“So that’s what I will be. A demon profiler.” So says David Ullman, the reluctant protagonist of Andrew Pyper’s seventh book, The Demonologist (Simon & Schuster). Released in March, the novel finds the Toronto author embracing the horror genre straight on. As Pyper writes in the book’s promotional material, The Demonologist marks “a departure – or perhaps a graduation – from my previous work, in that it is an unapologetic, full-fledged horror novel.”
Certainly, horror has been present in all of Pyper’s previous novels – from his Grisham-via-Straub breakout, 1999’s Lost Girls, to 2008’s The Killing Circle (described by The New York Times as a “thoroughly unnerving suspense thriller”), to 2011’s haunted-house tale, The Guardians. Pyper draws a tight distinction, though, calling The Guardians “a realistic novel with a ghost.” With The Demonologist, the author “is building a contemporary demonic myth.”
He’s not kidding. The book sees Pyper drag the core concepts of classical demonology into the modern age via video, finance, car chases, and rhetoric worthy of The Exorcist – if Pazuzu’s victim had been an undergraduate rather than a pre-adolescent girl. The business of profiling demons, it seems, is very good indeed: Hollywood optioned the story even before publishing rights had been sold, while Simon & Schuster signed the author to a North American deal. (Pyper jumped to Simon & Schuster from Doubleday Canada for this book.)
The Demonologist follows New York professor Ullman, whose academic specialty is John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Invited to Venice to consult with an anonymous benefactor, Ullman unwittingly embarks on a game of cat and mouse – really, life and death – with a person who claims to be a demon. More than just Ullman’s fundamental atheistic beliefs, what’s really at stake is the location of his young teen daughter, Tess – missing, presumed dead. Or is she?
“The eureka moment for me was the idea of marrying the concept of the Miltonic demon with human grief,” Pyper says of the creative process that yielded The Demonologist. “I’d been thinking about grief. Often, people who have supernatural experiences first endured suffering of some form, and usually a traumatic loss.” Pyper had been particularly focused on “grief, sadness, loss, and loneliness” while on tour for The Guardians, the story of three childhood friends who share a guilty secret. Without fail, in almost every city on the tour, Pyper says that “sober, intelligent, slightly embarrassed” people would approach him and say, “I don’t believe in this stuff, but …” then regale him with otherworldly events in their lives that coincided with a period of emotional distress. “I started reflecting. What is it about these disturbing things that seems to open the door to what we term ‘the supernatural’?”
The leap to demonology resulted from pure creative association. “That nudged me to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I’d read hastily back in university for some exam or other. Satan was portrayed as sympathetic, but I remembered him primarily as being lonely,” Pyper says. “Yes, there was all this bluster: ‘I will wage a war against Heaven….’ But, really, the Miltonic Satan emerges as someone suffering tremendous grief from being exiled from his family – rejected by his father, irredeemably.”
Aren’t the best villains the ones for whom we feel sympathy? ***
Just over a year since signing film and publishing deals for The Demonologist, Pyper could be forgiven for forgetting what rejection even means. Both Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox went to bat for screen rights. In January 2012, Universal won, via a negotiation launched by Robert Zemeckis’s ImageMovers studio that involved a phone offer with a five-minute acceptance window. “My phone doesn’t typically ring at all and when it does, it’s like, ‘Can you pick up milk?’” Pyper laughs. “I didn’t need the five minutes – just five seconds! But I appreciated the dramatic flourish: there was a kind of thriller-like poetry to it.”
Pyper’s no newcomer to the Hollywood dance: his novels Lost Girls and The Wildfire Season are both currently under option, the latter with Chris Moore, producer of Good Will Hunting and the American Pie series, and the former, which Pyper adapted himself, with Steve Hoban, producer of Splice.
