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by Andrew Pyper
Simon & Schuster, March 2013
285 pages
$29.99 CAD
ISBN: 145169752X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Columbia University professor and highly-respected Milton scholar David Ullman is not having a very good day. His last lecture of the semester falls on less than receptive ears, a mysterious Thin Woman invades his office demanding he jet off to Venice to witness a "phenomenon," his best friend reveals she has terminal cancer, and his wife announces she is leaving him for a string theorist. When he sees how the turmoil in his family life is affecting his delicately-balanced daughter Tess, he sweeps her up and off to Venice to distract her. Not, perhaps, the wisest course.

Once installed in a five-star hotel overlooking the Grand Canal, Ullman keeps his part of the bargain and seeks out the "phenomenon," which turns out to be another literary scholar apparently deep in a state of possession and tied to a chair. David videotapes the moment, as he is clearly required to do and, frightened, determines to get Tess and make for the safety of New York that very day. But before he can, Tess is dramatically snatched from him, held hostage in some terrifying Limbo by a demon that seems determined to force Ullman to his will.

What ensues is a frantic journey, first back to the States, then across a substantial number of them, from New York to North Dakota, to Kansas, to Florida, then up to David's native Canada in a search for a way to defeat the demon and reclaim his daughter. His course is dogged by a professional "pursuer" who is being paid (possibly by the Vatican) for reasons not altogether clear to recover the videotape. This human pursuer is scary enough, but he has nothing on the various manifestations of the yet-to-be-named Prince of Evil who continues to manifest himself through the agency of various dead people to demand Ullman's submission. Through it all, David is guided by two texts - Milton's Paradise Lost and his daughter's journal.

Ullman's trek is brilliantly described, from one budget motel, one hideous meal to the next. Consider the Farmer's Feast: "A nest of scrambled eggs, along with the full oeuvre of breakfast meat: sausage wrapped in bacon on a bed of ham." Ordinary objects take on sinister implications - a roadside mailbox, spontaneously popping open its door "looks like a stooped figure lurching after me, its mouth wide open in a scream." Curiously, it may be Pyper's very talent that accounts for why the book is not a complete success. He simply writes too well for a plot that demands the reader accept a serious amount of claptrap.

Though Ullman is a Milton scholar, he claims to have been an atheist for most of his life. What he cherishes in his favourite poet is not piety but a kind of premature modernity in which (as more than one critic has observed) Lucifer/Satan is a hero of alienation and Adam and Eve permanent wanderers, always nostalgic for the perfection of the lost Eden where they lived timelessly, deathlessly, and without the burden of choice. By the end of his journey, Ullman is certainly no longer a non-believer, at least as far as the active principle of evil is concerned; he does not, however, seem to have come to any conclusions concerning the existence of good. Any reader retaining the slightest foothold in rationality might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. The Devil wants an atheist literary professor from Columbia to attest to the reality of transcendent evil? There was a highly respected Harvard professor who announced he believed in alien abductions - it didn't seem to do much to persuade those who weren't already addicted to the Discovery Channel.

All the same, this sort of logical inconsistency is common in the supernatural horror genre. What is uncommon is the quality of Pyper's writing, which will pull you right past any niggling commonsensical objections to provide exactly the sort of visceral thrill we expect when the Devil is afoot. It will make a terrific movie, too, but I'd read it now and not wait for it to appear on screen.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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