Andrew Pyper. author photo (Simon & Schuster Canada)
Today’s horror fans are trained to read, and watch, historically. From the grimiest of B-movie remakes to the cheek and transgression of fan-fic, horror exists on a knowing continuum, a tangled cobweb of tribute and rip-off. Of course, this is as much a factor of postmodern intertextuality as it is about money – both literary device and sure bet at the box office.
Andrew Pyper’s latest is just such a clever, marketable beast – situated halfway between subtle homage and true mash-up. (What’s a mash-up? Think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: a gleeful collision of classic text and contemporary fixation). The Only Child is, specifically, a straight-faced love letter to the 19th-century Gothic tradition. Not only are three canonical works – Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – liberally remixed, but Stoker, Shelley and Stevenson each get their own fictionalized hour on the stage. Gothic fans, rejoice!
But it’s also a psychological thriller, and one propelled by a cinematic, breakneck pace – which ultimately proves an inelegant partner for a tradition based on slow, deliberate unease.
The book’s core mystery is introduced straightaway (Pyper’s a veteran plotter, after all). At 6, Lily Dominick witnessed her mother’s brutal slaying – a bear attack, in a remote Alaskan cabin – and was miraculously saved by a passing truck driver. But since then, Lily’s clung to a less realistic memory: that her mother was ravaged by a flesh-rending ghoul, and that she was saved from hypothermia by a mysterious white horse.
Now in her 30s, she’s assistant director of forensic psychiatry at the Kirby, a real-life max-security hospital on Wards Island, New York. A brooding workaholic, Lily seeks “comfort” in the Center, finding “music in the shouted obscenities and hellish moans emitted from the cells” (even finding “arousal” in the “diseased minds” of her wards – which she often thinks of as “psychos,” problematically). Intense and withdrawn, she, too, is a mystery in need of resolution – we’re told she “offer[s] the promise of a remarkable discovery” for whoever might crack her secrets.
Enter the villain: a new patient for Lily to “categorize.” After a brief exchange, the offender – at first nameless, then going by “Michael” – drops three dubious bombshells: that he’s immortal; that he knew Lily’s mother; and, most importantly, that he’s her father – and ready to tell Lily everything she’s yearned to know about her early life.
As a scientist, Lily shouldn’t believe any of this, but she’s mesmerized, stripped of her professional remove by the “weirdly intimate gaze” of this creep (and not a little bit attracted to him). We see the thin veils between science and superstition beginning to drop – “the last struggles of her mind” ebbing away against a deeper, magical, downright horny intuition.
Here, Pyper borrows much from the combative, sexualized dynamic between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Lily’s a petite, uncompromising woman, and Michael’s a silken-tongued “gentleman” with superhuman senses, powers of persuasion, and a rather specialized diet. But unlike Hannibal, he’s no trapped oracle. A few pages later he escapes his cell and forces Lily to watch as he chomps down on her mentor’s throat with custom metal teeth – becoming what New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once called, in her harsh review of Halloween, “the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic).” Prone to fainting, and seemingly framed for the murder, Lily has no choice but to pursue her bloodsucking “daddy” to Budapest, triggering another creaky Gothic motif – the move from west to east, from “civilization” to the superstitious “old world.”
Yes, even in 2017. But now Lily’s gore-soaked reacquaintance with her lineage can begin in earnest. Drawn across Europe by Michael’s strange charisma, she learns of his diabolical origins in the early 1800s. A reanimated corpse, brought to life by a secret serum, Michael is born immortal, with supernatural strength and feats of domination (and some archly serious, cheese-ball lines of dialogue – e.g., “my seed is incompatible with the human egg”). Unlike Freddy Krueger, “the bastard son of 100 maniacs!” Michael is the literal inspiration – the OG (or Original Ghoul) – for our continuing obsession with killers, reanimated dead and vampire counts. Through flashback, he reminisces about how he influenced the great Gothic novelists to write their transformative books and capture his story. And throughout, he tries to get Lily to tap in to her true nature – something more monstrous than anything she’s seen at the Kirby.
Sounds like campy fun, right? Pyper wastes no time getting to the bleeding, so to speak, while keeping a few intellectual balls afloat: Lily’s interior voice of clinical reason and a smaller, more savage conscience that undoes her scientific resolve. It’s a strong beginning – locked into an addictive cycle of cliffhanger chapter endings, quick resolutions, and taut, punchy sentences.
But when it comes to eerie nightmares summoning the Gothic tradition, a thriller’s pace ruins the menace. The word cinematic is used in one of the book’s blurbs, and is meant as praise – but it reveals more of the novel’s shortcomings than its chops. Books are not cinema, nor should they strive to be. So when Lily makes her hurried hopscotch across Europe, dodging black-clad kidnappers and secret-ops (a team trying to kill Michael for good), interviewing ex-Nazi-hunters, boning randos in hotel rooms, and trailing our Grand Villain from one vile encounter to the next, we lose two crucial elements: atmosphere and believability. It’s just too much, too quick, too serious, with a near agent-less protagonist literally doing what’s she’s told from scene to scene. Even Michael’s 19th-century journal entries are written in a suspiciously zippy style – as if the florid prose of the Romantic period were workshopped by Stephen King.
By the third act, we’re in pure chase mode. Abandoning the pretense of Gothic chills, Pyper converts his mash-up into a pulse-pounding slasher. Lily comes to her senses and sides with a secret operative with a heart of gold, and Michael drops his cowl of geniality, looking to punish his daughter for her betrayal. Dracula and Frankenstein haven’t been scary in, oh, about 80 years, so it’s a relief to see some actual horror: Michael becoming one part sprinting zombie, one part the entity from It Follows, hunting Lily down with relentless, GPS accuracy.
Regardless of your take, you can commend Andrew Pyper’s ambitious claw at meta-fiction, the clever reveals he sets in store for our protagonist – even if they are somewhat predictable – and the care and consideration he brings to a fraught, divisive genre: the world of horror gives everyone a fierce, even monstrous opinion.
Spencer Gordon is the author of Cosmo. His new book, Cruise Missile Liberals, will be published this fall