By Andrew Pyper
Andrew Pyper’s unabashedly commercial leanings stretch into new territory in The Demonologist, a thrilling, slapdash, and even at times melancholy mix of Stephen King and Dan Brown (domestic and international elements, respectively) that tells the breathless and baffling story of a man doing battle with his personal demons.
In brief, David Ullman, a Milton specialist at Cornell University whose life seems to be generally falling apart, is lured to Venice, Italy to witness an occult “phenomenon” which results in the death and/or abduction of his beloved twelve-year-old daughter Tess.
One explanation for all of this is that a demon torn from the pages of Paradise Lost is messing with David for some obscure purpose and has whisked Tess off to the pit as a bargaining chip. Another explanation is that David is just having a really bad day.
Assuming the former explanation, our hero is sent (by his demon) on a road trip all around North America, following a series of mysteriously revealed directions keyed to the Paradise Lost Code in various far-fetched ways. The result is a cinematic mix of good angels and bad, high culture and low, with the latter more often than not winning out. No previous exposure to Milton is necessary or even desirable, but some familiarity with the genre of shaky-cam horror movies may help.
There’s no denying Pyper is an effective writer, doing a good job here handling point of view and subjective sense of time, delivering a handful of punchy action sequences, and throwing in lots of nice descriptive touches (the mist at Niagara Falls rises up with “the restlessness of smoke,” while the water in a stream passes over stones “in continuous applause”). The dialogue, however, too often sounds like the characters are delivering lines that have been written for them, and the pop spirituality is given an overly portentous air.
Most damaging, however, is the fact that while one doesn’t expect a book like this to make a lot of sense, The Demonologist is completely incoherent. Even at the end it’s hard to tell what has really happened and why, which finally makes it difficult to relate to David and his quest, or even to take any of it seriously. The book should, however, appeal to young readers (who are less demanding about these things), and adults who approach it simply as a psychodrama or colorful allegory of a man’s mid-life depression.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2013.