear that is being reawakened in Callie. But this raises a critical question – if the architect’s wife suffered from a fear of the dark, and the house was designed so she could avoid darkness, why build perpetually dark rooms at the back?
There’s also something suspicious about the way the construction of the house is based on doubles. It’s a classic horror trope that normally refers to people but works well in architecture too:
The house appeared to have been constructed according to strict principles based on pairs, twins, opposites and doubles. For every statue there was a matching one, every chair was one of two, every ornament had its mate, every tile and section of cornicing had its opposite number. This determined symmetry had a curiously calming effect, as if it was impossible to find anything alone and out of place.
In addition, the rooms at the back are mirror versions of the main house, except that they’re much smaller and decorated with cheap, shabby furniture and ornaments.
The construction of the house mirrors Callie’s personal problems. Like the architect’s wife, she has nyctophobia. There are also parallels with her slightly problematic marriage. She loves Mateo and they seem very happy, but she can’t deny that marrying him has saved her from some of her biggest problems – unemployment and living with her mother. She has a deeply troubled past that she keeps secret for fear of driving him away. Like the house, Callie tries to emphasise the light while keeping the darkness locked away.
Her psychological issues and the threat of ghosts are skilfully echoed in larger social problems, which are frequently mentioned as as an integral part of the Spanish setting. One of the reasons Mateo was able to buy the house is that it become cheaper because of the economic downturn, which “hangs over everything like a spectre”. Spain – and the quiet Andalusian countryside in particular – is described as being full of ghosts because people cling to memories of the Civil War, unable to move on. The little town of Gaucia is described as being old-fashioned and superstitious, no matter how modern they try to be. That struggle between past and present continues throughout the novel – the characters may use iPads, call each other on Skype or listen to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but everything around them seems like it has barely changed in a century. It’s like the past is a weight dragging the present down into the darkness, and Spain, like Callie, can’t or won’t deal with the problems that the past represents.
All this serves to make Nyctophobia a fairly sophisticated, thoughtful horror novel. And it keeps a firm grip on those themes until the very end, rather than unraveling in a chaotic scare-fest, as some horror novels tend to.
That said, Nyctophobia fails to be a great novel. It’s marred by flaws that bug me too much to be overlooked. Firstly, it lacks a pervasive sense of horror until fairly late in the book. In some ways the narrative is constructed like the house, so that the creepy bits are confined to the dark rooms. I might have been on edge when Callie went into the darkness, but I seldom felt any tension when she was out in the light, especially since the plot moves quite slowly. Perhaps this was intentional, but I would have liked a bit more of the uncanny.
Then, a major problem with Nyctophobia is one common to horror stories – information is withheld for the sake of the story, in a way that can be frustrating or seem contrived. Characters who know exactly what’s going on refuse to explain anything, offering no more than a few cryptic clues until the big reveal at the end. The protagonist, in turn, asks the wrong questions or avoids talking about what scares him or her for fear of being assumed to be insane (this is understandable, but still annoying).
In this case, Callie avoids telling Mateo about her fears, even when it seems perfectly reasonable to do so, like asking him to accompany her while she explores the dark rooms. Mateo, she keeps telling us, is very old-fashioned, and she doesn’t want to risk driving him away with all this unpleasantness. If she starts going on about ghosts, Mateo’s going to see her as a stereotypically irrational woman. Mateo actually knows a few significant details about the house, but he opts to be a patronising twat and keeps silent while Callie puzzles through it herself, so that she has something to keep her occupied. Callie could get help from the housekeeper Rosita, who obviously knows everything, but Rosita is playing a mysterious, cranky old lady and isn’t going offer anything but cryptic clues until Callie has figured it all out for herself (one of those “you wouldn’t have understood” scenarios). Later, after Callie digs up some info from a variety of old documents, we learn that it was mostly common knowledge to the townspeople, but they either did not want to tell her or were prevented from communicating with her.
The only advantage to this is the sense that Callie is being deceived and manipulated, which adds a teeny bit of intrigue. And Callie, with her many insecurities, starts to wonder if people are deliberately toying with her. But mostly it just feels like the author is clumsily regulating the flow of information to suit his story, and I find that irritating.
But despite its shortcomings, Nyctophobia is a decent read. I think it would appeal to fans of gothic fiction, with its measured pace punctuated by intense, otherworldly scares. Personally, I liked it for the intimacy of its horror (at home, in the dark, so it’s going to resonate with me the moment I go to bed), and the way the author entwined this so neatly with social and psychological ‘ghosts’.