Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Andrew Pyper. Lost Girls and The Killing Circle in particular prove what can happen when a great writer takes on flashy material. The reader feels better about picking up the juicy, sordid subject matter, because it has been offered by the elegant hand of Literature. In other words, Pyper writes good books.
It’s the straddling of that line that is the problem in his latest novel, The Demonologist.
David Ullman is an English professor at Columbia, his passion being Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is also an atheist, meaning he believes the classic tome isn’t about good versus evil, but rather loneliness. He tells his students this in his opening lecture: “To know ourselves and, in turn, to endure the perpetual reminder of our solitude. To be cast out. To wander alone.”
When David is offered a trip to Venice by a mysterious “Thin Woman,” he sees it as a chance to get away from a bad situation at home. He takes along his 11-year-old daughter, Tess, for a little father-daughter time.
Venice does not go well. First, David has a disturbing encounter with a demon-possessed man, which he records on video, and then a series of equally disturbing, Miltonesque visitations, all of which culminate in his daughter plunging to her death in what looks to be a suicide.
David believes, however, that his daughter is not only alive, but is being held captive somewhere dark and frightening and that the situation is a test of some sort. He sets out to get her back.
So begin David’s “wand’ring steps.” Following subtle clues from the Milton text, David puts aside skepticism and listens with all the passion a father can have seeking any means available to find his daughter.
The backstory provides its own father-child drama in David’s tragic past with his depressed, alcoholic father and the drowning death of his brother. There are lots of mirror stories in the novel, including a neglected thread regarding the demon-possessed man in the chair from the first few pages.
The Demonologist is being promoted as a horror novel, but in fact it’s pure thriller. A scene in a basement, about midway through the novel, is genuinely chilling. Otherwise, the novel has all the elements of a thriller and few of the horror genre. The second half of the book is really an extended chase scene, with David chasing his literal and figurative demons while he is being pursued by a killer. It’s never made clear who “The Pursuer” represents, but some kind of Big Religion is implied.
Also implied is that the big daddy of demons, Satan, wants to use David as an emissary to prove his existence to a doubting globe, with the recorded video of the possessed man as proof. As David moves deeper into the abyss, as the evidence adds up, his skepticism is challenged.
The writing is great and the subject matter is large. Things really kick into gear when David is on the road and it’s easy to forget that the story itself is simple, not deep. There’s a lot of telling and little showing in the book. Some of that can be explained by the reliance on Milton references, and the fact that one of the major characters, Tess, isn’t present, and must be represented via her journal.
Less forgivable is the emotional distance from which the story is told. We read that David loves his daughter – we read it again and again – but sadly, we don’t get to see much of the two of them together. That makes it hard to care when she goes missing.
If your Milton is rusty, you won’t need your Coles Notes. Paradise Lost is used simply as a device, depth isn’t at issue. Each clue is thoroughly explained and one might not even have heard of Milton and still understand the application.
There are some huge leaps of faith and a lot of suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the story, but that’s a prerequisite for enjoying any book of supernatural fiction. And as a thriller, The Demonologist has all the twisting excitement of a Dan Brown novel, and all the lurid, gory violence of a Stieg Larsson. It’s a page-turner, I read it in a couple of days and that seems to have been Pyper’s goal.
In the end, however, I might have sold my soul for a little more Killing Circle.
Susie Moloney is the author of The Thirteen.