Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Things Go Bump in the Night: The Novels of Andrew Pyper

Novelist Andrew Pyper

Lost Girls (1999), Andrew Pyper’s terrific debut novel, an updating of the nineteenth century Gothic, in the guise of a courtroom drama, contains elements reminiscent of a Henry James ghost story and to Bram Stoker’s infamous denizen from Transylvania. A Toronto law firm has dispatched Bartholomew Christian Crane, a lawyer willing to go to any length to win a case, to cottage country to defend Thomas Tripp, a former school teacher who has been charged with the murder of two young girls who have gone missing; their bodies have never been found. Crane learns that his spaced-out client attributes the girls’ disappearance to the legendary ghost of a woman who drowned fifty years ago. Crane, a loner with a cocaine problem, becomes increasingly obsessed with the legend that awakens a long-repressed personal tragedy and the aftermath he experienced twenty years before. The setting, both at the lake and in the town populated by eccentrics and the bizarre, forces him to confront that tragedy leaving the case increasingly secondary. Pyper is very good at weaving the Gothic tropes of doubling – Crane becomes a mirror image of Tripp – and the uncanny – the Goth girls who shadow Crane in his addled mind become interchangeable with the lost girls who drowned. At one point as Crane disintegrates, in part fuelled by his drug intake, he muses that he is surprised he “can see [himself] in mirrors at all anymore, the way [he has] come to live like a vampire; [doesn’t] eat regular food, awake most of the night, fingernails the yellowed sharpness of talons, a feeling a little monstrous too, in the baffled way of the walking dead.” In the end, whether Tripp is guilty seems irrelevant because it is the Gothic elements that most engage the reader.

Even in his next two outings, The Trade Mission (2002) and The Wildfire Season (2005) Pyper’s ostensibly most naturalistic novels, elements of the Gothic intrude. The Trade Mission, with echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and James Dickey’s Deliverance, provides an interface between nature and technology in the navigating of a river in the tropical rainforest to a nightmarish world. Initially, two computer geeks in their twenties, accompanied by their lawyer, business manager and a translator who also serves as the narrator, are on a trade mission to Brazil to pitch their “morality machine,” a computer program which promises to provide the best moral answer to any existential problem. When the team decides to take a couple of days for a sightseeing tour of the Amazon region, a gang of pirates murder the crew and kidnap them. The web service that they had been touting is in a very real sense tested under the most extreme circumstances. Should I help another person in distress if my life is threatened? In recognition of the primal nature of man and the face of a punishingly indifferent environment, team members are required to fall back on their own resources. Civilized values and technology prowess are stripped away and a charismatic team member goes rogue. And if these horrors were not enough, the survivors are visited by the ghosts of team members taunting and reminding them that they contributed to their deaths.

Set in the far north south of the Arctic Circle, The Wildfire Season is really about the preternatural power of a fire that threatens to devastate Ross River (a real place). At times, Pyper attributes human sensibility to fire: “as with all fires, it will have no desire but to live.” At other times, its Gothic quality is underlined. The major human protagonist, Miles McEwan, who has been severely burned in an earlier conflagration, has a dream in which fire is not manifest: he is running from something that “is invisible but explicit, human and not human, a creature with unfair advantages. A vampire.” Later when a potentially catastrophic fire lashes the community, Pyper describes it as baring its “orange teeth over the crest…the flares that reach out into space like yearning arms.” Miles recalls that the noise the wildfire makes “strikes him as both familiar and otherworldly.”

