First aired on The Sunday Edition (10/03/13)
From Milton to monsters...Andrew Pyper's latest novel is a horror story based on the 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost. In a recent interview on The Sunday Edition, the bestselling author talked with host Michael Enright about The Demonologist, which has already been optioned as a film.
The story opens in New York City, where a literature professor receives an invitation to go to Venice on a professional junket. He accepts, because his life is a mess: his wife is leaving him, and he's sunk in a midlife funk. But the trip takes a horrible turn when his young daughter, who had joined him on the trip, commits suicide in front of him. What follows are visitations by demons and shape-shifters, and a chase across the U.S. and Northern Ontario, along with murder and mayhem.
Writing what he calls "an unapologetic, full-fledged horror story" is a departure for Pyper, who's the author of five previous novels, including the international bestsellers The Lost Girls
and The Killing Circle
"The idea was really born out of my binge reading of ghost stories," Pyper said. In the course of his reading, he noticed that often in these tales of encountering the paranormal "there was a backdrop of emotional upset to them, whether it be grief -- often there would be a loved one who had died -- or a divorce or moving from a place of comfort to a place of discomfort." He found it interesting how emotional upset "so often provides a doorway, an open way, to the demonic in people's experiences, or to the ghostly or to the horrific."
When asked the difference between a horror story and a ghost story, Pyper said that in his definition a horror story "creates its own world." He describes his previous novel, The Guardians
, as a ghost story that was mostly real. "It was a glimpse into the supernatural, whereas The Demonologist
, although it looks like our real world, is a world I have set up where everything is potentially altered." For instance, the man sitting next to you on the subway could be a demon, he said. "Once you change the rules of the whole world, I think it becomes a fantasy or a horror novel, even if that world looks real."
David Ullman, the protagonist of the novel, is a scholar and an expert on Paradise Lost
. Pyper went back to Milton's poem because he wanted to tell a story in which a man's struggle with grief is linked to the demonic. He also wanted an articulate villain, so "then you could have a dialogue with evil -- which is doubly horrifying because it sounds a lot like us, it makes a very convincing case for itself. "
Pyper admired the way that Milton takes "abstract concepts like hell, heaven, God, Satan, good, evil" and convincingly "renders a world." His aim in The Demonologist
is "to create a contemporary world where the concepts of demon, good, evil, heaven, hell, could be rendered meaningful, plausible, to a secular reader in 2013."
At its heart, the novel is about faith. David Ullman starts off as a non-believer," Pyper said. "He goes on a journey of faith, insofar as he has to test himself, against all of his greatest fears, in order to do the impossible, which is to retrieve his daughter from the presumed depths of the other world."
One of the story's most frightening elements involves the relationship between David and his daughter, which taps into the universal fear of a parent for their offspring. When he first conceived of the novel, Pyper didn't imagine his character having children, and he saw the demonic threat as menacing David Ullman's own life. But the stakes didn't seem high enough to Pyper. As a father himself, he decided that "I had to make it a journey that I would least want to go on, in order to write those scenes convincingly."
Pyper does believe in the existence of evil. "There's plenty degrees of grey, but I think you have to believe in the ends of the spectrum," he said. He went on to say "that he doesn't believe "in demons per se but I believe in an influence on human actions that go beyond the psychological or the chemical."
Pyper has an office on the third floor of his house, where he does his writing. He keeps the door closed, in part because he wants to keep what comes out in his writing contained. In his writing, he says, "I open Pandora's box, and weird things come out."