Andrew Pyper proves that horror can live alongside literary fiction.
Paradise Lost, published way back in 1667, is a classic (long, long) epic poem that chronicles the fall of Adam and Eve, Lucifer and a whole bunch of demons. It is the definition of literature. I read it in high school. It wasn’t fun. I haven’t read it since.
Now along comes Andrew Pyper, who valiantly tries to make Paradise Lost interesting. He pulls it off.
In The Demonologist, our hero David Ullman is a Columbia University professor who specializes in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is visited by a creepy woman who offers him a huge sum of money to fly to Venice and consult with her mysterious employer on the topic of demons. His marriage in shambles, he agrees, and takes along his old-soul 12-year-old daughter Tess. In Venice, he sees something that make him believe demons may in fact be real, and then witnesses his daughter plunge from the hotel roof and disappear.
The rest of the novel follows David as he searches against reason for his supposedly dead daughter, encounters demonic forces and dodges church henchmen.
In The Demonologist, Pyper pulls a brilliant switch — what the demonic forces want from David is really simple, so simple that I can’t believe it hasn’t been explored before (maybe it has). I won’t spoil it, but it’s a great play on Pyper’s part. He’s a strong writer. His descriptions of evil are fully sensual and always unsettling. He touches on themes of mental illness and the complicated relationships between parents and children without being overbearing. And, most importantly, he is willing to make the reader feel acutely uncomfortable. He kills innocents in service to the story. That is horror.
Pyper does one more thing in The Demonologist that I like: he uses the reluctant hero. Thriller stories tend to rely on the valiant/flawed hero. Think the suave yet emotionally remote James Bond, or FBI agent with a scarred childhood Olivia Dunham from TV’s Fringe. These heroes are fun to follow, but as a reader and writer, the reluctant hero is the one I identify with. In my book The Last Conquistador, the hero Randy Velasquez only wants to find his girlfriend. He doesn’t care much about the demon chasing him, except that it’s standing in his way. Similarly, in The Demonologist, David doesn’t even believe in demons – he’s an atheist. He only wanted a big fat check. Now he just wants his daughter back. If it wasn’t for that, he would have probably returned home with Tess and rationalized the whole Venice episode away.
But then we wouldn’t have had such a thrilling and surprising story.