Up in his attic, scaring us silly

by Gary Francoeur

When Andrew Pyper, BA’91, MA’92, heads up to the attic office in his Toronto home, strange things tend to happen. Shut off from the world, the award-winning author lets his imagination roam free, conjuring up killers, spirits and demons to weave macabre yarns that send shivers down readers’ spines.

Pyper has been called Canada’s scariest writer – and for good reason. “I love the visceral effect that a book can have on a person,” he says. “I want the experience to be thrilling for the reader. Nothing delights me more than hearing that I was able to induce insomnia for a week.”

His latest novel, The Demonologist, will surely leave more than a few bookworms squirming with terror. David Ullman, the protagonist, is an English professor at Columbia University and a leading expert on demonic literature, with a special interest in Milton’s Paradise Lost. When a mysterious woman turns up at his office and offers an all-expenses-paid trip to Venice, Italy, so he can witness an inexplicable “phenomenon,” Ullman, a self-proclaimed atheist, reluctantly accepts and takes his 12-year-old daughter along for the ride.

But what Ullman finds in Venice shatters his belief system and results in his daughter’s apparent death at the hands of an evil entity. Anguished and desperate, Ullman must journey across the United States in a paranormal cat-and-mouse game to track down the demon and save his daughter’s soul.

“The journey is one of disbelief to belief, not just in terms of the demonic, but in all of the things that he’s been teaching his entire life and assumed to be metaphors, such as heaven, hell and angels,” says Pyper.

The book has been translated into 15 languages so far. Having topped Canada’s major bestseller lists for several weeks, The Demonologist has been optioned for a Hollywood movie by Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, best known for Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Romancing the Stone.

The book’s warm reception and strong sales is a fitting reward for the Canadian novelist, who has been passionate about storytelling since he first learned to read and write. He crafted his first story in grade 2 – which he describes as a “World War II epic”and continued to hone his skills as a storyteller throughout his adolescence and into adulthood, earning a BA and MA in English literature at McGill along the way.

He followed this up with a law degree from the University of Toronto, but when he was called to the bar in 1996, Pyper found the courage to set aside a potentially lucrative legal career and pursue his literary dreams.

“I always thought writing was magical, but I never thought about it in professional terms,” he says. “I assumed that it was something you did for pleasure, not for a living.”

That same year, Pyper released his first book, Kiss Me, a collection of short stories. His debut novel, Lost Girls, released three years later, quickly became an international bestseller and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Today, Pyper has a total of seven books under his belt and is already hard at work on his next page-turner. He is approaching this project in much the same manner as he has his previous works: each morning, he helps his wife feed and dress their two children, and once they are off to school, he creeps up to his attic office and shuts himself in.

“My office is my personal Pandora’s Box,” he explains. “I make sure to close the door behind me at the end of each day to keep the fiction, devils and ghosts locked up.

“But I feel fine,” he promptly adds with a chuckle. “I feel pretty normal.”