Title: The Demonologist
Author: Andrew Pyper
Release date: March 5, 2013
Winner of the ITW Thriller Award for Best Hardcover Novel (2014)
I’ll spare you the story of how I discovered Pyper’s work. I’ve written about it a million times as well as mentioned it on a couple podcasts already. But, I will let those who haven’t heard it know, that ‘The Demonologist’ was the first book of Andrew’s I ever found and read and have been hooked ever since. I’m also not a typical re-reader. There’s a few books I’ve re-read over the years, but normally a book like this, which I read in 2014, I wouldn’t re-read. But, over the years, a few things changed.
The first is, I realized that while I remember large sections of this book, I can’t remember everything that happens. In fact, for a book that changed my reading habits and put me on a path of finding a favorite author, I couldn’t believe just what I struggled to remember. The second was that I’m about to celebrate the fourth annual Pyper-May-Nia! The last two years, I’ve really gone all in, but for this year’s I decided I was going to reread the first three of Andrew’s books I’d ever read, ‘The Demonologist,’ ‘The Damned,’ and ‘Lost Girls.’ The third thing that changed was that I am now a father. How would ‘dad Steve’ connect with this work compared to how ‘non-dad Steve’ did?
‘The Demonologist’ sits directly in the middle of Andrew’s five book arc of looking at grief and searching for answers related to a lost or deceased loved one. Now, ‘Lost Girls’ does look at grief and the ripples that an event can cause in a small town, and ‘The Wildfire Season’ tackles grief and guilt, but it wasn’t until 2008’s ‘The Killing Circle’ that Andrew began to really dive deeper into how grief makes us tick and how sorrow and melancholy can guide us, even in the darkest times. That was followed up with 2011’s ‘The Guardians,’ a haunted house/coming-of-age story which really examined friendship and how the death of a childhood friend can rip off some bandages. ‘The Demonologist’ arrived in 2013, which I’ll discuss in more depth, and Andrew continued the theme with ‘The Damned’ in 2015 and ‘The Only Child’ in 2017. Some could even argue that 2019’s ‘The Homecoming,’ which is based around grief (a father dies and a family discovers not all is what they thought), would make up the sixth book in the arc, but in that sense the book doesn’t have the journey element. Similar with ‘The Residence.’ Pyper’s stunning 2020 release that focuses on Jane Pierce and her desire to have her deceased son return from beyond is completely focused and informed by grief. But once again, no journey.
So it was, that from 2008 until 2017, Andrew Pyper released five of the greatest grief-based thrillers to ever be written and smack dab in the middle; ‘The Demonologist.’ From the get-go, ‘The Demonologist’ was a book that was primed to explode. Andrew’s work was already well read, well respected and award winning, but something about the synopsis, the title and the timing all coincided to have this book become an Instant International Bestseller.
Now, I know some of you will have already wondered how can I be impartial or fair towards a book that has so greatly affected my reading and do a degree my own writing? I’ll admit, I probably can’t. I try to prepare fair and thorough reviews going over what it is that I liked and what it is that I didn’t like (or that the reader may not enjoy) and I’ll do my best here. And to try and garner some trust towards you, reading my review, I will say – this isn’t my favorite of Andrew’s work. In fact, it’s not even top three! But, much like people who love King and Rice and Barker and Koontz and Straub, when you love an author’s output so much, your favorite books of theirs all become 1A and 1B and 1C in the grand scheme of things.
What I liked: ‘The Demonologist’ follows Professor David Ullman who is an expert in demonic mythology. More specifically, John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ the epic 17th-century poem that tells the tale of Satan and Adam and Eve. With his personal life in freefall and his daughter’s descent into depression, Ullman is visited one day by the Thin Woman. She offers him an invitation to Venice, to get his thoughts on something. A phenomenon. Ullman accepts and brings Tess, his daughter with him.
From here, Pyper crafts a story that follows a father’s grief in trying to find his daughter, as well as looking philosophically at the question of if we’re alone or is there other forces that guide us.