If the Gothic is peripheral or largely metaphorical in these two novels, it infuses the plot, the ‘story’ within the narrative, the characters and setting of Pyper’s fourth outing, The Killing Circle (2008). It is also the most disturbing and frightening of all his novels – in part because of its locale in Toronto is the site where a serial killer is stalking its citizens. It is a “City of Fear” where footsteps from behind force a character to run in panic and individuals, who have no apparent connection with each other, disappear until their dismembered bodies are discovered. A subway entrance is one of the “doors to the underworld” and “every shadow in the city’s pavement [is] a hole in the earth wanting to swallow me down.” The “me” is Patrick Rush, the first person narrator, whose life has deteriorated since the death of his wife. While he tries to raise and protect his son, he unhappily earns a living writing a television column for The National Star (read Globe and Mail), while aspiring to be a novelist that could net him fame, fortune and perhaps earn him a “Dickie” – Pyper’s satirical swipe at the Giller prize. He joins a weekly writers’ workshop, which the leader refers to as “a circle.” The trouble is that Patrick has nothing to write about. Instead, he becomes enthralled by the chilling story from one member of the circle, Angela, which he surreptitiously records: a tale about an orphaned girl’s fear of the faceless spectre of the Sandman that torments her dreams then appears in the real world to kill other girls. He begins to suspect that the Sandman has escaped the confines of literature and is shadowing him since the killings occur not far from where he lives. They abate and a few years later Patrick reads about the apparent death of Angela. He decides to steal her story, expand it and convert it into a best-selling novel under the title The Sandman. He achieves his fleeting moment of fame but at a terrible price as he inadvertently reopens the Sandman’s box. The killings resume, this time the victims are members of Patrick’s former writing circle and his worse fears, foreshadowed in the prologue at a drive-in theatre where a horror movie is playing, are realized. Patrick becomes increasingly unhinged as he sees the ghosts of circle members. How Pyper works out the remaining twists and turns will likely surprise some readers, but anyone expecting a comfortable resolution with the police solving the case will be disappointed. Despite the appearance of an investigator, this scary book is not a reassuring police procedural.

The Guardians (2011), following in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe in The House of Usher and Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House, anthromorphizes a haunted house by endowing the fa├žade with a malevolent countenance behind which resides a ghostly presence. With this powerful novel, Pyper has moved into the creepy territory of Stephen King. Through alternative chapters narrated by a forty-year Kevin of the present and a “memory diary,” that keeps readers apprised of developments when he was sixteen, Pyper explores the psychological effects on four male teenage friends who decide to solve the mystery of a missing teacher. In taking the fateful step to enter Thurman House, a series of terrible events unfold and, by vowing to remain forever silent about what transpired, they do incalculable damage to their adult lives. At the outset, Kevin, a former nightclub owner in Toronto who has been recently diagnosed with early Parkinson’s disease, receives a late-night call from Randy informing him that Ben, the only one of the four to remain in the small town of Grimshaw (based on Stratford without the Festival and Pyper’s hometown) has committed suicide. Over the years, Ben’s reclusiveness and commitment to serve as a guardian for the town from his attic across the street from Thurman House and to receive the “leer of the house’s darkened eyes” has taken its toll on his mind as Kevin later reads his diary. Although Kevin’s return to Grimshaw for Ben’s funeral offers hope for rekindling an old romance that became a casualty of that secret, it also awakens painful memories that are magnified when the past begins to repeat itself. Another young woman disappears and the three forty-year olds once again venture into the dilapidated Thurman House with all its dread and store of historical memories. Yet perhaps this time there is the possibility that they can make amends for some of the ghastly events and decisions that occurred years before. The Guardians is a ghost story at its best.

If The Guardians offers a glimpse into the supernatural, Pyper’s most recent outing, The Demonologist (Simon & Schuster, 2013) enters into an open dialogue with evil. It has the distinguishing Pyper trademarks: well-crafted sentences, brisk pacing and the familiar motifs of death by drowning, a protagonist either burdened with guilt, on the cusp of madness and/or a need to confront an early trauma. This novel, however, is a marked departure from his previous corpus, less Gothic and more a thriller – the second half of the novel is essentially an extended chase in which the chief character, David Ulman, is pursued by both literal and figurative demons – the latter are by far the most interesting. They appear as shape-shifters that unlock early memories and childhood trauma. In his desperation David transforms himself from a critical scholar to an unthinking man of faith.

As a literary device, Pyper incorporates seventeenth-century sources that generally serve to enrich the novel. Pyper’s referencing of The Compendium Maleficarum, apparently used by the Vatican as a guide of demonic possession, initially holds promise that an exorcism will occur but this turns out to be a literary cul-de-sac. The citations from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy are at least illustrative of David Ullman’s state of mind – and that of his father. The most quoted source, however, not only by David, but by demons, is Milton’s Paradise Lost which for the most part Pyper integrates to plot and character and is not pretentious or a superfluous digression.

