Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling*

fear-of-the-darkWe all have our fears, and sometimes even phobias. One of the more common fears people have is fear of the dark. For those people, the scene in the ‘photo you see isn’t peaceful or romantic. It’s frightening. If you think about it, fear of the dark is understandable. Things and places look different in the dark, even if they’re familiar. Shadows can take on different dimensions and look a lot more threatening. And if you consider our origins as a species, there are certainly predators that came (and still come) out at night. So a heightened feeling of danger at night probably made sense. And plenty of people still prefer daylight.

That instinctive reaction to the dark plays a role in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Among other things, weaving fear of the dark into a story allows the author to create a tense atmosphere, and tap readers’ instincts. What’s more, adding in a fear of the dark can make for an interesting layer of character development.

Agatha Christie made use of that instinctive fear of the dark in And Then There Were None. In that novel, a group of people is invited for a trip to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised to learn that their host isn’t there. But they settle in as best they can. After dinner on that first night, each is accused of having been responsible for at least one other death. Just about everyone protests innocence; but later that evening, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The next morning, another is found dead. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and that the survivors are going to have to find out who it is if they’re to stay alive. At one point, a storm cuts off power, and everyone is affected. Even the more stalwart among the guests feel the need to keep the candles lit, and that feeling adds a real layer of tension to the story.

We see a similar situation in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. In that novel, a well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in the small Québec town of Three Pines. During her stay, she’s persuaded to hold a séance. The first attempt isn’t a success, so another is scheduled during the Easter break. It’s to be held at the old Hadley house, which fans of this series will remember. The atmosphere of the house is eerie enough (if you follow the series, you’ll know what I mean). And when everyone arrives, it’s only lit by candles:

‘The darkness seemed darker, and the flickering flames threw grotesque shadows against the rich wallpaper.’

The setting is creepy enough, but everything turns much worse when Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies of what turns out to be an overdose of a diet drug. The darkness, and our sense that it’s dangerous, is used effectively here.

Sometimes, fear of the dark can be a helpful clue to a person’s character. In one plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia, for instance, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur gets interested in the death of a woman named Maria. The first theory of the crime is that she hung herself out of despondence at the death of her mother, Leonóra, with whom she was extremely close. But Erlendur learns something very interesting: Maria was afraid of the dark, so she didn’t go out at night. Why, then, would she have left the house during the night to hang herself? It doesn’t quite add up for Erlendur and he pursues the case more deeply.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces readers to Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s been devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Stefan, and the trauma has had some powerful impacts on her. She is afraid of the dark, so she always keeps her home well-lit, even when she’s sleeping. Still, she functions well enough professionally, and has a stable list of clients. Then one day, she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone manages to get her case notes, so all of her confidential sessions are now accessible to her stalker. It’s not long before she is sure that someone is watching her; now, the very lights that make her feel safe at night may actually be making her more vulnerable. Matters get far worse when the body of a client, Sara Matteus, is found in the water on Bergman’s property. And there’s a suicide note that links the death to Bergman. At first, she is a suspect. But soon enough, it’s clear she’s being framed. So, she has to work to find out who the killer is and why she’s being set up.

R.J. Harlick’s sleuth is Meg Harris, who inherited a property called Three Deer Point, in Outaouais, in Western Québec. Meg’s recently left an abusive relationship, so when the series starts (with Death’s Golden Whisper), she’s still dealing with that trauma. And her ex-husband, Gareth, is not as eager to let go of their relationship as Meg is. It all makes for a great deal of stress, which isn’t made any easier when Meg gets caught up in a land rights dispute and a case of multiple murder. One of the lasting effects of being with an abusive partner is that Meg is afraid of the dark. It doesn’t completely debilitate her, but it’s definitely there.

And that’s the thing about fear of the dark. It may not be completely debilitating, but for a lot of people, it’s real. And for some people, it’s incapacitating.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buck Ram, Morty Nevins, Al Nevins, and Artie Dunn’s Twilight Time.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Louise Penny, R.J. Harlick

23 responses to “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling*

  1. Col

    I can dimly recall reading a James Herbert book The Dark which must be 30 years ago. I’m not so familiar with the theme in my crime fiction reading. Hypothermia seems a good one!

    • I think you might like Hypothermia, Col. Actually, I think you’d like the Erlendur series. Of course, I’ll admit I’m biased. I think it’s an excellent series. But even so… And thanks for mentioning the Herbert. That’s one I haven’t dipped into; perhaps I should.

