Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
Sometimes a hyped novel disappoints due to the weight of expectation, or that the author can not make a ‘high-concept’ idea, work as a narrative. The Demonologist does not fall into that bracket, instead we get a horror-thriller that grips the reader in a tale that haunts, questions and terrifies all under the wrappings of highly literate prose.
The plot has echoes of the Nicholas Roeg’s film ‘Don’t Look Know’ mainly due to its Italian setting, and melancholic texture. The theme is an examination of loss and what supernatural forces could lurk beneath our reality. In the terms of quantum mechanics, nothing exists until it is observed, and here hangs the tale.
Literature Professor David Ullman decides to accept an unusual extra-curricular assignment from an equally unusual woman. The assignment is an all expenses trip to Venice to examine a historical manuscript, traveling first class and with four star accommodation, including family. David decides to take his 11 year old daughter Tess with him. It appears David’s marriage is about to reach its conclusion due to his wife seeking solace in an affair with a colleague on the campus. David feels the trip to Venice will be good for Father and Child bonding, prior to the upcoming marital break-up. Tess Ullman knows all is not well in her parent’s marriage, and looks forward to the weeks’ holiday in Europe and to spend time with her father.
The trip becomes a journey, almost torn from the pages of David Ullman’s passion - Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. On arrival in Venice, he is confronted by a most troubling spectacle. The manuscript he’s meant to interpret is actually an insane man, chained to a chair in a tenement on the outskirts of Venice. David films the ravings of the man as he struggles against his shackles. In that encounter the literature professor’s atheism is firmly tested, as the insane man utters some words that David’s own dying father spoke to him on his death-bed; words that no one else knows. This first encounter with what appears as a demonic presence makes the hairs on the readers forearm stiffen such is the pace and language that Pyper deploys, reminiscent of his previous works ‘Lost Girls’ and ‘The Guardians’; and those memories are equally terrifying.
The encounter with the demon troubles David. In fear for his daughter’s life, David rushes back to their hotel only to learn of [what appears to be] Tess’s suicide from falling off the rooftop into the canal below. Despite all evidence to the contrary, David remains unconvinced, that Tess took her own life, but instead is being held captive somewhere. The ‘somewhere’ is the problem as it might not be in our plane of reality. Clues appear as David tries to piece together what is real and what is unreal. Related to the mystery of the insane man and the disappearance of Tess Ullman, are clues that appear aimed at David. Allusions to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, peppers the proceedings, with memories of David’s own tragic past, his alcoholic father and the tragic circumstances of his brother’s drowning; all adding to the oppressive atmosphere and David’s desperate search for his daughter Tess.
The second half of the narrative reads like a chase thriller replete with a dollop of Dan Brown-esque religious hokum, but this time featuring the forces of darkness trying to break through to our reality. Though encased in the trappings of a horror novel, The Demonologist is in reality a dark thriller that uses the conventions of the horror genre to propel the story toward its dark conclusion. It seems that the voices from the dark side want to be heard as much as those from the light – in these secular times, and perhaps David Ullman and his family troubles might be just the right conduit.
The theme The Demonologist shares with Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ has not been missed by film director/producer Robert Zemeckis of Universal Studios, as he’s bagged this demonic thriller’s film rights. It will indeed make a fine film as long as the horror trappings don’t overwhelm the taut thriller that lies at the very centre of the narrative.