Book Review: Nyctophobia [by Christopher Fowler]

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 Nyctophobia, or the fear of darkness. Christopher Fowler’s haunted-house horror novel is about architect Calico “Callie” Shaw who marries Mateo (a wealthy wine importer) and then moves to Spain with him. They buy a house flooded with light – its most significant feature – called Hyperion House, but Callie is puzzled by its architectural quirks. Her husband is away for long stretches of time, and with only the gardener (Jerardo), the housekeeper (Rosita) and later, her stepdaughter (Bobbie) around in the large house, she feels quite isolated from the city and her London friends. Out of work and recovering from traumas she doesn’t immediately disclose to the reader, she decides to write a book on the history of the house. She realises that one side of the house is, strangely, in total darkness – the servants’ quarters – and the keys for that area of the house seem to have disappeared. However as she continues to research her book and delve deeper into the history of the house, it becomes increasingly clear to her that there is some presence in the ‘dark side’ of the house.

First off, this book could really have done with a map. Callie, being an architecture grad, spent a lot of time puzzling over the physical details of the house, both the ‘dark’ and the ‘light’ sides, and after a point it became difficult to figure out exactly where she was in the house in relation to other people, or which room she was in specifically, and so on. It may just have been that I was a little inattentive (or, you know, slow on the uptake) but I found myself reading back more often than I’d like to try and figure out her exact location.

Callie herself is somehow a very distant character. Many of the characters feel isolated in this way, with perhaps the exception of Celestia (Callie’s friend in the nearby village of Gaucia) – although towards the end she transforms into something much stranger. However it’s easier to catch on to Callie as a secretive character because she is, after all, the narrator. She has a ‘past’ which is often referred to but which the reader never gets a full, coherent picture of. Instead she drops incidents in fragments in awkward places in the story, and it somehow doesn’t feel very authentic. Despite the fact that the reader spends the whole novel in her head, there’s this closeted feeling, like she’s keeping most of her character a secret. Her marriage is itself a mystery – apart from a sense of security, she doesn’t really seem to feel anything powerful for Mateo. Their whole relationship feels inauthentic. Her relationships with Bobbie and even Celestia feel fake as well. Her relationship with her mother is slightly believable, but there is so much open conflict between them it’s difficult to believe that they put up with each other for any length of time, let alone for long periods when Callie was out of work and ill. What draws Callie to anyone? Who knows. She talks a lot about architecture and there is some vague sense of genuine curiosity there, but everything about her character as a whole is hollow, faded, remote. I understand that writers like to do this in novels which lean towards horror/thriller/mystery or related genres, but with Callie it didn’t accomplish much, and it was a little too far into the deep end. It just felt like a convenient excuse to not build on her relationships and her past.

I thought the narrative was satisfactory, much of it was just basically the telling of a story, but Fowler did do descriptions well when they were required. I wouldn’t say the novel was atmospheric as a whole, but I wasn’t disappointed on that count because it was more or less atmospheric when necessary.

As for the ‘horror’…well. I thought some of it was impressive, the final concept/reveal that Fowler was building towards sounded great – but somehow it was like he’d been building a house just to have it fall in on itself at a crucial point. Callie unravels many elements in her research – mostly trying to discover the histories of the man who built the house (Francesco Condemaine) and his wife (Elena) – and by the time the climax of the novel is reached, there are too many aspects to be tied together for it to happen neatly.

The solution Fowler gives us feels original and fresh, but somehow the execution of it is faulty. It feels impressive as a concept, but in the novel, it just feels inadequate. And all the details that were being juggled by Callie throughout the novel are neither recalled nor given any space post the climax. I did go back and skim some, and most elements did hold up, but some didn’t, and there were logical gaps which were quite easy to spot even for a lazy reader who wasn’t really digging (me). I was really disappointed because had Fowler made more of an effort to bring everything together, to cast a wider net in the crucial ‘reveal’ moment, all those things Callie had been working so hard to research would’ve made a little sense. Instead he spent a lot of time pre-reveal building up more irrelevant things which, while interesting, had no direct bearing on Callie’s issues with the house.

I think I probably would still have recommended it (despite the character inconsistencies and the scattered details) had it not been for the ending. It was pretty bad. Open-ended plots work very well, but in this case, there were just too many threads hanging, like Fowler didn’t care anymore. The last few pages were so strange and weirdly constructed I read back carefully, thinking I was sure I’d missed some important detail that would give me a better sense of closure. The ending was just sloppy.

However, I’m still very impressed by the reveal. I may be perplexed by this book as a whole but I probably won’t forget that reveal for a while. It was a pretty good idea, in theory.

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