ANDREW PYPER author of THE DEMONOLOGIST
Fans of The Historian won’t be able to put down this spellbinding literary horror story in which a Columbia professor must use his knowledge of demonic mythology to rescue his daughter from the Underworld. Professor David Ullman’s expertise in the literature of the demonic—notably Milton’s Paradise Lost—has won him wide acclaim. But David is not a believer. [READ MORE]
Last night I had the dream again. Except it’s not a dream. I know because when it comes for me, I’m still awake.
There’s my desk. The map on the wall. The stuffed animals I don’t play with anymore but don’t want to hurt Dad’s feelings by sticking in the closet. I might be in bed. I might be just standing there, looking for a missing sock. Then I’m gone.
It doesn’t just show me something this time. It takes me from here to
Standing on the bank of a river of ﬁre. A thousand wasps in my head. Fighting and dying inside my skull, their bodies piling up against the backs of my eyes. Stinging and stinging.
Dad’s voice. Somewhere across the river. Calling my name.
I’ve never heard him sound like that before. He’s so frightened he can’t hide it, even though he tries (he ALWAYS tries).
The dead boy ﬂoats by.
Facedown. So I wait for his head to pop up, show the holes where his eyes used to be, say something with his blue lips. One of the terrible things it might make him do. But he just passes like a chunk of wood.
I’ve never been here before, but I know it’s real.
The river is the line between this place and the Other Place. And I’m on the wrong side.
There’s a dark forest behind me but that’s not what it is.
I try to get to where Dad is. My toes touch the river and it sings with pain. Then there’s arms pulling me back. Dragging me into the trees. They feel like a man’s arms but it’s not a man that sticks its ﬁngers into my mouth.
Nails that scratch the back of my throat. Skin that tastes like dirt.
But just before that, before I’m back in my room with my missing sock in my hand, I realize I’ve been calling out to Dad just like he’s been calling out to me. Telling him the same thing the whole time. Not words from my mouth through the air, but from my heart through the earth, so only the two of us could hear it.
The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and see- ing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.
I’ve been delivering this lecture long enough to play around with thoughts like these while speaking aloud to two hundred students at the same time. It’s time to sum things up. One last attempt to sell at least a few of the laptop ticklers before me on the magnificence of a poem I have more or less devoted my working life to.
“And here we come to the end,” I tell them, and pause. Wait for the fingers to lift from the keyboards. Take a full breath of the lec- ture hall’s undercirculated air and feel, as I always do, the devastating sadness that comes at reciting the poem’s closing lines.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
With these words I feel my daughter next to me. Since she was born—and even before that, as the mere idea of the child I wished to one day have—it is Tess whom I invariably imagine walking out of the garden with, hand in hand.
“Loneliness,” I go on. “That is what this entire work really comes down to. Not good versus evil, not a campaign to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ It is the most convincing case we have—more con- vincing than any in the Bible itself—that hell is real. Not as a fiery pit, not a place above or below but in us, a place in the mind. To know ourselves and, in turn, to endure the perpetual reminder of our solitude. To be cast out. To wander alone. What is the real fruit of original sin? Selfhood! That is where our poor newlyweds are left, together but in the solitude of self-consciousness. Where can they wander now? ‘Anywhere!’ the serpent says. ‘The whole world is theirs!’ And yet they are condemned to choose their own ‘solitary way.’ It is a fearful, even terrifying, journey. But it is one all of us must face, as much now as then.”
Here I take another, even longer, pause. Long enough that there is a risk I will be taken as being finished, and someone might stand, or slap her laptop shut, or bark out a cough. But they never do.
“Ask yourselves,” I say, tightening my hold on Tess’s imagined hand. “Where will you go now that Eden has been left behind?”
An arm almost instantly shoots up. A kid near the back I’ve never called on, never even noticed, before now.
“Is that question going to be on the exam?”
My name is David Ullman. I teach in the English Depart- ment at Columbia University in Manhattan, a specialist in mythol- ogy and Judeo-Christian religious narrative, though my meal ticket, the text upon which my critical study has justified my tenure in the Ivy League and invitations to various academic boondoggles around the world, has been Milton’s Paradise Lost. Fallen angels, the temptations by the serpent, Adam and Eve and original sin. A seventeenth- century epic poem that retells biblical events but with a crafty slant, a perspective that arguably lends sympathy to Satan, the leader of the rebel angels who became fed up with a grumpy, authoritarian God and broke out on his own in a career of making trouble in the lives of humans.
It’s been a funny (the devout might even say hypocritical) way to make a living: I have spent my life teaching about things I don’t believe in. An atheist biblical scholar. A demon expert who believes evil to be a manmade invention. I have written essays about mira- cles—healed lepers, water into wine, exorcisms—but have never seen a magician’s trick I couldn’t figure out. My justification for these apparent contradictions is that there are some things that bear mean- ing, culturally speaking, without actually existing. The Devil, angels. Heaven. Hell. They are part of our lives even if we never have and never will see them, touch them, prove them to be real. Things that go bump in the brain.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
That is John Milton, speaking through Satan, his most brilliant fic- tion. And I happen to believe the old fellow—both old fellows—have got it right.
