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review: fiction

In a Halloween broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas, narrator Alberto Manguel and guests Margaret Atwood, Graham Gibson and David Cronenberg discussed ghosts, hauntings and their role and purpose in society and art.

"The ghost story is a way of examining the self coming to terms with the self," Atwood said. And it is this concept of identity that sits at the heart of Andrew Pyper's terrifying new book, The Guardians, his fourth novel, already being developed for film.

Trevor, Randy, Ben and Carl were childhood friends, schoolmates and teammates on the Grimshaw Guardians hockey team. Life was a party until that fateful day when their music teacher disappeared and the teens decided to solve the mystery on their own, a decision that involved entering the Thurman House, where the unspeakable happened and was discovered.

Youth receded behind a vow of silence as the four were forever shaped by the nightmare that occurred. This is a book that looks at what happens when you hate and fear what you see in the mirror, and it is a tale of friendship and of those bonds of youth. As Trevor says, "Didn't we come from a world so cushioned and flat that the secret of what lay in the Thurman cellar would be more than we could bear? The answer was in the us of it. Alone, we would have run screaming from the house and told all. But together, we held it in. As us, we could believe what was happening wasn't entirely, wakingly real."

The story begins with Trevor, 24 years later, suffering from Parkinson's disease, waking in the night to a call from Randy, a now down-on-his-luck actor, with the news that Ben, the only one of the four to remain in Grimshaw, has hanged himself. Unable to contact Carl-the-druggie, the fourth friend, Trevor and Randy reluctantly return to Grimshaw for Ben's funeral. Then the past begins to repeat itself when a young woman goes missing. Once again, they venture into the Thurman House, where shadows and dread await.

Through the device of a haunting, Pyper gives us a novel that is both a coming-of-age story that looks at the forging of identity, and a story of midlife crisis - the breakdown of self and its subsequent rebuilding. The haunted house is a metaphor for these pivotal rites of passage, that dark place where innocence is lost, and courage is found.

The book is also a study in masculinity. Just as Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones explore themes of sisterhood and femininity through the conceit of a haunting, The Guardians also examines what it is to become a man, and to be a man, the forging of male identity, both the negative and positive forces, the contemporary and the generational influences on gender.

Trevor muses on their teenage journey into the house: "Our instinct to cover up, to hide, to pretend we were never there was instant and inarguable. It was our first real summoning of the masculine talent for non-disclosure. We were becoming men. Becoming gravediggers."

Although the book primarily focuses on male friendships, the female characters are strong, more than just victims.

The story is narrated by Trevor through two story lines, the current return to the town, and through entries in a "memory diary," where he reveals and ponders the past and its connection to the present. Initially employing a quiet, confiding tone, Pyper reveals his skill with pacing as the story takes on the speed of a midnight dash through a graveyard. And please note: This is not schlock horror dripping with gore. Pyper expertly creates terror through mood and setting. We hear what keeps going bump in the night, but never quite see it.

Once or twice, the story verges on the formulaic, but there are enough unexpected twists and turns to keep it fresh. Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre, his discussion of the horror genre: "The good horror tale will dance its way to the centre of your life and find the door to the secret room you believed no one but you knew of …" And The Guardians does this - escorts you into that secret place where you either come to terms with your ghosts … or you don't. This is a page-turner that will make your heart pound. You've been warned.

Christy Ann Conlin's first YA novel, Dead Time, will be published later this month. Her second adult novel, Listening for the Island, is forthcoming.