However, as Pyper well knows, the path to production can be circuitous: none of his books has yet made it to the silver screen, despite multiple attempts. “I realized early on that even people deep within the machinery of the movie business don’t know what’s going to happen day-to-day, or how exactly to make things happen,” says Pyper. “And I know considerably less than them. So while I’m excited by the prospect of a movie being made from one of my novels, I accept the uncertainties and the ‘who the hell knows?’ of that particular business, and keep my nose out of it.”
At the same time the film deal for The Demonologist was going down, Pyper’s Canadian literary agent, Anne McDermid, had been shopping the book on both sides of the border. Pyper’s contract with Doubleday Canada had expired with The Guardians, and his long-time publisher, Maya Mavjee, had left the company to become president and publisher of Random House’s Crown Publishing Group in New York.
Pyper is emphatic that he had no agenda to leave Doubleday. “It wasn’t one of those throwing-the-laundry-on-the-front-lawn divorces … but, as there was no editor [there] with whom I’d worked on a book yet, you could call it a break in the clouds.” Clearing the air, so to speak, was an aggressive offer from Simon & Schuster that will see Pyper’s book heavily promoted in both Canada and the U.S. “It’s one of those situations that, from a Canadian point of view, people talk about … but doesn’t actually happen a lot: synergy between the teams, joining hands. Typically, New York doesn’t listen to Canada.”
Part of the atypical team in this case is Pyper’s U.S. editor, Sarah Knight, whom he credits with the decision to make The Demonologist’s plot more emotionally charged by playing up the backstory of Ullman’s missing daughter. “We’re reminded of her presence through a diary,” he says. “It was in my original draft, but less. Sarah very smartly saw it as an opportunity to remind the reader that there are human stakes here. It’s not just a guy chasing a demon, sanely or insanely: it’s a father chasing a daughter.”
Here in Canada, Pyper describes Simon & Schuster’s Toronto office as a hive of pre-release activity. The author had crossed paths with Simon & Schuster Canada president Kevin Hanson when Hanson worked at HarperCollins Canada, which published Lost Girls.
“[Hanson’s] pitch was no-holds-barred, which impressed me,” Pyper says. “He said there was no reason he could see that considerably more Canadian readers shouldn’t be happily reading my books. He didn’t have content solutions – ‘Oh, Andrew, could you put some sex in there, some unsavoury ingredient to make the stew more appealing?’ He was, and is, all about marketing solutions.”
If you can judge a book by its cover, one of those solutions appears to be spending money to make money. The Demonologist sports an impressive die-cut jacket with the central “O” punched out and a woman’s eye peering through. It’s an expensive publishing choice, typical of mass-market airport thrillers. Better still, the hardcover book is attractively priced at $30. “They’re trying to give people every reason they can to buy it,” Pyper says.
Whether the book becomes the choice of frequent flyers remains to be seen. The plot of The Demonologist isn’t as labyrinthine as The Da Vinci Code, but it’s still a satisfying, rip-roaring ride. “It would be wonderful to have people see your name on the cover of a book and, as so many do in the case of Dan Brown, be excited by what the book contains based on that alone – to have a sense of expectation and confidence based on your previous work. ‘A new Pyper!’ Sure, that would be wonderful,” the author allows.?
The first step – the part of Simon & Schuster’s marketing plan that so impressed Pyper – sees The Demonologist being placed in Costco stores across Canada. “I give full credit to Kevin and S&S for saying, ‘Why can’t Pyper be sold in that place?’ We’re already reaching an audience in independent bookstores and Chapters/Indigo. What about people whose exposure to books could exclusively be a flat in a big box?”
Another creative move on the publisher’s part is a free ebook offer of Milton’s Paradise Lost – which Pyper promises is “not required reading to understand my book” – packaged with an extended excerpt from The Demonologist. “I think that’s really cool,” he says. “Whether people download it for the free Milton or the novel, I hope some of the energy goes the other way. And, sure, I’d like to think some people might end up reading Paradise Lost because of me.”
Fraternity with the devil, in a sense. And if all goes according to plan: paradise found.