Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist is one of the books that I really hoped I would love. A supernatural thriller/horror novel targeted a general audiences its press material initially put me off due to its comparisons with The Historian a novel whose nostalgia drenched narrative felt more like a travelogue than a horror novel. Pyper’s novel never comes even close to a similar level of eye rolling nostalgia and manages to tell a passably good story along the way. The story of The Demonologist centers around Milton and Paradise Lost expert Professer David Ullman whose unique knowledge of Milton’s most famous work made him famous and seen him consult on some rather fascinating cases in the past. A mysterious offer to visit Italy offers Dr. Ullman and his daughter a chance to escape his impending divorce and offer them a chance to bond. Ullman’s experience in Italy tests the bounds of his skepticism and the seeming suicide of his daughter sends him on a quest to rescue her from the clutches of beings who Ullman has spent his life believing don’t exist.
Beneath the surface of what I felt was a fairly straight forward horror tale is a deeper investigation into the nature of depression and the weight of the past on our lives. Ullman’s depression and seclusion helped to drive his wife into the arms of another man and Ullman’s own retreat into his inner life is well document over the course of the novel. The professor’s outer journey over the course of the novel can be seen as a reflection of an inner life intimately tied to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tess’s involvement in the story stems from the fact that she suffers from the same affliction. While Pyper doesn’t really use any narrative tricks over the course of the novel Ullman’s depression and the loss of his daughter early in the novel definitely call into question his own sanity at various points during the novel. Pyper dangles that out quite nicely throughout the novel but manages to keep it constantly out of reach of those who might be willing to take it.
Part of the success behind casting some doubt as to Ullman’s reliability as a narrator is that Pyper manages to sketch a complete picture of the man throughout the course of the novel. By keeping the novel more or less firmly planted over Ullman’s shoulder the reader gets a clean and clear picture into the doctor’s psyche. While Pyper might call into question Ullman’s mental stability at various points in the narrative the clarity of Ullman’s perception and his clear focus in rescuing his daughter manage to keep the novel from leaning too heavily on this technique. While Tess is killed early in the novel her presence throughout the remainder of the novel is keenly felt. Pyper offers some occasionally diversions from Ullman’s point of view that aid in this but the Professor’s possession of his daughter’s journal is one of the primary means through which readers get to know her and how Pyper manage’s to convey that Ullman’s depression may not be quite what it seems to be.
Over the course of the novel Pyper cleverly portrays the novel’s demons as human and his meditations on the nature of possession blend both psychology and the supernatural into a disturbingly believable whole. As the novel progresses Pyper builds towards what feels like might be a rather thrilling and heart-wrenching confrontation but falls closer to either didactic of pedagogical. It is the novel’s final quarter or so that really suffers as a result and the final conclusion feels like a bit of a cop out with an ending that feels like it defeats the purpose of the previous 300 pages or so. There is a part, the Comic Book Guy-like genre nerd, that wants to point my finger at the mainstream publisher and blame the grab from appeal to larger market on what feels like a cop out, but that isn’t entirely helpful and in truth the ending, while unsatisfactory in my eyes, does not negate my enjoyment of the novel. The Demonologist is an impressive novel that manages to offer mainstream appeal while still doing its best to stay true to its roots and, while its ending certainly disappoints it didn’t make the journey any less enjoyable.