Curiously nerdy posts.
Every once in a while, I like to read horror novels. It’s not really my jam most of the time, for some reason. It’s kind of strange considering I LOVE horror movies, no matter how stupid they are.* But after reading The Cold Dish and its unexpected supernatural elements, I felt like going all in on my next read. So when I saw a horror novel with an awesome cover at Barnes and Noble called Nyctophobia, I jumped at it. Yes, sometimes I am that shallow.
*I’m one of those guys that loves October because of all the crappy slasher movies that come on TV. I love the ridiculous deaths and laughably bad dialogue. Dunno why, I just do.
In my defense, I’ve heard of Christopher Fowler before, and figured now was as good a time as any to try one of his books.
The blurb reads like this:
An original thriller from bestselling author Christopher Fowler that reinventing the haunted house story.
Newly-married architect Callie and her wealthy husband Mateo move to Hyperion House, a grand old home in southern Spain. It’s an eccentric place built in front of a cliff: serene and beautiful, but eerily symmetrical, and cunningly styled so that half the house is flooded with light, and half – locked up and neglected – is shrouded in darkness. Unemployed and feeling isolated in a foreign country, Callie determines to research the history of the curious building.
But the past is sometimes best left alone. Uncovering the folklore of the house’s strange history, Callie is drawn into darkness and delusion. As a teenager Callie was afraid of the dark, and now with her adolescent nyctophobia returning she becomes convinced there’s someone in the darkened rooms. Somewhere in the darkness lies the truth about Hyperion House.
But some doors should never be opened.
Sounds intriguing, right? Let’s jump in and see if it delivers!
The characters. The characters felt very real and spot on. Callie was a great POV character to choose for a story about a haunted house. She has a long history of esteem issues, which lends you enough doubt to wonder if she’s an unreliable narrator, but you end up rooting for her because you feel like she deserves to be happy. Mateo, her husband, acts an awful lot like every man from Spain I’ve ever met: polite, direct, but loving to family and friends. You can readily see where there is a recipe for a happy ending, though you know there won’t be. It’s a horror story, after all.
The supporting cast is interesting enough as well. You’ve got a housekeeper that knows everything about the house, but stays suitably aloof. You’ve got a gardener that is too scared to go in the house, but he can’t say why because someone cut out his tongue (Spanish civil war) a long time ago. On top of that, you’ve got the denizens of a sleepy Spanish village that also know more than Callie about her new home, but won’t volunteer much information at all. And why? Because of the history of the family that built the house to begin with.
The atmosphere. The author does a superb job at creating an interesting setting. I mean, starting with a strange house with a stranger history that’s located in the middle of nowhere? You could do worse when starting to write a horror story. You can practically see the sun baked plains of Spain as they’re described, and smell the mossy, somewhat neglected gardens by the house. You can imagine the lazy, empty streets with long shadows during siesta time. The last one, in particular, is a great way to make Celestia stand out as a character. While everyone else stays inside, she sits outside her favorite cafe, smoking and reading. It helps to tell you right off the bat that her character is different, and stands out as much as Callie does. This is definitely one of those novels where the setting itself is a character.
It almost has the makings of a classic southern gothic story, but it’s European instead. And it works.
The pacing. This is not to say that the writer drags on unnecessarily. But there’s a saying among writers that goes something like “You can start a novel too early”.
What that means, of course, is that the beginning starts too far ahead of any meaningful plot and action. And I think this novel really qualifies for that dubious distinction. You have to get about 100 pages into the book before Callie even starts offering cryptic hints of something bad coming, like the ever classic “I didn’t know at the time that that was the last happy time to have together”, or other lines to imply that the plot is going to go somewhere. All you read about beforehand is how she meets and marries Mateo, how screwed up her life was before moving to Spain, and her choosing the Hyperion House to live in. Those parts are fine and necessary.
The part that doesn’t work, and really, REALLY drags, is the part where she’s getting settled into the house. You meet the rest of the major characters, and get introduced to the village in that time, but it just doesn’t do much of anything and you start to wonder if the novel has a plot at all. For the most part, I’m okay with structure like this, as long as there is a major payoff and a bang of an ending. And the bigger the bang, the better.
So while this is a negative, there are ways to readily change it into a positive.
The plot. Here’s the thing: the payoff is way too weak for the slow burn pacing of the beginning of the story. There are many points where I was reading and thinking of all the cool grotesque revaluations that might be coming my way. There were quite a few I could think of that would’ve been fun.
So when the reality was unveiled, I literally mouthed “that’s it?”. I won’t spoil it here, of course, but I’m of the thought that this would’ve made a fantastic short story, or novella. But it makes for a very, very weak novel. It’s like the story says “You know all that stuff you suspected throughout the story? Well, that’s all wrong. It’s this simple and obvious explanation instead.”
The best horror, I think, is the horror that either comes straight at you with bloody knives and bloodcurdling screams, or the horror that leaves everything vague and leaves just enough questions dangling that you come up with the worst, most disturbing idea that you own mind and thoughts can tailor. This book isn’t about the first kind of horror at all, so the obvious way to go is the second. Instead, it decides to explain too much, and try to take some of it back with an ending that honestly is pretty good.
But in my mind, it was too little, and too late.
I was frustrated by this novel. I really wanted to like it. But it just has too many weaknesses where a book should be strongest. Therefore, I give it **. By my definition, that means it’s not that good, but still has a good point here and there.
It’s a shame, really. I can see a good story in there. It just got killed by a few mistakes.
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