In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, (available March 5th) Professor David Ullman discovers that demons exist—and that they are the reason his beloved young daughter has been taken from him. I recently talked with Andrew about the bread crumbs his protagonist must chase, and the world of emotional horror that opens before him. . .
What brought about the genre shift to horror?
In hindsight—because all of this is hindsight when I talk about the “category” of the book, it’s all post-facto analysis—I was just following my nose in a narrative way and going where the story took me. But I think, why did it take me there? Because I’ve always been interested in the supernatural. It appears glimpsingly through almost all the previous novels, but in a kind of partial way. And this story demanded, because it entertains the possibility of demons existing alongside us in the real world, the creation of an entire world. Whereas the previous novels required people putting up a forbidden window, this is like, no, no, you have to build an entire premise whereby all human action will be infused with the supernatural companionship with demons. So once I recognized that, it felt quite liberating. I didn’t feel like there was a constraint of rules—although you can’t go that far, because that would make it a different kind of book. There was no sense of rules that might be broken.
It’s interesting to me, the idea of demons living alongside us. You play with this Miltonic idea of Hell not being a physical place, but living in us and alongside us. Unlike, say, in a movie like Constantine, where Keanu is transported to Hell, in The Demonologist we have these hellish things happening in our minds and all around us. Is that a conscious choice to stick with this Miltonic idea? What brought about this vision of Hell for you?
It is in part born because Milton is obviously an influence on the novel, a text that I used both thematically and to a degree mechanically, but I think that commitment, that is, the commitment to realism, having the story take place in the real world with these impossible supernatural beings moving through it, that was just an aesthetic choice of my own. I love horror and I love fantasy, but when it comes to those kind of stories, I’m definitely on the muted, restrained “keep it real” end of the spectrum. I know some people are like, “No, if you’re going to talk about Pandemonium, why don’t you take us inside Pandemonium? Let’s see the floor plan.” Mine’s a more internal, psychological Pandemonium. That’s just what I prefer. I personally like those kind of stories, like Rosemary’s Baby, where this is a story about the Satanic but it actually takes place in present-day New York.
This idea of emotions as a kind of hell and as a kind of journey: at one point, the main character, Professor David Ullman, talks about wandering, a major theme in your book, and how his emotions are so big after his daughter is taken that they are like a kind of wandering. Further, there is the very human and real horror of David’s best friend, Professor Elaine O’Brien, being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and trying to come to terms with that. Could speak to the role of emotion as a tool in horror and in The Demonologist specifically?
That was one of the first, I’m not going to say the birth of the story, but the tickling in the belly that might make a person get a pregnancy test. I’m not going to take this metaphor any further. [laughter]
I appreciate that, thank you. [laughter]
I was reading a lot, as I sometimes do, going on one of my ghost story binge reads. I quite enjoy those anthologies that are written by real people who are telling their stories of their encounters with the supernatural. I was reading a lot of those books, and what came quite abruptly to my mind was the observation of how often the backdrop of these stories is some aspect of emotional upset for the teller of the story. So often the arrival of the demon or the ghost or the poltergeist is preceded by the loss of a loved one or a divorce or having to move house or losing a job or something. I thought, there’s something here. It’s something that horror doesn’t generally use that much; the typical horror template is that normal people are put into an abnormal, horrific situation and the horror is kind of indifferent to them. It’s just there to fuck them up. And the people have to escape, or figure something out in order to escape. But there’s very little nexus between the two parties. The protagonist is just wrong place, wrong time. That got me thinking: is there a different way to tell a horror story, where the protagonist is connected to the villain emotionally? That they share a certain kind of suffering?
So in this case, David Ullman is seen to rationalize a large part of the story; he can be seen as a man on the brink of insanity who has been driven there by grief for his lost daughter. And so, too, the demon, whether you believe it to be real or psychological, it amounts to the same thing: the demon is present because it feels a kinship with that grief, demons being rejected and ejected from heaven, they are orphans, their father doesn’t speak to them anymore, they yearn to move into the light but they’re forbidden from doing so. That’s what initially what fascinating me, that emotional link between the human and the demonic.
You draw interesting parallels there. David is cut off from his own father, and has a very similar story to the demon who is stalking him. This ties into the idea of the melancholy that haunts David: is melancholy hereditary, or is it the influence of the same demon who is stalking through this family? In terms of melancholy, do you see these people, David and Tess, as marked by the demon, or as suffering from a particular state that draws the demon to them?
I think more the latter. This is a kind of understudied aspect of supernatural stories, but it would be a fascinating thing—for someone else to do!—a research project on how so many people who voice their accounts of encounters with the supernatural or the demonic provide a way in. They aren’t just arbitrarily chosen, generally speaking. Evil needs a doorway in order to come into our world. Typically, emotionally healthy, happy people aren’t afflicted by the supernatural. We offer doors, or open those doors, to the other side. In that sense, David and Tess, and David’s father: science would say yes, depression is a disease and it can be handed down. It’s one piece of the DNA. Sure, maybe. Or, these are people who share a particular aspect of character. They have this unfortunate affiliation with the other side.
