We 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.