At first glance, Andrew Pyper seems far too cheerful a guy to have dreamt up a tale as frightening as The Demonologist. But he’s also a dad, and his sixth novel, released on March 5, grew out of his greatest fear: harm coming to his children. A super-natural thriller, Pyper’s latest book centres around a Milton scholar named David Ullman as he embarks on a terror-fuelled trip across America using clues from Paradise Lost to hunt down the demon that has stolen his young daughter away.
Pyper first read Milton’s epic poem during his days as an English undergrad at McGill, though he confesses it didn’t make much of an impression on him then. Once he decided to write about modern evil, however, the rebelliousness of Milton’s Satan against God’s do-as-I-say attitude struck him as downright contemporary. “In a political metaphorical sense, God is an authoritarian state and Satan is an Occupy protester who’s saying the rules don’t make sense,” Pyper says.
Raised in a secular household, the 44-year-old writer has long been curious about religion: when he was 11, he went to a friend’s Christian camp and was born again-briefly. “I got distracted pretty fast. You know-girls! But I was a real Bible-thumper for about five days.” This willingness to explore new avenues has served him well. It was during the process of writing The Demonologist that he figured out he was working on a true-blue horror story, and the realization was freeing. “It’s like with my previous books I was walking up the stairs to a door, and now I’m going through it.”
Pyper has already crossed a few thresholds in his writing career. His first book, a coming-of-age short-story collection called Kiss Me, published with a small Ontario press in 1996, was well-received by literary critics, but Pyper’s instincts led him to more popular genre fiction. His second book-and first thriller-Lost Girls was a Canadian bestseller. Acclaimed thrillers 2, 3, 4 and 5 followed in quick succession (one every two to three years), establishing Pyper as one of Canada’s premier crime writers. The novels have also captured the imagination of the movie-producing set: Pyper is helping to develop Lost Girls with Steven Hoban (Splice, Ginger Snaps), and The Wildfire Season has been optioned by Chris Moore (Good Will Hunting).
As for The Demonologist, it’s in the hands of Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. If all goes well, it will be The Exorcist of this decade; in addition to his talent for conjuring classically creepy characters (cue one treacherous hitchhiker and possessed twins), Pyper also has a knack for scenes with a mythic quality. When Ullman’s daughter, controlled by a demon, teeters on the balustrade of a rooftop terrace high above Venice and speaks to her father in a deep male voice, the reader is struck by how foreign loved ones can seem. Other times, the eeriest aspects of Ullman’s journey are little things-a clean coffee cup that should be dirty, say-that nudge reality off-kilter.
Pyper laughs when admitting that he sometimes gets freaked out by what emerges from his own mind. Still, when he closes his office door at the end of the day, he feels refreshed and clear. Perhaps, he says, if he weren’t writing through his fears, he wouldn’t sleep so well. His readers may not be quite as lucky.
(Photo: Raina & Wilson)