This is a very Christian cosmogony that you’re working with, a premise based on the idea that biblical accounts and the apocryphal post-biblical accounts of demonic activity are quite true. Was there ever any idea of, say, using Babylonian mythology or a completely made-up cosmogony? Were you set on basing this story in Christian terms?
I was working within the constraints of, well, which mythology are you going to pick off the shelf at the mythology store? It was Milton’s, so therefore I was going to import Miltonic themes, broadly speaking, and Miltonic rules and Miltonic characterizations that brilliant way that Milton humanizes the monstrous. That, I wanted to piggyback on. So I was obliged to assume the Christian universe he was working in.
Having said that, because the setting is decidedly contemporary and real, the demon in the story is more modern, and speaking a language and having concerns that are more relevant to, say, a public relations professional in 2013 as it is to how to wage a war on heaven.
The demon is trying to create a social media buzz for himself.
[laughter] Exactly. Yeah, his project is modern.
David almost begins with an apology: I am an atheist, but I have based my entire life’s work on studying a literature of the divine and the demonic. Do you have people who were reading early drafts who were concerned about this atheist character who made his living from the Bible?
Not really. I think ti was an assumption I made: my experience of professors in the humanities who were in front of the lecture hall, teaching Paradise Lost or the Bible, or even Greek myths: did those people, when they were speaking into the microphone, talk about Zeus or God or Jesus from a position of personal belief? Probably not. I’m guessing if I were to poll professors in the humanities in North America who teach those topics, they aren’t card-carrying believers. It almost goes without saying that they’re secular. And that was useful to me: it interested me because it made me think about how that issue is resolved now: “let’s face it, only whackjobs and the far right believe this stuff, right? You can study it and do your PhD on it, but only from the point of view that this is a useful metaphor. There’s no basis in historical or contemporary reality.”
[laughter] Until a demon starts speaking to you.
Until it starts speaking to you! I liked the fact that David doesn’t believe in what he’s teaching. There’s a certain tension there, if not a hypocrisy, that I thought was useful. And especially when the events of the novel will take him on a journey, from a position of relaxed, untested scepticism to belief.
You’re speaking about metaphor. Do you want this book to be read on a very literal level, on an allegorical level, a bit of both?
Well, you know, it’s out of my hands now. For me, I was trying to create a new mythology that would stand alongside Milton’s Paradise Lost or the Greek treatment of the underworld or all the thousands of versions between them. I was trying to add to that canon of demonic mythology. And that new volume would of course take place in the real world and the contemporary world. It’s going to take place today. I wanted to try to create a new demonology for a world that doesn’t necessarily believe in demons the way it used to. But at the same time we have an explosion of ghost-hunter reality TV shows and stuff, so it’s an odd kind of crossroads. Maybe the stock of the demonic has risen in pop culture in terms of bad movies, but a serious treatment of demonic mythology has perhaps been overlooked. That’s the space I was trying to write into.
In terms of themes within the book, certainly different kinds of love come up: David’s fatherly love for Tess, which is the engine of the story, but also the splitting up of the family through David’s divorce, and also the deep friendship with O’Brien. And then you have the demonic wish to love, the aping of love. How do the different levels and kinds of love work within your demonology?
Well, love is the weapon and shield in the ongoing battle between good and evil. From a Christian perspective, God is all love and Satan’s abysmal punishment is that he doesn’t possess love, can never possess love, and doesn’t understand love. Satan is brilliant as an intellect and can recite the poetry of love but does so without the feeling of it. And that’s as good a definition of Hell as any. So here’s my protagonist, David Ullman, who isn’t a superhero. I made an early rule that there would be no priests, no crosses, no holy water, no magic. The only weapon, the only super-human attribute, that David has is love. And how do you use that? Well, that’s a tricky thing. You might say “Well, I have love, I probably would have rather had a knife.” [laughter]
Thematically speaking, it’s the age-old nature of the conflict between good and evil. Evil has physical power and ruthlessness and intelligence, and typically on the side of good, you have love. And it feels like an unfair fight. I really do believe that love does win, that love is superior to any alternative weapon. So that goes back to my first thought of what this book is going to be about, that it’s going to be a horror story that’s really about emotion, or grief: a horror story that’s really about love.
I loved your identification of grief with a certain colour and how that paints David’s world after the loss of Tess.
That’s actually true. I hate turquoise. It reminds me of my childhood kitchen, which for whatever reason was not a happy room, and I can’t tolerate turquoise.
