Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist follows Columbia professor David Ullman’s journey from skeptic to believer as he searches for his kidnapped twelve-year-old daughter. As a highly successful scholar of demonic literature who specializes in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, David will have to use his expertise as a ‘demonologist’ to determine which demon from the epic has stolen his daughter in order to get her back.
At the end of the school term, David receives a visit from a mysterious emaciated woman who offers him an enormous amount of money if he will go to Venice and witness a ‘phenomenon’.
David impulsively accepts the job offer and brings his daughter Tess with him to Italy. There he witnesses and records on film the death of a Biblical scholar who has been possessed by a demon. Faced with the possibility that demons are real, David rushes back to his hotel, where he finds his daughter possessed by a demon and perched on the edge of the hotel’s roof. Before she jumps into the waters of the Grand Canal below, she utters a plea to her father: find me. Tess’s disappearance sets off David’s quest of belief and his descent into the world of demons.
The Demonologist was given a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was chosen as one of its top ten mystery and thriller titles of spring 2013. The Toronto Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail all reviewed the novel positively. It’s even in development for a film with Robert Zemeckis and Universal Studios. This book has received a lot of praise, and is on its way to becoming a bestseller.
But I’m skeptical of all the hype. What aspires to be a gripping page-turner and a thrilling quest for belief is undermined by the novel’s bland, inelegant writing and unconvincing, underdeveloped characters.
The motivations and emotions of characters barely register. Although the relationship between David and Tess is supposed to be the crux of the entire novel, it comes across instead as mere décor. Their relationship is never fleshed out, and so the novel relies on the emotional impact of the idea of a father losing his daughter, rather than David’s actual, specific loss of Tess. The novel fails to build their relationship organically, and so it is difficult for the reader to care about Tess’s disappearance. Tess becomes merely the occasion for her father’s masturbatory quest to overcome his own skepticism and childhood demons.
Similarly, Milton’s Paradise Lost is used merely as an ornamental backdrop. Absolutely no knowledge of the epic poem is required to read this novel. Random quotes and ideas are taken from the epic in a haphazard and uninspiring attempt to construct some semblance of a plot.
One of the major themes of the novel is skepticism giving way to belief, but this rests on a very shaky foundation. The demon who has taken Tess wants David to act as an emissary and reveal the existence of demons to the world, but the only evidence David has is the video of the possessed professor. The possibility that the authenticity of this video may be questioned is never raised. We live in a world with computer generated-imagery that can produce things like Avatar and gory horror movies, yet no one thinks for even a moment that someone might doubt the veracity of the video. It’s treated as incontrovertible, infallible proof.
The novel is billed as horror, yet it does not come across as such. Thriller would perhaps be a more accurate term, but even then, there isn’t enough suspense to really justify that distinction. Although David is operating under a very tight time limit to rescue his daughter, the stakes never feel high and the story’s progression is leisurely.
Midway through the novel is an impressive murder and suicide mystery surrounding a pair of twins. Though the episode never quite rises to the level of being frightening, it is definitely creepy, and shows that Pyper is capable of writing well. If this level of intensity had been sustained throughout the entire book, this would have been a very different review.
Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist is a quick read with little substance. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here—either in quality of writing, storyline, characters, or themes—to really distinguish it from the legion of other (better) horror and thriller books out there. I’m sure that some of the novel’s problems will be ironed out when it is made into a film, but I can’t see this story rising much further beyond what it is. My guess is that the movie, like the book, will be entertaining, light—and trite.
-contributed by Alex De Pompa