In Pyper’s (The Guardians, 2011, etc.) sixth novel, professor David Ullman’s marriage has imploded, his closest confidant has terminal cancer, and he’s been approached by a mysterious emaciated woman offering an all-expenses-paid first-class trip to Venice.
A renowned expert on Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ullman is a Columbia University professor. Acting on behalf of a nameless client, the Thin Woman, as Ullman calls her, asks him to observe a “phenomenon,” a thing she too has seen, but “there is no name for it I could give.” That evening Ullman’s wife tells him she’s leaving him for another man, and he decides to escape to Venice accompanied by his beloved daughter, Tess, “a smart, bookishly aloof girl,” who like him is plagued by melancholy. In Venice, Ullman confronts one of the devil’s Legion infecting an Italian professor’s body. Ullman panics. Before he can gather his wits, Tess apparently commits suicide. As she leaps to her death, Ullman hears from her, in that same devilish voice, a recitation from Milton’s epic. The action returns to New York City, Ullman confused, near-suicidal and haunted by the fear that all he has not believed may be real. “Screwing the lid off [his] imagination,” Ullman reads Tess’ diary and begins to think his daughter isn’t dead but instead in the clutches of the Unnamed, perhaps one of Pandemonium’s Stygian Council. Plagued by signs and omens, Ullman treks from North Dakota to Kansas to Florida to Ontario and back to New York. His confidant and friend, Elaine O’Brien, another professor, rides along in support. There are killings, possessions and philosophical speculations, with the pair shadowed by the Pursuer, perhaps an agent of Rome. Pyper is an intelligent writer, steeped in Miltonian symbolism, gifted with language, enough so that fans of the genre will shiver with cold sweat when the Stygian demon wanders out to bark, spit and hiss.
This artful literary exploration of evil’s manifestation makes for a sophisticated horror tale.