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Demon-hunter treks through elegantly twisting plot

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The Demonologist

By Andrew Pyper

Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $25

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that "hell is other people," but Toronto thriller writer Andrew Pyper's hell is nothing so mundane.

The Demonologist is populated by, well, demons, although Pyper remains focused on the earthly torments of his characters.

When literature professor David Ullman loses his daughter after a demonic encounter, he embarks on a journey across countries and continents in an attempt to save her.

Ullman's journey is also from skeptic to believer, from an atheist scholar specializing in John Milton's Paradise Lost to a grief-stricken father face-to-face with a demon from the poem.

Sardonic in his suffering, Ullman appreciates the irony of having once defended the demon's struggle on philosophical grounds (a seemingly safe position to take on what he thought was a work of literature).

Ullman's only weapon is his knowledge of the literature of the demonic, and Pyper is careful to always tie Ullman's moments of artistic analysis to plot or character development, so that they never overwhelm or seem digressive.

Ullman's insight into Milton's poem or other literary works never seems especially erudite, but it also never gets in the way of the story that Pyper unfolds.

Pyper's literary thrillers have leaned more fully toward the horror genre since The Killing Circle, which landed on the New York Times notable crime fiction list of 2008. The Demonologist is his seventh book, possibly his best, and certainly his fullest foray into the horror genre.

His plot rarely flags and remains difficult to predict, twisting elegantly rather than through clear contrivances, and the Miltonic and biblical echoes add an extra layer to what is, at its heart, a dissection of depression and an argument for hope.

The novel's greatest weakness is its inherited mythology: demons just aren't believable anymore, even to good Catholics, and so no longer inherently frightening.

Pyper knows this, and ties the problem of a lack of modern belief in demons to the plot. He also avoids, for the most part, the clichés and overwrought imagery common to such stories. There are no spikes or fire in Pyper's hell, which when it is glimpsed owes more to the dark woods that open Dante's Inferno than anything else.

Pyper has also learned H.P. Lovecraft's lesson that to show is human, to suggest divine (when it comes to the horror genre). During a later scene, when Ullman is granted visions of a nightmare chaos that might approximate hell, he wisely keeps his eyes on the ground in front of him, so that Pyper can hint at the scene through Ullman's other senses, rather than present a visual image that would inevitably fall short.

In other places, the novel's imagery is much more cinematic, so that it's no surprise to learn the novel is already in development with Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis.

The novel's core strength is Pyper's ability to flesh out and deepen what could otherwise be stock characters. It would be easy for Ullman to degenerate into the sort of symbol-obsessed spouter of cryptic nonsense that populates too many thrillers, but his melancholy and grief are drawn skilfully enough to elevate him above the stick figures that populate similar plots.

Even the demon has more character depth than we'd expect. At one point Ullman reminds his foe that the Bible predicts a lake of fire -- the death, failure and destruction of both Satan and his minions.

The demon doesn't deny it. Who can deny God? It's fighting a war that it knows it can't win. Its face falls and it seems like it might cry.

Winnipeg English professor (and lapsed Catholic) Jonathan Ball recently published his third poetry collection, The Politics of Knives.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J8

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