When I was in university, I despised every minute of it. I could count the professors with a touch of humanity on one hand. Most of them walked around campus like pompous zombies; tenure wrapped around their jowls like a comforting scarf. I remember studying John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I was somewhat interested, but the drone of the zombie profs made me want to scratch my eyes out. Thankfully, Mr. Pyper has renewed my interest in that centuries old poem with his new novel The Demonologist. It gets new life as the core to this story, acting as a guide to a horrific journey for one man and his daughter.
David Ullman is a professor of English, with a specialty in mythology, religion and Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is also an expert on demons, but is a self-proclaimed “atheist biblical scholar”. He seems lost in life and lacks faith in most things. His marriage is ending, he has a sympathetic best friend Elaine who worries about his mental state, and he is tethered only by his daughter, Tess. She is the one person that understands his distant, blocked state, and their bond is unquestionable. One afternoon, he is approached by a mysterious woman who offers him a consulting job. No real details, just an all expenses paid trip to Venice, a large advance and an address where he is to observe a “phenomenon”. Ullman decides at the last-minute to take the offer and heads off with Tess to the ancient city, attempting to distract the both of them from an almost certain divorce. There, he is witness to a harrowing experience of demonic possession, and the unfortunate loss of his daughter to a bizarre, seemingly suicidal end. He is haunted by the knowledge that he must find his daughter whom he believes to be still alive, and to do so must piece together a puzzle with the help of Milton’s epic poem and a wily, arrogant demon. And so begins Ullman’s journey where he is forced to deal with personal, literal, and literate demons.
This was the first book in a long time that I read cover to cover in one sitting. It was also the first book I’ve read by this author. For me, it combined all the elements of a good story: a road trip (albeit it from Hell), soul-searching (literally), and chasing the devil. Pyper writes with a sophistication that is veiled in simplicity. He created images that were immediate, intense and eerie. I thought the use of Paradise Lost as a moral and literal road map was genius, and it also helped me understand the poem and make it relevant again. The reviews of this book claimed that the story would scare you silly, but I found that melancholy resonated more for me than fear. I got David’s displacement from the real world; how he buried family tragedy for decades and the only way he was able to deal with it was through a literal fight or flight deal. I also loved the relationship between David and his best friend Elaine. They were a constant comfort to each other, and they revealed a love that would go light years beyond the physical. David’s character had a likeability and an endearing tenacity once he was backed into the proverbial corner that gave the age-old good versus evil an interesting spin. It was more like flatline versus evil, and once the devil lit a fire under him, so to speak, we finally got a pulse. Tough way to realize you’re alive, but hey, whatever it takes!
Andrew Pyper also gets a nod from me because he is a Canuck. More accurately, he lives in my home town Toronto. And there are reports that The Demonologist will be adapted for the big screen in the future. I am curious how the movie will translate, but I don’t think it will be difficult, since I found the book to be quite vivid. Pyper brings us a great, creepy story that infuses life into the horror novel genre, and hopefully the movie theatres soon. Read it!