For suspense and the frisson of terror, the first section of the novel is the best. It recalls the early scenes of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film, the horror classic Don’t Look Now that is based on a Daphne Du Maurier story of the same name. David Ulman is an English professor at Columbia whose specialty is Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is also an atheist who believes that evil is a cultural construct not a living reality. When he is visited by a strange woman who offers him a financial incentive to travel to Venice asking only that he provide his expert opinion on a “phenomenon,” he initially balks, but given that his marriage is collapsing, he decides to accept the deal and take his eleven-year old daughter, Tess with him. The visitation of something sinister at the outset and the death of academics throughout the novel are redolent of The Historian. The menacing atmosphere of Venice’s narrow labyrinthine streets where it is easy to get lost is similar to those captured in Don’t Look Now before and after David’s experience with a demon-possessed man, a vignette which he records on video. This chilling episode is followed by a virulent psychic presence that breaks down David’s defences – for the first time in years, he remembers the drowning of his brother, and over the course of the novel we gradually uncover the sound reason for this repressed memory – and then passes on to his daughter culminating in her plunging into the Grand Canal. Tess’ apparent death by drowning recalls the accidental drowning of John and Laura Baxter’s daughter in the first scene of Don’t Look Now and John’s later vulnerability in pursuing the small figure in a red raincoat flitting across the City of Bridges. But David believes his daughter is not dead but being held captive by someone. He may be right because although the girl who plunged from the hotel parapet had the body of Tess, she exuded a different spirit that indicates to David that he has only a certain amount of time to find her and that he must follow the clues provided for him. The question then arises: what is the purpose behind some dark power kidnapping his daughter? From this point when he also embarks on a journey from skeptic to believer, the novel’s arc is both intellectually challenging confounding and dispiriting.

As David crisscrosses America in search of his daughter following the clues that include his daughter’s journal and her brief spectral appearances, he is hunted by a Pursuer who wants the video David made in Venice. But we do not know the identity of his client and why that person or demon wants him killed. At the same time, he encounters ghosts and an array of demons that appear to be the incarnation of the voice he heard from the strange woman in his office or from his daughter uttering verses from Paradise Lost. They reveal not only their mockery and disdain, but their “pretensions of civility” and their “bogus sophistication” as one of them debates with him the meaning of Milton’s poem and the significance of the poet’s life – until he reveals his true voice, a hateful hiss. Behind all these shape shifters who attempt to win him over is one of Satan’s minions who play upon David’s critical faculties and atheism: in Milton’s time David’s words would have been regarded as blasphemy. This minion is beguilingly shrewd in presenting himself in the guise of his long-dead father, alcoholic, depressed and suicidal in life, but now imploring David to sacrifice himself for the cause that Satan offers and be his messenger, warning that the price will be high for David’s daughter if he does not obey. Because it is foreshadowed earlier in the novel, the revelation that David, not Tess, is the minion’s real quarry does not surprise. As an expert on demon-related literature and known for being an unbeliever, David would be the best marketer to the world that demons are real. I will not reveal the ending except to say that I found it oblique and unpersuasive.

Nonetheless, The Demonologist is a work of stimulating ideas. The premise is that David undergoes a crisis of identity: a man of reason, who has made a career out of doubt morphs into a believer of blind faith. Even the Bible is no longer a repository of stories but “literal history, an account of actors performing verifiable actions, both long ago and reaching into the present.” Yet David delivers some telling responses to the minion’s argument that God is a cruel tyrant who is indifferent, a bearer of arbitrary suffering: “The greatest lie you tell is that you are a creature sympathetic to humanity.” Pyper has publicly denied that David’s transformation has an autobiographical basis. Perhaps he is suggesting the limitations of the intellect in the face of childhood wounds and adult depression or the lengths to which a parent will go to protect his child when he is desperate.  I can accept these possibilities. Or the novel could be read as an allegory for the choices that people make when in a state of crisis: they become vulnerable to fundamentalist movements and can abandon their conscience and critical faculties for some higher Truth. If so that is worrisome.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit www.thatlineofdarkness.com.

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