In his introduction to Michel Houellebecq’s book-length essay, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Stephen King wrote, “I think that a generation’s weird fiction, which has always been mainstream literature’s first cousin, gives us valuable information about the society in which it appears.” King went on to suggest that weird fiction’s “valuable information” reveals much about the deepest and often unspoken fears of the society in which that fiction is created and read.
As one of the few literary authors in Canada willing to muddy his hands in the thriller and suspense genres, Andrew Pyper has been delivering valuable information on the country’s fears for over a decade now. His latest work is his first true horror novel (in that it contains undeniably supernatural elements), and it displays the author’s total commitment to the genre.
At the risk of sounding academic or reductive, Pyper’s work is infused with persistent anxiety about the place of traditional masculinity – with its codes of duty, restraint, loyalty, even chivalry – in a rootless, postmodern world that rejects notions of objective morality, truth, and identity. Pyper’s male protagonists may wear various accoutrements of masculine success – money, good looks, physical power, education – and exhibit a slippery sense of right and wrong, but at heart they’re old-fashioned men seeking a cause capable of dragging them from their moral and emotional quagmires.
Pyper’s men want, above all, to be judged as decent, strong, and motivated by integrity. The question of how to be such a man in a world that does not recognize or reward those virtues generates much of the underlying emotional tension in Pyper’s tightly plotted novels, such as Lost Girls (1999) and The Killing Circle (2008).
Trevor, the middle-aged narrator of The Guardians, was once a minor celebrity in the very nexus of rootless cosmopolitanism: the downtown Toronto party scene. An “unmarried, all-night-party-hosting nightclub owner” for much of his adult life, Trevor inhabited “a world where people were expected to want something other than what they had, to be elsewhere than across the restaurant table or in the bed they were in at any given time.”
Destiny arrives first in the form of Parkinson’s disease, forcing Trevor to give up the night life and retreat to the seclusion of his luxury condo. Then one night he is awoken by a phone call from Randy, a boyhood friend. Randy is one of four “Guardians,” a crew of inseparable adolescent boys who played on the same junior hockey team in the small southwestern Ontario town of Grimshaw. Randy informs Trevor that Ben, the only member of the group not to leave Grimshaw after high school, has hanged himself in the attic bedroom in which he grew up.
Neither man is particularly surprised by the suicide, nor is either put out when he can’t track down the fourth Guardian, a drug addict named Carl. Like Trevor and Randy, Carl has spent his adult life trying to forget a trauma the teenage boys suffered in Grimshaw’s haunted house, known only as “the Thurman place.”
Without giving too much away, the trauma involves the boys’ discovery of the corpse of their attractive young music teacher. The teenage boys vowed never to speak of the horrors they witnessed that night, and the cost of that silence defines them as men.
Trevor and Randy’s reluctant return to Grimshaw for Ben’s funeral, and their forced confrontation with the ghostly presence in the Thurman place, gives Pyper a dramatic canvas on which to explore the inhibiting fears harboured by Trevor and the other Guardians.
The evil house that destroys innocence is a familiar Gothic motif, symbolizing the dead weight of the past or a family curse destroying the hopes of a younger generation. Though the Guardians are literally cursed by the Thurman house, their inability to replicate the blissful camaraderie of adolescent friendship in the adult world of work and love makes them representative of their generation. Like many men, the loyalty, focus, and sense of purpose that came so easily in youth finds no outlet in adulthood.
Pyper uses his haunted house to maximum effect, finding the right balance between believable detail and supernatural, menacing atmosphere. There is also much of Lovecraft in Trevor’s ruminations on the alien nature of evil, though the influence is refracted through the sensibilities of Lovecraft’s modern heirs: King, Ramsay Campbell, and Peter Straub.
But if Lovecraft et al. serve as influences, Trevor’s narrative voice is more in line with the wised-up cops and detectives of Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and other American crime writers, whose work is as attuned to rich local detail, slang, and pop culture as the best English-language literary fiction. Pyper laces the Guardians’ banter with the muted, self-deprecating sarcasm particular to southern Ontario speech, anchoring the story in a recognizable time and place.
At times, Pyper overstates the naivety and communal decency of Grimshaw’s citizens as a contrast to Trevor’s jaundiced urbanity, but that’s okay: a good Gothic tale needs the black and white as much as it does the rich shades of fear and evil.