‘The Demonologist’ itself has one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever read. When Tess and David arrive in Venice, they do some sightseeing, before David decides to get the task at hand over and done with. It is the scene that plays out, in a small house nestled in the winding alleys of the town that I’ve always remembered and once again read with anxiety. Greeted by another man, they tell David to go up the stairs, see what’s waiting in the room. David pleads with them, begging to know what is up there, but when no answer comes he finally goes. What’s waiting is so well done that I long for this to be filmed, just to watch this scene alone.
It is shortly after this that Tess leaves, offering up the haunting refrain of ‘find me,’ as their hands slip from one another’s and Pyper deftly utilizes Paradise Lost to guide Ullman as he goes across the US, searching for his daughter and uncovering more clues as to where she is.
Throughout, as I mentioned in my intro, Pyper layers everything with grief and sorrow. From his history with his brother and father, his relationship with his wife and how things have now changed, and with himself and Tess. Paramount to this story is O’Brien, at first a side character who thankfully becomes more involved and intricately woven into the plot itself.
Andrew uses setting like few other others and once again, each place that Ullman visits and investigates/searches becomes a living, breathing character, one that instantly feels like a place reader has visited with his lush descriptions, but also a setting that can become sinister with the subtle dimming of the lights. A scene that plays out with two older women in a small farm house is a fine example of this, one that rivals the earlier scene in Venice. So much so, that while reading it, you’ll swear you can smell rotting vegetables and musty dirty.
The character of The Pursuer was fantastic and oddly enough, a piece of the puzzle I’d completely forgotten about. I remembered the room at the top of the stairs like the back of my hand, but not this character who follows Ullman and ultimately is just as afraid of what Ullman is discovering as Ullman is.
Lastly, I want to touch on the ending. Once again, I was completely stunned to realize I had no recollection of how this ended. I think the ending is the make or break for most readers, as either it works or it doesn’t, but in my case it was spot on and a yin to the yang that was the ending to ‘The Killing Circle.’ I do wonder if those two works are of a related narrative or something Andrew subconsciously plotted out to offer a similarly based story of grief and clues. Saying all of that, I found I had to reread the final few pages a dozen times to see some tied in clues with The Unnamed, Ullman and what ultimately happens when David sits.
What I didn’t like: As I mentioned, the ending here will make or break the story for you. It is incredibly well-paced, often frantic and as we learn more and more about both Ullman’s past and how The Unnamed has been using Ullman for a selfish purpose, the finale does leave a couple boxes open. For me, I absolutely love the resolution we get, but the ending will be a very personal thing for each reader.
The other thing I’ll mention here – I wished we learned a bit more about The Thin Woman. Her role at the beginning is very significant and we do get a return later on in the story, but (and maybe this is on me) I failed to connect the dots to where she fit in the grand scheme of things, other than being used to get Ullman to Venice.
Why you should buy this: Pyper has created a story that captures the imagination. At times large sections of this reminded me of ‘What Dreams May Come’ but it is also very much a horror novel that is anxiety inducing and pushes chaotic actions to cause plausible reactions. Time and time again, I found I needed to know what Ullman was discovering and where he’d go next and I’d read this already. I was hooked from page one and that opening line of, ‘Last night I had the dream again.’ This book was so pivotal in my dark-fiction journey and I’m happy to say that it once again completely destroyed me.
Was I fair in my assessment? I think so. Like all books, this one may or may not work for you. But it worked for me and ultimately introduced me to the works of my favorite author.
‘The Demonologist’ is a fast-paced thriller that has some of the deepest, darkest moments you’ll ever read. A book that focuses on the blackness of grief and the lengths a father will go to find his daughter, I can’t recommend this book enough. One of my all-time favorite books, I’d absolutely love it if you’d check this one out. Now, I’ll be starting my re-read of ‘The Damned.’
** If you’re keen – there’s a free ebook of ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton that also features an interview with Andrew and a preview of ‘The Demonologist’ **