Andrew Pyper’s unabashedly commercial tendencies, already on display in novels such as The Killing Circle and The Guardians, stretch into new territory in The Demonologist, a thrilling, slapdash, and at times even melancholy mix of Stephen King and Dan Brown (domestic and international elements, respectively). It tells the breathless and baffling story of a man doing battle with his personal demons – both metaphorical and literal.
David Ullman, a Milton specialist at Cornell University, whose life generally seems to be falling apart, is lured to Venice, Italy, to witness an occult “phenomenon” that results in the disappearance of his beloved 12-year-old daughter, Tess. One possible explanation for 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 as a bargaining chip.
Our hero is sent by the demon on a road trip across North America, following a series of mysteriously revealed directions keyed in various far-fetched ways to Milton’s epic poem. The result is a cinematic mix of high culture and low, with the latter winning out more often than not. No previous exposure to Milton is necessary or even desirable, but some familiarity with shaky-cam horror movies may help.
There’s no denying Pyper is an effective writer, doing a good job here of handling point of view and chronology, 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 merely reciting lines, and the pop spirituality is given an overly portentous air.
Most damaging is the fact that, while one doesn’t expect a book like this to make a lot of logical sense, The Demonologist is completely incoherent. Even at the end it’s hard to tell what has really happened and why, which makes it difficult to relate to Ullman and his quest, or even to take it seriously. Regardless, the novel should appeal to young readers (who are less demanding about these things), and to adults who approach it simply as a psychodrama or colourful allegory of one man’s midlife depression.