“There are things in this world most of us never see,” I find myself saying. “We’ve trained ourselves not to see them, or try to pretend we didn’t if we do. But there’s a reason why, no matter how sophisticated or primitive, every religion has demons. Some faiths may have angels, some may not. A God, gods, Jesus, prophets—the figure of ultimate authority is variable. There’s many different kinds of creators. But the destroyer always takes the same essential form. Man’s progress has, from the beginning, been thwarted by testers, liars, defilers. Authors of plague, madness, despair. The demonic is the one true universal across all human religious experience.”
“That may be true, as far as anthropological observation goes.”
“It’s true because it’s so pervasive. Why this one shared aspect of belief for so many, for so long? Why is demonology more common than reincarnation, more than sacrificial offerings, more than the way we pray or the houses of worship where we congregate or the form the apocalypse will take at the end of time? Because demons exist. Not as an idea but here, on the ground, in the everyday world.”
David Ullman is a Milton scholar teaching at Columbia University—a man whose career and life have been devoted, in large part, to the study of Paradise Lost. In spite of his academic interests, David is an atheist, a self-proclaimed “demon expert who believes evil to be a manmade invention.” His family is coming apart at the seams; both he and his daughter Tess wear a black crown of melancholy that unites the two of them, while simultaneously driving a wedge between Dianne, David’s wife, who has been cheating on him with another member of the Columbia University faculty.
To maintain his equilibrium, David confides regularly in his closest friend and fellow professor, Elaine. The two have a sort of intellectual affair—something they both need, but will not consummate. When Elaine reveals that she’s dying of cancer and Dianne decides to move out of the home she and David share, David accepts a mysterious proposal from a frighteningly gaunt woman who shows up one day at his office to fly to Venice and employ his knowledge as a “demonologist.” He takes Tess with him—it’s a chance for both of them to take a break from their familial concerns. It’s not long after their arrival in Venice when, during David’s consultation, a malevolent spirit takes Tess hostage. Possessed, apparently, by a demon, Tess throws herself into Venice’s Grand Canal. No body is found after several days of searching. Upon arriving home again in New York, David embarks on a North American journey following various signs and demonic occurrences in the hopes of tracking down the demonic spirit that has taken his daughter from him.
Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist borrows heavily from The Da Vinci Code’s DNA: a lone scholar, with assistance and moral support from a plucky female companion, uses a career’s worth of dedicated knowledge to unravel a potentially world-changing mystery. Unfortunately, it shares many of The Da Vinci Code’s problems, too.
The comparison is predictable, but The Demonologist is a stereotypical summer popcorn flick: there’s an immediate fun factor to the novel, but the more I pause to think back upon its story and characters, the less depth I find. The subject matter is engaging enough—ultimate evil is on the rise and one man is fighting through it for the sake of his daughter’s life. However, even with such seemingly high stakes, there is little perceivable threat or gravitas in the pages of Pyper’s novel.
The problems begin with the characters. Though thankfully more tonally mature than Brown’s Robert Langdon, David Ullman is, for the most part, rather stilted and emotionally unconvincing. He describes what he’s facing and going through—his fears, frustrations, and bouts of depression—but never are we really shown the effect all this has on him, never does he seem like a person coming unhinged by the impossible events happening to and around him. Even his attempted suicide in the wake of his daughter’s disappearance feels like a decision made for plot and not because it’s something the character would do—it’s a perfunctory action, not earned, and lacking repercussions to his mental state. The other characters don’t fare any better; Dianne’s one solitary burst of emotion following Tess’ apparent death rings hollow and feels very matter of fact—a detail supported by how effortlessly she’s dropped from the narrative.
More egregious than the character problems, however, are the narrative conveniences within The Demonologist. Without giving too much away, the manners in which certain clues are handled (or mishandled, as the case may be) is often simple to the point of robbing the novel of its tension or excitement. The appearance of the numbers at just the right time on the television, or how David works out the clues about the sunshine state, and the how-did-he-find-them-so-fast appearances of George Barone, a man pursuing David on behalf of an organization that may or may not be the Catholic Church, are all so easily and deliberately tossed into the narrative that I felt cheated as a reader. We’re not on this ride with them, figuring out the clues alongside the protagonist; instead, we as readers are two steps removed, watching a television show about a roller coaster ride we wish we could experience for ourselves. A mid-novel murder-suicide plotline is by far the most effective and unsettling set piece in the entire story, and the only time when the atmosphere of evil was effective at drawing me in.
While I had some fun with this novel in the moment, I’m left with more questions than answers. David’s expertise feels largely inessential to the plot, as his analysis of Milton never dives as deep as I would have liked; it feels less critical to the story and more useful as the décor around which the plot is structured. George Barone’s rationale, and the rationale of his employers (which is more or less “if it ain’t broke, why reveal it”), doesn’t offer a credible sense of threat. (And if it’s so critical to stop David from doing what this evil wants him to do, why would a Church with, well, more money than God send just one man to “take care of business?” Seems to me, when fending off the ultimate evil of the world, you might want to pull out all the stops…) And for that matter, the ticking clock hovering over David’s search for Tess lacks the same sense of threat. It never feels as if it has taken an emotional toll on David. It simply is what it is.
The Demonologist is undone by unfortunately diminishing returns. It never goes as in-depth into the literature or mythology as I’d hoped, preferring instead to skim the surface of Paradise Lost while focusing more on a rather directionless-feeling road trip with the occasional shock-for-shock’s-sake encounter tossed in along the way. David, in the end, seems very much the same as he did in the beginning, and the speed at which the final set of revelations are made is quick to the point of feeling rushed. Ultimately, David’s journey to find some sort of personal faith failed to convince me. Perhaps the upcoming feature film will find a better balance between character and plot, but I remain sceptical.