The Killing Circle

By Andrew Pyper

The relationship between genre and literary fiction has long been fraught with mutual animosity, the former getting all the money and the latter all the respect. Toronto author Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle is a book caught between these two worlds, never fully inhabiting either.

The narrator, Patrick Rush, is an entertainment columnist for the National Star (Pyper is a columnist for the Globe and Mail) who joins a writing group after the death of his wife. The members of the group are all a bit creepy, with the only one (supposedly) having any talent being a mysterious young woman named Angela. The story she shares with the circle is about a supernatural killer called the Sandman. Before long the others begin to notice uncanny resemblances between Angela’s story and a rash of killings taking place in Toronto the Good. They also begin to feel the presence of the Sandman in their own lives. Then the murders stop and the group splits up, with the members going their separate ways.

Several years later Patrick has been fired from the National Star for daring to write a negative review (so that’s how it works at the Globe!), but has gone on to write a wildly successful bestseller based on Angela’s story. He experiences firsthand the angst of the genre hack: His writing has made him rich but he – and his envious critics – know he’s a talentless fraud. Before long hack karma rears its head as the Sandman returns to slice and dice his way through the writing circle.

Such a plot allows Pyper to stud his story with metafictional meditations on storytelling, giving an otherwise very conventional horror novel (the Sandman? sheesh) a touch of class. But such blood-soaked forays into the souls of anxious authors are nothing new. Stephen King has been doing it for decades. Just a couple of years ago Bret Easton Ellis covered the same ground in his dreary homage to King, Lunar Park. Indeed that book could have served as a template for Pyper, with its fictional killer come to life to torment an author and threaten his young son. It even has the same stale stylistic tic of ending chapters with a breakdown into breathless short sentences, as the narrator comes to some portentous yet obvious (to the reader) realization.

Of course genre fiction is nothing if not conventional. But successful genre fiction also has a purity about it, a sense that the author imaginatively inhabits the terrain. That investment is never felt in The Killing Circle. Pyper goes through the motions, but the uninspired Mr. Sandman – who actually says things like “You don’t know what afraid is yet” – just isn’t very scary. There is some good atmosphere, and a culturally alert eye, but the bulk of the writing is only industrial grade. Finally, Pyper can’t decide whether a natural or supernatural solution is best and so opts for neither, leaving us with a frustrating story that doesn’t make any sense.

The best genre writers always knows what they’re about because it’s where they live. It’s clear Pyper knows his way around Toronto, but when it comes to writing a horror novel it seems like he’s only passing through.

Review first published September 27, 2008.

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