So that’s a little. bit of you that’s slipped into the story.
But as you say, there isn’t really a Church presence here, as we see in the lack of crosses or holy water. If you consider the people David pursued by, there isn’t any magic there, either. These are very human characters. Is that to keep the playing field level for David, is it a choice to stay away from the magical realistic aspects?
Yeah, I think it was just an intuitive preference on my part when it comes to stories that are told in this world. Whenever stories move in this stream but shift to the magical, or “we have to get our hands on the Chalice of Babylon,” it just. . . my spirits drop. I tune out, and I feel disappointed. So it was a decision that I would keep the world as real as I could and try to de-sillify it, so it wouldn’t slip into the magical and foolish. I enjoyed that.
You know, I came late to the party, but I rented the other day the last Batman movie. And one of the things I liked about it is when one of the characters says, “Hey Batman, why do you have to punch out twenty-five guys? They’ve got guns, why don’t you get one?” And Batman answers “This is just the way I do it.”
“Because I’m Batman!”
Yeah, “Because I’m Batman. I”m going to punch these guys out.” I share Batman’s “This is just the way I do it.”
That’s going to be the quote for this whole interview: Andrew Pyper says “I’m like Batman.”
One more character question for you: the Thin Woman, who starts the whole thing off by coming to David at the beginning of the story with a mysterious request, bares a striking resemblance to O’Brien at her most ill and cancer-ridden, which David doesn’t pick up on right away. Is the Thin Woman a real person? Foreshadowing personified? A creation of David’s fears and doubts coming together?
I think she’s all of those things. She arrived in the book autobiographically. The only dream I remember—I’ve had many dreams, of course, but the only one I remember to this day is a nightmare I had when I was very young, 7 or 8 or 9, where I was being pursued through the darkness, and I came up face to face with this very emaciated woman who whispered, “Pandemonium awaits.”
And I didn’t. . . I must have encountered the word “pandemonium” somewhere prior to that, though how or where, I don’t know. It just freaked me out. I remember I asked my mom, “What does Pandemonium mean?” It was very frightening. I can still see her, though she hasn’t returned to my dreams, thankfully. So when I was writing the novel, I didn’t really know who the visitor to David’s campus office was going to be until she was standing there outside of his door. And it was her: it was the woman from my nightmare.
That’s wonderfully creepy.
It was really creepy. I’m sure it’s just a little backflip of the subconscious but it felt like foreknowledge. It felt like “we will meet again.” Metaphorically within the text, yes, she’s death. She’s walking death, barely concealed. She’s described the same way that withering disease, including cancer, can render someone a vision of death before they’re dead. Anyone who’s had to sit vigil by the ill, and by that particular illness, knows that heart-wrenching aspect of watching someone you love die, the physical way it plays out, and the way it draws the life away form someone. Believe me, that’s real horror. When O’Brien announces that she’s ill with cancer, it was a way of linking. In the same way that the Thin Woman and O’Brien are linked metaphorically, so to is David and the Unnamed [demon].
Terrifying stuff. So, moving into more fun topics: congratulations on the book being optioned for a movie by Robert Zemeckis. Do you have dream casting choices for your characters?
I was pulled into this parlour game a couple of weeks ago and I have different answers depending on what movie I’ve just seen. Right now, my favourite is Denzel Washington. I saw him in Flight, which is Robert Zemeckis’ latest movie, and I thought he was great. I didn’t think of him as David Ullman before that, but I thought his performance was so towering and Denzel’s one of those actors who is able to convey a lot of inner suffering without having to talk about it, you know?
Do you get any input into it?
If they present you with David Ullman played by David Hasselhoff, you just have to live with that?
Oh, I can scream and yell, and they’ll probably hang up. [laughter] It’s their project now.
And how about O’Brien? Any thoughts?
There are a number of women actors I like who are sort of the right age. It depends on who you cast as a David. You know, if Meryl Streep isn’t busy…
Is there anything else you’d like to say about The Demonologist? Any question you have a great answer for that no one’s asked yet?
The book is starting to see reader reaction, which is gratifying. Some readers seem to have a false step that they start off on, that the use of Paradise Lost creates a kind of Dan Brownian puzzle, that “Oh, I see, this is a novel where there’s all sorts of clues and the clues pre-exist the characters trying to solve them, which is a Dan Brown novel. Someone sets up an elaborate puzzle and then a thousand years later, someone picks it up. Which is not at all the premise or mechanism that The Demonologist works by.
Yeah, David Ullman discovers clues, but they’re clues that are almost entirely intuitive and that are set up for him. He’s following bread crumbs, more than he’s figuring out an elaborate, complex puzzle. It’s useless for me to say now to all readers future and past “This is not a puzzle book!” This is a “following an emotional impulse” book.
You might also like: