Feb 20, 2011

Monkey droppings - The Guardians, by Andrew Pyper: "No such thing as an empty house."

The monkey fears nothing!

'Nothing' as in an absence. A void. An empty space. Blackness.

Man, does the monkey fear nothing.

The Guardians (2011, Doubleday Canada)
by Andrew Pyper

It's really difficult to write about a horror novel without somehow mentioning Stephen King. You can't escape his influence, even if you want to. If a writer were to pen a horror novel without any foreknowledge of King's oeuvre, I'd still lay odds that there would be a comparison somewhere.

This isn't necessarily a bad outcome. It's no small thing to be compared to someone who single-handedly changed the way people looked at horror fiction. And when you write as King does (obsessively, compulsively) and publish as many books as he has, you're bound to cover pretty much every theme in the book.

King has his standbys, of course. He loves small towns. He luxuriates in the theme of past horrors rising back to the surface. He often puts children at risk in some way.

So when you write a novel about men returning to their hometown to confront an evil which scarred them as children, a Stephen King comparison is a fait accompli. All you can do is hope it's favourable.

Andrew Pyper, who has been Canada's best pure thriller writer for quite some time now (Lost Girls, his debut, is a marvel of sustained atmosphere), is finally getting some recognition beyond the critical. His last novel The Killing Circle was a treat and a half, a moody and introspective serial killer piece that also functioned as a sly critique of authors and pop culture journalism. His newest, The Guardians, has been appearing on best-seller lists since its release.

And no wonder; with its canny mixture of nostalgia, personality, and frights, The Guardians is a superior haunted house story, with echoes of the best of Peter Straub and Shirley Jackson.

And yes, it wields the traits of Stephen King, particularly in the precisely hewn township that Pyper sets his tale in. Rather than King's Derry or Castle Rock, Pyper crafts into existence the small, nicely forbiddingly named Ontario town of Grimshaw, a splendidly articulated burg that Pyper could easily revisit with other stories should he wish a la King.
It was thought, when they built the four lanes running west between Toronto and the border of Detroit a couple years before I was born, that the highway's proximity to Grimshaw would lend new purpose to what was before then not much other than a service town for the country's farmers. But there was no more reason to take the Grimshaw exit than there had previously been to limp in its direction on the old, rutted two-lane. Like many of the communities its size on the broad arrowhead of farmland stuck between the Great Lakes, it remained a forgotten place. Never industrial enough to be outright abandoned in the way of the ghost towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, but not alert enough to attempt re-invention. Grimshaw was content to merely hang one, to take a subdued pride in its century homes on tree-lined streets, the stained facades of its Victorian storefronts, its daughters or sons who met with success upon moving away. Now, entering it as a stranger, one might see a gothic charm in the wilful oldness of the place, its loyalty to the vine-covered, the paint-peeled. But for those who grew up here, it was only as it had always been.
As it is with all small towns, there is one house that somehow seems a little off, a little psychically skewed; "not sane," as Jackson put her Hill House. In Grimshaw, it is the Thurman house, decrepit yet always there, eternal, only in place to become the stuff of nightmares for children; "the Thurman house never allowed itself to be observed without a corresponding price."

The tale is narrated by Trevor, a middle-aged man suffering the beginning stages of Parkinson's Disease. Twenty-odd years ago, he and three friends, Ben, Randy, and Carl - the guardians of the title, and players on the local hockey team The Grimshaw Guardians - found their own shared nightmare within the walls of the house, a nightmare partly of the own devising when they decided to find out what had happened to a missing music teacher. Now, Ben, the only one to remain in Grimshaw, is dead by his own hand, and when the three Guardians return for the funeral, they find that they have never outrun their past.

Many haunted house novels (the good ones, anyway, the ones that stay with you long after you've closed the book, put it back on the shelf, and checked under your bed before you dared go to sleep) are not only about the house itself, but rather use the supernatural manifestations and ghostly goings-on as metaphor for larger issues. King's The Shining, with the never-surpassed ghastliness of the Overlook Hotel (thank you Kubrick for the ideal cinematic manifestation of its evil), is a novel about the dissolution of family through addiction. Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House addresses repression, Dan Simmons' The Summer of Night, the end of childhood. There are other themes present, of course, but I'm generalizing for the sake of brevity. And I'm lazy, there I said it.

In its dual structure of the present-day narration of Trevor and the past brought to life through his recorded "memory diary," The Guardians addresses the theme of masculinity, of what it is to 'be a man.' Much of the boyhood trauma which occurs (and no spoilers here, I assure you) requires the boys to take definitive steps toward a maturity they are arguably unprepared to take. In the present, we see said masculinity present in the mid-life crises of the men: Trevor, unable to commit and facing a slow decline into immobility; Randy, failed actor; and Carl, the saddest of them, vanished in a haze of dangerous activities.

All this may make it seem as if The Guardians is a ponderous slog though subtext, but Pyper keeps the story zipping along with verve. He does make the odd stumble - the main female character seems a bit too good to be true - but he displays, once again, a canny knack for characterization that feels warm and identifiable, an ability to put fully recognizable and sympathetic characters into great peril.

Pyper also understands the mechanics of the haunted house itself, the classic theory that such places are less haunted than they are psychic mirrors feeding off their inhabitants.
Within what was probably less than three minutes, I slid from the heights of fear to boredom. This is what a haunted house was: a place where nothing happens, so you have to make something up. It's the same impulse that makes us tell lies to a stranger sitting next to us on a plane, or pushes the planchette over a Ouija board to make it spell you dead cousin's name.
And when the horror comes, it is subtle and spooky and shivery in all the right places. Ghosts do indeed roam the halls of the Thurman house, ghosts that ache with past transgressions. Pyper never lets the story get gory, playing instead with mood to create the Thurman house as a dark and twisted place. "Touching the boy was like touching the inside of a scream," is a delicious sentence I'll remember for a long time.

Not that there's anything wrong with gore, lest you think me a prude: Richard Matheson's Hell House is a treasure trove of unsubtle, full-throttle gruesomeness.

I started this review with Stephen King, let me end with him. In his excellent treatise Danse Macabre, King lays out the three levels of literary fear. First is terror, which shows nothing but taps into the darkest recesses of the mind. Second is horror, a little lesser on the scale, scary to think about and usually contains a more visceral element. Lastly, there's revulsion, or in King's terminology, "the gross-out." Andrew Pyper's novel The Guardians never stoops to the gross-out, dabbles in the horror, and works mainly with terror, which makes it a top-notch horror novel, and a damned fine story whatever the genre.



Rainy said...

Well written review. This book just went to the top of my "to be read" pile.

John Mutford said...

Normally I feel Canadian reviewers don't know what to do with Pyper. Canada's not "supposed" to have successful genre fiction, that's more of an American thing. So they either pretend Pyper's something or not or they dismiss him without a fair shot. But good for you for tackling this book so well.

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