  2. Well, the problem in Indridason’s novels (if characters fear the dark) are the long, long nights of a long, long winter. I spent 18 months there in the early 80s (courtesy of the U.S. Navy at Keflavik near Rejkavik), and the most popular prescriptions against night terrors were either distilled, fermented, or brewed; the northern lights can be enhanced after an evening spent with Jack (Daniels) and Bud (Weiser). But, of course, that has nothing to do with you post. I apologize. (Postscript: I put those prescriptions in my rear view mirror a long, long time ago; and I’m feeling much better about darkness now.)

    • Thanks for your insights on living that close to the Arctic Circle, Tim. I can well imagine how much of an adjustment it must take to get accustomed to darkness for half the year. And I’m glad you’re feeling better about the dark now.

  3. I’m okay personally with the dark, but it does seem to be a terrible omen for some and it does add an element of mystery. I don’t love the idea of being in an underground spot though, especially a dimly lit parking area. Everything bad happens there!

  4. Margot: Even the most rational of people can find it hard in a home alone on a dark and stormy night. Alone in the darkness in a house reported to have ghosts with the rain pounding against the windows and a loose shutter banging leaves Jillian Leigh in “sheer terror” in An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James.

  5. There is something about the dark that makes us at least a little uneasy. I know there have been several books I wouldn’t read at night just too much eerieness I guess. Maybe it’s because we can’t see in the dark and not knowing what’s there makes it mysterious to us and we all know mysteries lead to danger. 🙂 Great post, Margot!

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re right: mysteries can certainly lead to danger… 😉 – I think you have a point, too, about fear of the dark. Since we can’t see well in the dark, we don’t know what’s there, and that really is unsettling, isn’t it? I know what you mean about book you wouldn’t want to read in the dark, too…

  6. Fear of the dark is compounded for the reader when the victim or a key character in a novel is blind. I don’t know if “Wait Until Dark” was ever published in print, but the movie with Audrey Hepburn was chilling.

  7. When I read the opening I was wondering where you were going with this since so many crime novels use the dark to add suspense. Nicely done, Margot. Crime novels set during Alaska’s dark seasons would fit.

    • Thanks, Sue. And I agree about setting. In those places where it’s dark for so much of the time, it’s really effective to use that surrounding as a setting.

  8. Interesting post, Margot. I think people tend to be apprehensive about the dark because they are mostly apprehensive about facing the unknown…

  9. kathy d

    Interesting topic. I don’t know of mysteries where characters are afraid of the dark, but nightfull is when so many crimes occur, in reality and fiction. After all, “under cover of night,” is a common term for a time in which many crimes are committed.
    I always cringe when I’m reading when a woman goes out late at night alone to meet a suspect, witness, or whomever. It’s always a bad move. (And why won’t writers stop doing this? It’s too obvious. Have a woman detective meet someone at 3 p.m., please).
    I love night time and go out often to get snacks nearby. You don’t have to get dressed up, just go out and do a few errands.
    But I do keep lights ona ll the time in my apartment, just a few. (A TV host fell over something in her house in the dark in the middle of the night, trying to find her way to another room — and ended up with a huge shiner.)
    I’d like to avoid that.
    The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton, set in Alaska, with characters driving toward the Arctic Circle, really portrays the difficulties of driving and even trying to do anything in the darkness.

    • You have a point, Kathy, about the stereotypical female character who goes out at 3 am to meet someone – alone. I find that really hard to believe, too. It’s true, too, that plenty of crime, both real and fictional, occurs when it’s dark. So it makes sense that people would be more cautious at that time. I’m glad you feel comfortable running out for something after dark. You’re lucky to live where you can get just about anything, just about any time. Funny you’d mention the TV host who fell over furniture. I’ve banged into things myself – not fun!

  10. Margot, I have been afraid of the dark only after watching horror movies. This was in my youth. Fortunately, horror and other scary novels didn’t have the same nerve-wrecking effect on me. But I can see why fear of the dark is a terrific element in crime fiction. I allude to the covers of some of the Golden Age mystery and suspense paperbacks of the mid-20th century.

    • Oh, yes, those covers make excellent use of the dark, don’t they, Prashant? I’m glad you brought that visual element into it. Thanks for adding that. And I think a lot of people get uncomfortable in the dark after seeing a horror film…

  11. Margot as I read your title here The Platers started singing in my head😎

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