The air of Columbia’s Morningside campus is damp with exam stress and the only-partial cleansing of a New York rain. I’ve just fin- ished delivering my final lecture of the spring term, an occasion that always brings a bittersweet relief, the knowledge that another year is done (the class prep and office hours and evaluations almost fin- ished) but also that another year has passed (and with it, another dis- tressing click on the personal odometer). Nevertheless, unlike many of the coddled grumblers who surround me at faculty functions and fuss over pointless points-of-order at departmental committee meet- ings, I still like teaching, still like the students who are encountering grown-up literature for the first time. Yes, most of them are only here as pre–Something That Will Make Serious Money—pre-med, pre-law, pre–marrying rich—but most of them are not yet wholly beyond reach. If not my reach, then poetry’s.
It’s just past three. Time to walk across the tiled quad to my office in Philosophy Hall, drop off the clutch of late term papers guiltily piled on my desk at the front of the lecture hall, then head downtown to Grand Central to meet Elaine O’Brien for our annual end-of-term drink at the Oyster Bar.
Though Elaine teaches in the Psychology Department, I’m closer to her than anyone in English. Indeed, I’m closer to her than anyone I know in New York. She is the same age as me—a trim, squash court and half-marathoned forty-three—though a widow, her husband claimed by an out-of-nowhere stroke four years ago, the same year I arrived at Columbia. I liked her at once. Possessed of what I have come to think of as a serious sense of humor: She tells few jokes, but observes the world’s absurdities with a wit that is somehow hopeful and withering at the same time. A quietly beautiful woman too, I would say, though I am a married man—as of today, at any rate—and acknowledging this kind of admiration for a female colleague and oc- casional drinking buddy may be, as the University Code of Conduct likes to designate virtually all human interaction, “inappropriate.”
Yet there has been nothing remotely inappropriate between O’Brien and me. Not a single stolen kiss before she boards her train on the New Haven line, not one flirty speculation over what might happen if we were to scuttle up to a room at some Midtown hotel and see what we’d be like, just once, in the sack. It’s not repression that prevents us—I don’t think it is, anyway—and it’s not entirely our mutual honoring of my marital vows (given that we both know my wife threw hers out the window for that smug prick in Physics, the smirky string theorist, Will Junger, a year ago). I believe O’Brien and I (she is “Elaine” only after a third martini) haven’t nudged things in that direction because we fear it might befoul what we already have. And what do we have? A profound if sexless intimacy of a kind I’ve never known with either man or woman since childhood, and perhaps not even then.
Still, I suppose O’Brien and I have been carrying on an affair of sorts for the better part of the time we’ve been friends. When we get together, we talk about things I haven’t talked about with Diane for some time. For O’Brien, it is the dilemma of her future: fearing the prospect of single old age while recognizing she’s become used to being on her own, indulgent of her habits. A woman “increasingly un- marryable,” as she puts it.
For me, it is the dark cloud of depression. Or, I should say, what I reluctantly feel obliged to call depression, just as half the world has diagnosed itself, though it doesn’t seem to precisely fit my case. All my life I have been pursued by the black dogs of unaccountable gloom, despite the good luck of my career, the initially promising marriage, and the greatest fortune of all, my only child: a bright and tender-hearted daughter, who was born following a pregnancy all the doctors said would never come to term, the only miracle I am prepared to concede as real. After Tess arrived, the black dogs went away for a little while. But as she graduated from toddlerhood to chattering school age, they returned, hungrier than before. Even my love for Tess, even her whispered bedtime wishes of Daddy, don’t be sad could not hold them at bay.
Your main character, David Ullman, is a literature professor who specializes in Milton’s Paradise Lost. How familiar were you with that text before you started writing THE DEMONOLOGIST? How did you use that poem to help shape the plot and events in your novel?
I'd read Paradise Lost as an undergrad at university, but remembered little about it. No, not true: I remembered few details, but carried with me with the persuasive arguments and pitiable dilemma of its arguable protagonist, Satan. For the stretches when he is its speaker, I found the poem electrifying, almost dangerous in its charms. But when the devil is off-stage, I remember feeling it was a bit of a slog. At the time, I would have agreed with Dr. Johnson's assessment that "None ever wished it longer."
Jump ahead twenty years, and I'm a novelist. (I'm also a father - this will become significant in a moment). For some time, I'd been pondering a way to create a new kind of demonic mythology in a work of fiction, one without priests or exorcisms or scalding holy water or the usual trappings of a "possession" story. I wanted to imagine a narrative that made demons seem grounded and real - a plausible explanation for why some people, some of the time, act in the irrational ways they do. To achieve this, the relationship between the human and demonic actors in the story would have to be at once mysterious and coherent, fantastical and believable. It was in devising what might be used as the foundation to this world that I recalled Paradise Lost. Again, it wasn't the poem as such that I thought of, but the feeling it left me with, the vibrancy of its anti-hero, his pain and veiled fury and terrible loneliness. In short, it was a character I thought of first. An emotional connection, not a monster.
