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book review

Andrew Pyper’s The Damned will leave with some sleepless nights, but also have you questioning your throughts about what happens when you die.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

On Danny Orchard's 16th birthday he died, went to heaven, and came back. What do you do after making that round trip? You write a book about it, of course. The After topped the bestseller lists, was published in 27 languages, and brought Orchard both fame and fortune – 14 years after its release he still sometimes spots people reading it on the subway. It also spawned a support group of sorts consisting of people who call themselves the Afterlifers. "It's like AA, except with booze," muses Orchard, who sometimes attends the group's meetings and conventions. They're practically the only (living) social contact he has.

The Damned, Andrew Pyper's latest thriller, is a novel that will get your heart racing without insulting your intelligence. Orchard "died" trying to save his evil twin sister, Ash, from a burning house. How she got into that house and who set the fire becomes part of the novel's central mystery, but what is never in question is that the malevolent spirit of Orchard's sister extends far beyond the grave. "Love never dies" is a popular sentiment – but what about hate? Pyper sets out to construct a secular mythology for our modern times and, in the process, to scare the wits out of readers.

A supernatural thriller narrated by the author of a popular memoir in the "heaven tourism" genre is a brilliant conceit, and Orchard's account of his experiences in the afterlife echo those of several recent bestsellers purporting to be true. The titles speak for themselves: Heaven Is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, 23 Minutes in Hell – numbers employed to lend empirical plausibility to their claim – and also The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, a book recently disavowed by the titular boy who now says he never went to heaven at all. The desire to believe in these "real life" accounts underpins an anxiety of our current age, and it should come as no great surprise to anyone that the books about heaven are outselling the travelogues of hell. But not content with mimicking the depictions found in these accounts of heaven as a place with "pearlescent gates" where Jesus rides a rainbow-coloured horse, Pyper sets himself the task of devising a new mythology. The secular version of the afterlife he constructs feels very much of our time. Heaven becomes simply your best day on a perpetual loop. Paradise as a GIF, if you will.

The heaven that Orchard visits resembles a very ordinary afternoon from his life on Earth, but when he returns from death he brings back more than most of the usual heaven tourists do – proof in the form of an Omega watch that had been buried with his dead mother years before. Proof that we can return from the afterlife is, after all, the only real proof that there is an afterlife. This proof is the basis of his book and his fame.

It is through the account of his post-death experience that Orchard meets Willa – who, as an Afterlifer, shares a similar experience – and her 10-year-old son, Eddie. This relationship gives him both something to live for and someone to die for. Cue the return of his long-dead sister, the bane of Orchard's life (and death).

This is where The Damned really starts the pulse racing – not in Orchard's brief elevator ride to heaven, but in his nightmarish descent into hell. You see, all of his life, whether living or dead, Ash has contrived to ensure her brother's social isolation, taking a perverse pleasure in his loneliness. His happiness, with Willa and Eddie, makes her very unhappy. So, in order to try and lay his sister's spirit to rest, Orchard becomes a voluntary tourist in hell, which he finds is the contemporary wasteland of Detroit as painted by Hieronymus Bosch – a nightmarish landscape populated by demonic beasts, a creepy magician and, scariest of all, nascently sexual adolescent girls.

It comes as no surprise that film rights to The Damned have already been snapped up – you can almost smell the popcorn as you turn the pages. Pyper has more than mastered the art of the profluent plot and The Damned guarantees many sleepless nights. But along with the thrills and chills come moments when the reader is invited to reflect upon his or her own systems of belief and consider where they hope to go when they die. If heaven really were just your best day over again, then maybe we've all already been there.

Sara O'Leary is working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House.