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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit October 20, 2015

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2015

– 807 words –

The DemonologistDemonologist

By Andrew Pyper

Simon & Schuster

337 pages


Andrew Pyper has accomplished something I didn’t think possible. He’s made me want to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I haven’t really cracked since I was in university. It is a famous work of literature of course, and between it and Dante’s Divine Comedy we can account for nearly all the tropes about heaven, hell, the afterlife and the names of angels and demons that are currently cluttering up the television channels.

Milton and Dante gave us way more demonic lore than anything you can find in the Bible, and it’s kind of sad that some people have taken what is essentially fiction for Biblical fact.

I think that’s a statement that Professor David Ullman would probably agree with when we meet him at the beginning of his story. He is a top Milton scholar and a devout (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) atheist. Like Houdini, who knew so much about the tricks of the trade that he could never believe in the paranormal, Ullman knows his literature so well that he is unable or unwilling, to believe in God.

As a scholar he is at the top of his game, and his studies have made him the master of all sorts of demonic lore and literature, so much so that some see him as an academic demonologist, even though he does not himself believe in such things.

Not at the beginning anyway.

Ullman suffers from what Churchill called the Black Dog, a nameless depression, that may spring from events in his childhood – the death of his brother and his father’s suicide. His daughter Tess, seems to have inherited the tendency from him, although some of what’s bothering her could be the state of her parent’s marriage.

As with many driven individuals, Ullman’s personal life is a mess (Pyper seems to like this sort of protagonist). His wife has been having an affair for some time now and wants a divorce. Ullman has been having what is almost an affair of his own with a colleague named Elaine O’Brien. It’s purely platonic. They get together to chat, have a beer and watch Rangers games. They have regular “dates”. And yet, while they are absolutely essential to each other, they have never crossed the line into sex.

When Ullman is approached by the Thin Woman to go to Venice to witness a “phenomenon” and interpret it in the light of his specialty, he decides to go and take his daughter along for the trip. What he sees there is absolutely terrifying, and seems to be nothing less than a case of demonic possession. The victim, he realizes later, is another Milton scholar, someone he has met.

That’s not all, however. Some force takes possession of Tess, takes her to the top of their hotel and drops her in the canal. They never find her body.

Eventually Ullman has to return, alone, to New York, haunted by the feeling that Tess is somehow still alive and that he has to find her. Various cryptic clues come his way, sending him on a road trip that moves him across half the United States and finally up into his native Canada. Accompanied by O’Brien, who joins him part way through the quest even though she is dying of cancer, he evades the pursuit of a hit man, encounters ghosts and demon possessed mortals and has his view of the world completely shaken.

Many of the clues relate to passages in Paradise Lost, and are references that only an expert could possibly recognize. The only other consistent references are to the Hitchcock film, North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant plays an innocent who is caught up in events against his will and has to rearrange his view of the world in order to survive.

The book’s ending is somewhat low key and I had to go back over that last chapter a couple of times to decide that it really was an ending. Ullman has a particular goal throughout his quest, and he achieves it, even though other things are left unresolved. Life’s like that a lot of the time.

Pyper, who was a Berton House writer-in-residence back in 1997, and a mentor author at the Young Authors Conference a few years later, has a backlist that includes a lot of haunted protagonists. His novels always have an element of the thriller/mystery in them. This was, I think, his first foray into the distinctly supernatural, though he has certainly borrowed some tricks of the horror trade in some of his earlier books.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, he made me want to reread Paradise Lost.




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