Canadian Horror Story

Andrew Pyper loves to mess with your mind, and while he's at it he's taking this country's genre fiction to the next level

ANDREW PYPER and NICK CUTTER at Lillian H. Smith Library (239 College), Thursday (April 2), 7 pm. Free. 416-393-7746.

Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.

But that won’t be happening any time soon. The Stratford-born, Toronto-based writer is totally committed to genre, having penned six killer (literally) novels. 

And people are loving them. Published in 2013, The Demonologist was a number-one bestseller in Canada for over 15 weeks, won the International Thriller Writers Award and is about to become a major motion picture thanks to Robert Zemeckis’s production company.

Besides, says the affable, articulate author, he’s seizing the moment. Genre fiction is a perfect reflection of the times.

“In the digital age there’s a great impatience,” he says, settling into his seat in NOW Magazine’s boardroom.

“Books of all stripes are increasingly obliged to employ a high concept. The Victorian idea of leisure – writing long letters, waiting to receive answers, reading long novels – is the opposite of today, when we’re always experiencing anxiety about time.”

For that reason, he says, maybe the literary novel needs a boost. He points to Ishiguru, Chabon and Atwood, all of whom are peering into the genre toolbox to see what they can use to turn their work into more of a hot rod. 

Between provocative comments like that and his disturbing stories, you’d think Pyper would look a little more dangerous. But he’s the model of buttoned down – bespectacled, clad in a don’t-rock-the-boat grey shirt and black pants.

Andrew Pyper

Mike Ford. Special Effects artist Melis Stevens

“The roller coaster has to be faster,” he goes on. “There has to be a greater degree of excitement. It’s just not adequate to write a small, quietly observed domestic novel.”

Maybe. But Helen Humphreys, who knows her solid readership, isn’t about to abandon her delicate practice. And don’t expect Canada Reads winner Kim Thúy to stop writing gemlike personal stories in favour of terror thrillers.

But he’s on to something. It’s probably not coincidental that more and more young readers are being drawn to books via genre trilogies – Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent. This new audience is ready to dole out the big bucks. 

The Dark Side Tour Pyper’s undertaking with fellow horror scribe Nick Cutter, which lands here Thursday (April 2), has revealed an audience that crosses age and gender. When I ask if there’s that much more money to be made from a genre book versus a straight literary offering, the voluble Pyper goes monosyllabic.

“Yes,” he allows. 

But he’s quick to say that what he does isn’t genre pure and simple. 

“I’m a hybrid, a mutant,” he says with a smile. And about that he’s right. His superbly written books definitely have a literary cast, and his newest, The Damned, is no exception. (See review, page 44.) It’s the story of Danny, who’s haunted by the ghost of his beautiful, budding psychopath of a twin sister, Ashleigh, after she’s killed in a house fire.

It’s vintage Pyper, with terrifying imagery, a strong emotional core and a rollicking plot that sees Danny going to the afterlife and back in his quest to conquer the demon.

Pyper says he’s got more on his agenda than terror.

“I want to write books that use ancient mythology, whether religious or Greek, in a contemporary setting to comment on social relations. I want to make that mythology relevant.

“The Damned is about the anxiety of death. Different epochs have dealt with it in different ways, like the creation of heaven and an afterlife. What would an afterlife mean to a skeptical 21st-century intellectual like Danny? What would the rules be? I want to do today what Dante did in his time. His underworld had its own rules, geography and politics. I want to revisit Dante in a way that’s moving.”

Think that’s a bit of a stretch? Pyper’s pretty serious about the Dante thing, and had those references coursing through an early draft so often that his editor had to rein him in. And check out why he chose Detroit as The Damned’s setting. 

“The border of Detroit is Eight Mile Road. It goes down eight streets to the Detroit River, which freezes over in winter. That lines up numerically with Dante’s hell: the number of circles leading to a bottom point that is ice. It’s not just that Detroit is a failed urban project – a ghost town – but that it also structurally corresponds to Dante’s inferno in an explicit way.”

But let’s not lose the, er, plot. Sure, Pyper has literary cred, but he also wants to scare the shit out of you. 

He’s got some foolproof strategies. Some of them are ripped from Hitchcock, who specialized in turning the ordinary – birds, for example – into a malevolent force, and benign locations, like the shower, into places you want to avoid. 

Andrew Pyper

Mike Ford. Special Effects artist Melis Stevens

At one point in the narrative, Pyper had to figure out how to make Ashleigh’s presence felt in Danny’s house. He walked around his own home looking at the blender, the dishwasher – whatever he might infuse with awfulness. He decided to go with the washing machine.

“I love doing more with less. If you construct a scene the right way, the tension is so high, merely a coffee cup moving an inch on its own becomes frightening. It feels like a rupture of the real, and when the supernatural disrupts what we think is real, it’s frightening.”

He knows how to drench the mood in dread, and uses his powers of description to paint sickening scenes of dead people with rotting flesh falling off their bones and melting skin revealing their eye sockets. 

This material is perfect cinematic fodder in fact, The Damned’s been optioned for film, too. But Pyper insists he doesn’t think about that when he’s writing.

“Certainly not in terms of story-making. There are scenes that make me say post-facto, ‘Oh, I’d love to see that in a movie.’ But I’ve had enough options on my books to know that if I fashioned something as a worm on the hook for Hollywood, the book would be doomed. Anyway, Hollywood’s always said it’s the oddball parts that attract them.”

By that he means the restrained qualities he calls Canadian.

“[My books] prioritize character over events. Even though there is suspense, relative to American suspense they’re quieter. They tend to be about family or a relationship. An investigative FBI suspense thriller wouldn’t have that.

“I aspire to writing the supernatural for grown-ups – you don’t have to check your intelligence at the door.”

You do have to go with Pyper’s flow. In The Damned, he’s invented a situation that’s almost impossible to resolve – an omnipotent character who slithers into any space, a monster who appears unconquerable.

“You need a villain who seems unbeatable. You’re up against hopelessness,” he says. “In mythology, any mortal’s venture into the underworld was only successfully done in the name of love. The only weapon Danny has is his determination motivated by love, a love he’s never experienced before. The conflict must seem impossible but for the existence of love.”

Those don’t sound like the words of a hard-ass horror writer, but they’re true to Pyper’s spirit.

He might do something literary one of these days, but it would probably be a memoir about parenting. He describes how, on car trips with his family, whenever someone gets crabby the others lighten things up by launching into the cheer “Strong, brave, together, forever!”

“That’d make a great title for the book.”

“It’s a little sentimental, don’t you think?” I say, almost cringing.

“Oh, but that’s who I am. I’m actually really mushy.”

Read our review of The Damned here. | @susangcole

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