Teenaged boys in a small town. A terrible crime. A secret pact. A haunted house, its cellar door gaping open....
Don't go there!
But Andrew Pyper does so fearlessly, indeed with aplomb. The never-ending history of the small-town haunted house is "the North American folk tale par excellence," the Toronto writer assures those who might hesitate on the threshold of The Guardians, his fifth novel, a "straight-ahead ghost story." But as the journey ultimately proves, there is no limit to the thematic and psychological richness of such familiar terrain.
Described as "outstanding in every way" in a jacket blurb by bestselling U.S. author Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, The Guardians stretches the meaning of literary originality while expertly unsettling nerves. It is a grown-up novel about what it means to be a man, according to Pyper, as effortlessly articulate in matters literary as any tenured academic. But the point of it, he adds, is to ruin its readers' sleep.
"I like disturbance," he says.
So do readers. In its expert navigation of the borderlands between psychological delusion and the outright supernatural, The Guardians returns to terrain Pyper first explored in Lost Girls, his widely praised 1999 debut novel, which remains his best seller.
Once again, a damaged narrator - this one suffering from rapidly advancing Parkinson's disease - returns to an isolated small town where he inadvertently confronts a Freudian time bomb of repressed crimes and memories. But in The Guardians, shaky Trevor enjoys the complicating collaboration of three childhood friends whose adult lives are all crippled by the same dread secrets. They are the lost boys, and as much as their expertly stage-managed descent into the cellar of the old Thurman house across the street provides the expected chills, it also warms as a deeply felt portrait of lifelong friendship.
"I've got a good half-dozen friends from Grade 2 I still see with some frequency and still love, even though our lives have diverged pretty wildly," says Pyper, who grew up in Stratford, Ont. ("Woodstock with rouge"), and presents it minus makeup as Grimshaw, Ont. in The Guardians. But it was marriage and the second-hand experience of his own wife's vital support network that made him realize how deeply inarticulate male friendship can be.
It's the girls who scream and the boys who comfort in the classic haunted-house amusement-park ride, Pyper says. But reality is otherwise. "I think men create things in the shadows more than women." Haunted houses are the natural product of their own minds and the chiaroscuro communities they inhabit. "There's a dark heart in all those places," he says. "Not to say they are dark places, but there's a dark heart in every community. And you try to control it."
In person, Pyper, is the opposite of shadowy. Smooth-skinned and clean-cut, he is the most presentable of writers, with a vitality that belies his fortysomething characters' complaints about advancing infirmity. His manner is more lawyerly than literary, the result of a legal education he blames on "this Presbyterian once-you-start-you-don't-quit sort of thing." But his profession is the novel, and with a small helping of screen-based work on the side, it maintains him comfortably in downtown Toronto with his wife, Heidi, and two young children. All his novels have been published internationally, and Lost Girls remains in print, as do more than 25,000 copies of The Killing Circle, his last novel.
"I had no expectation at the beginning that I or anyone else could make their living doing this in Canada," he says. "I think that remains more or less true." He is proud to be an exception. "My ambition is maintenance," he says. "I don't necessarily want anything more."
Nor is he susceptible to what he calls "that shuddering alcoholic weeping and worry" that currently infests the publishing world. "It's always been like that," he says. "Bullishness is just not part of the literary psyche."
There is one question that raises the hint of a furrow on Pyper's polished brow. "It's a question that continues to come up," he admits. "Where does Pyper fit?" Is he a literary highbrow subtly subverting genre conventions, like Paul Auster writing detective stories? Or is he Stephen King with rouge?
The question is "a plague to a degree," Pyper says, and one that never occurred to him. He prefers to interpret the difficulty others have pigeonholing his work as a sign of its originality.
"I don't turn my nose up at plot and plotting and how you engineer a novel," he adds. "I don't look down on that at all. On the other hand, I aspire to marry that to things that are conventionally understood as literary preoccupations - that is, the sentence, characterization, insight, social criticism and all the rest." The aim is "an aesthetic object that works simultaneously as a pleasure machine and as art." Unputdownable and wise.
To the extent it encourages other writers to embrace the same approach, Pyper welcomes the current turmoil in publishing. "It's a reminder of what should be a pretty self-evident question, which is, why should someone read your book?" he says. "Just the fact that you've written it with earnest intent and perhaps passion isn't enough to compel a third party to spend a week of their mental time on it."
But everyone loves a good ghost story, no matter how familiar it might first appear. As The Guardians tells us, appearances are deceiving.