David is a scholar of demonology, but he’s firmly secular in his personal life. How much of you is there in that character?
As with all my protagonists, there is a good part of myself in David Ullman, though there are more numerous parts I have nothing in common with. David and I are both fathers, both readers, both bookworms. And yes, neither of us are religious in any meaningful way. But where I leave a door ajar in my mind for the entry of the impossible and inexplicable and uncanny, David is (at the start of the novel anyway) a wholly committed atheist, a rationalist, the kind of man who sees faith as an inferior intellectual practice. On that score, among others - the entertainment of wild thinking - we couldn't be more different.
Another trait you share with David is fatherhood. What was it like writing a novel about a father trying to rescue his daughter from not only death, but possibly a fate worse than death—demonic possession?
It might sound strange to say that I frequently wept while writing a suspense thriller about demons, but working through The Demonologist brought a lot emotions close to the surface, many of them surprising me in their rawness and ferocity. Primary among these is the love I have for my children, and because Tess is a girl, I thought mostly about my own daughter, Maude. Never has a dedication been more deserved, as there's no way I could have found a way into this story - nor to David, nor even to the particular suffering of the Unnamed - without her. I knew that to make the novel work on an emotional level, I had to imagine the situation I fear most. To make the reader afraid, I had to be afraid. And I often was. It's all made me a more grateful parent, believe me.
THE DEMONOLOGIST is a superb thriller in its own right, but is also crosses into the horror genre. As a writer, what do you think make for the scariest scenes? How do you put a twist on a realistic thriller to give it the qualities people look for in a horror novel?
Horror, for me, is not defined by the thing that provokes one's fear, but the human being who has contact with it. I love scary stories and horror movies, though in my opinion they can too often fail to be fully realized aesthetic experiences because the emphasis is on the monster, the ghost, the vampire, instead of on why the uncanny has chosen to visit a particular character, how they experience it, the ways they are altered by this tear in the normal fabric of their lives.
What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
There is no winner here, only a deeply influential shortlist. I remember my mother forbidding me from reading Stephen King's The Shining when I was halfway through it as a kid, it made me so skittish and plagued by nightmares and generally worrying to live with (though I naturally ignored her). Later, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw showed me how delicious it could be, as a reader, to walk the razor's edge between believing the ghosts (or whatever uncanny thing) in a story are "real," or the psychological projections of the character. Later still, Dennis McFarland's A Face at the Window proved - as if it needed proving - that a literary novel of character and horror are not only compatible, but potentially better partnered than any other sub-genres.
Finally, though, I return to childhood. To a week I spent at a Christian summer camp (don't ask), reading the bible in my tent while cowering from the bullies who declared, from the moment I got off the bus, that "By the end of the week...you're dead." It was there that I came upon the Book of Revelations. It's haunted me ever since.
Has writing THE DEMONOLOGIST changed any of your beliefs about the paranormal?
Yes, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.
The minute I heard the pitch for Andrew Pyper’s new novel, the Demonologist, I knew it would be going on the top of my reading pile that night. The premise—a Columbia professor who specializes in demonic literature must rescue his daughter from the very demons he once believed were confined to the pages of Paradise Lost. The English major in me was dying to get a hold of the manuscript.
And I was familiar with Andrew, having read a previous novel of his when I was working for another publisher, and also knowing that his debut, Lost Girls, was one of those fabulous publishing success stories and still being read ten years later (in fact USA Today just pegged it as one of the “Scariest Books Ever” in a Halloween 2012 roundup!). By all accounts he was an immensely talented and likable guy with really ardent fans, and the prospect of working with him was enticing.
But of course, the book had to deliver.
So the next morning when I’d read it in one breathless gulp I was so pleased to be able to call his agent and say: “Don’t sell this to anyone else. I want it!” During the course of the next few days of phone tag and negotiations, they also sold The Demonologist to Hollywood—specifically to Universal Pictures and Robert Zemeckis (who’s currently enjoying a big hit with Flight). The studio wants to make it a modern-day Rosemary’s Baby. And I want to make it a huge bestseller.
One thing is sure: Andrew Pyper has perfected the alchemical blend of “big idea” with his trademark stunning prose, page-turning suspense, and a deeply felt emotional core. From New York City to Venice, Italy to the spooky plains of the American Midwest, The Demonologist is a spectacular foray into literary horror that will keep you up all night, afraid to turn the page yet unable to stop from finding out what comes next. (Just wait until you get to the Reyes sisters’ farm in North Dakota.)
I hope you’ll be as excited as I was to read this fantastic book for the first time and follow Professor David Ullman’s journey from skeptic to true believer. And I wonder . . . will The Demonologist make a believer out of you?
Sarah Knight | Senior Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org