Since its publication earlier this month, Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist has garnered mad praise from both fiction bloggers and fellow genre authors. His trim little novel––about a college professor convinced that a demon has abducted his daughter––has been repeatedly heralded as one of the more frightening reads to come down the pike. And while it has its moments, be warned, the potency of the scares may depend on the reader’s willingness to go along with a few moments of Satanic silliness.
Canadian author Pyper has been a bestselling novelist for years (Lost Girls, The Killing Circle, The Wildfire Season), but he has yet to become a household name here in the States. Perhaps the building buzz behind The Demonologist will be enough to shove him face-first into the horror limelight.
The Demonologist was released by Simon and Schuster on March 5. Read on for the full review.
It seems like books and movies centered around demonic possession come equipped with a certain amount of scares already built in. (The prospect of The Exorcist terrified me for years before I even dared to watch it.) But why is this the case? What makes demons so different from vampires, werewolves or zombies? As Pyper points out deep into The Demonologist, it may be because although most religions may differ in regard to the ultimate authority (God, Jesus, prophets, etc.), most religions also share a common belief in one thing: demons. The thought of demonic possession is scary to so many people because so many people believe it can actually happen.
Pyper brilliantly exploits this common fear in The Demonologist, which begins with Milton scholar David Ullman taking an offer too good to refuse––a substantial sum of money in exchange for a single “consultation” in Venice. With his marriage floundering, Ullman views the case as an opportunity to bond with his 12-year-old daughter Tess in a faraway country, and ultimately agrees to view the “phenomenon” and offer his opinion. When the case turns out to be a possessed man, bound to a chair, speaking in the voice of Ullman’s long-dead father, he totally freaks and decides to bail on the deal, taking young Tess along with him.
But something follows David Ullman back to his hotel. Something that takes possession of Tess, driving her to a presumed suicide after she leaps to her death into a Venice canal. Something that continues to taunt Ullman, convincing him that Tess is actually alive, and eventually leading him on a cross-country journey as he follows demonic signs and personages in an attempt to find his lost daughter. It’s like The DaVinci Code and Fallen mashed into a super cheesy grilled Satanic sandwich.
While a few of Pyper’s demonic encounters are well-conceived and seemingly based in the real, it becomes increasingly difficult to take the central character of David Ullman seriously. His evil pursuer hops body-to-body, appearing in vessels as varied as a drunken street preacher and a seductive hitchhiker, compelling Ullman to drive to North Dakota, then to Florida, all in the hopes of finding a new demon clue as to the whereabouts of his deceased daughter. In short, David Ullman comes across as batshit crazy all novel long, even as Pyper desperately struggles to ground every demonic encounter in reality. And when Pyper does manage to pull off a chilling moment, he feels it necessary to restate exactly what the reader has just read, which completely undermines the ambiguous sense of mystery he has struggled so hard to develop. The scariest novels tease the reader with a fear of the unknown, and while The Demonologist flirts with juicy goodness, it’s too damned obvious to be truly effective.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Skulls