“When someone’s lost, what people don’t understand is that it’s the life they could have lived that hurts as much as thinking about the life they left behind.” – Andrew Pyper, Oracle.
Having finished reading ‘Oracle,’ I wanted to spend some time diving into Andrew’s work.
If you’d like to see my original review of the Oracle audiobook, you can find that here;
Audiobook Review: Oracle by Andrew Pyper
No, what this is, is this superfan’s introspective look at a constant theme that Andrew Pyper has ingrained into his work and one that this reader, and human, has struggled with his entire life. A brief note before going on – there will be some spoilers within this piece for ‘Oracle’ and many of Andrew’s other works. I won’t be giving away endings (actually I might but I’ll preface that so that you know when to skip) but some key plot points will be shared. Enter at your own risk.
21 years reside between when Andrew’s debut, ‘Lost Girls’ was released and ‘Oracle’ arrived. You may be looking at that cover above and see that the corner of it says ‘Only From Audible.’ When it came out, I dove into it. It was my first audiobook (and since then I’ve also listened to ‘Oracle 2’) and Joshua Jackson brought Nate Russo and the antagonist ‘The Boneman’ to life. With the cast joining in for ‘Oracle 2,’ they did a phenomenal job with Tillman and Fernandez. But if you saw (and as you’ll most likely have seen) I’m a Pyper superfan and over the last five or so years, I’ve forged a friendship with Andrew. I’ve gone on before about that, and I won’t devote many words here towards a friendship I deeply and truly cherish, but until five years ago, I only knew Andrew as an author; a conjurer of words who lived elsewhere and whose photo graced the books I loved and read.
Within my superfan world, I’ve been striving to collect everything of his that has been released. With ‘Oracle’ an audio-only production, I was fine to have the CD release on my shelves. Then, one day, an email came through asking if I’d like to buy a copy of the script. I reached out to Andrew to ask if it was legit. He emphatically replied – ‘NO!’ and then, to my utter amazement, offered to email me over the script in PDF form. I know I’m in a very fortunate position. One I don’t take advantage of nor would I ever. The PDF arrived and Andrew gave me permission to make a one-off copy for my shelf. I also sent the pdf to my Kindle to read.
Now, you may wonder where I’m going with this (and sure it’s a bit of a humble brag to have it), but having reread almost of all of Andrew’s work for a 2nd or 3rd time, I decided to dive in and READ Oracle. Not listen, but read and I’ve been taking my sweet time while enjoying this return to Andrew’s work on the written/digital page.
Re-reading the events in ‘Oracle’ reinforced an ongoing narrative theory I’ve had since I first read ‘The Demonologist’ almost a decade ago. When I discovered that book and devoured it, I had no idea the Pandora’s Box I was opening up in this reader’s brain. The novel follows David Ullman, expert on Milton’s Paradise Lost, who travels to Rome following an invitation to see with his own eyes that which he doesn’t believe exists. While there, his daughter goes missing and the book explores Ullman following clues left behind by the entity that took his daughter.
*Potential Spoiler’s ahead*
The ending of the book sees Ullman potentially reunited with his daughter. Or does it? I’ve read the book I think six times now, and I always come away thinking there’s three possible endings. I know the ‘vague endings’ can be hit or miss with readers, I personally love them and how it leaves it open to reader interpretation. But one of these endings could be taken literally and you could say that Ullman is reunited with his daughter.
If so, that would be the outlier of Andrew Pyper’s exploration of the idea you can’t go back where you came from.
In his debut, ‘Lost Girl,’ we follow Bartholomew Crane, drug-crazed lawyer who is hired to defend a high school teacher in Northern Ontario accused of killing two of his students. Within the book we learn of Crane’s connection to the place, which ties into the prologue and the horrible events that open the story. Andrew lays down the ground work for my hypothesis – that his books revolve around characters longing for what they used to have, what they can never have again.
This rings true for me.
I’ve discussed in depth before where I grew up.
Burton, BC, Canada, population 75-100 depending on year and time of year. 30 minutes from Nakusp, population roughly 3,000. I grew up in a modest home, nestled up against the base of a mountain. Our backyard was fruit trees, garden and the forest. We had all manner of animals that travelled through; bears, cougar, moose, elk, deer, coyotes etc. It set the stage for a lot of my own writing.
There was my mom and my dad and my three sisters; all three younger than me. I have two older half-sisters but they never lived with us and I wasn’t close to them at all while growing up. For most aspects – I was an only child. One that spent hours by them self, my mind involved in my make-believe stories and sports leagues. On the surface it was an idyllic upbringing. But with it there was isolation, aloneness, remoteness and a deep seeded belief that the bigger world beyond was a large, scary place. I hold Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to mythical standards in my mind. These were places where a million people lived and Hockey Night in Canada was played. Places where movies and tv shows were filmed, rock concerts were performed and the rich and famous lived. I see the world beyond Canada differently, but Canada and the large Canadian cities hold a special sort of emotional cognition that I carry even to this day.
That’s a long winded way of me saying – I now live in a big city – Edmonton surpassing a million residents, but I still consider myself that little boy. That kid who had ‘friends’ and played some sports – those that were available – but who didn’t believe he’d ever really amount to anything. Who didn’t think his life would entail more than becoming a logger and living there forever. Now, as someone who is successful in his career and has a family and lives in the City of Champions, I often picture myself throwing a tennis ball as hard as I could at the house, pretending to be a member of the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays.
From there, Andrew brought us to the dense jungles in the Amazon rainforest in ‘The Trade Mission.’ This one is a departure from the rest of his work in that it is more of an action/adventure/survival story. But we do get glimpses of where he’ll be going next. For me, this one seemed to be an exercise in Andrew writing a novel that ticked off some internal boxes but also a novel that ticked off some publisher boxes. This is my own meandering thoughts of course, take it with a grain of salt.
But, it’s ‘The Trade Missions’ usage of setting, coupled with how Andrew used environment in ‘Lost Girls’ that brings us to his Canadian Landscape Magnum Opus ‘The Wildfire Season.’ This is also a return to the narrative plotting of ‘you can’t always go back.’ We follow Miles McEwan, a man burned by real life events as well as personal life decisions who flees Ontario to the remote Yukon. This novel is a 50/50 split between the harsh reality of what the Canadian Wilderness can do, but also a relationship drama where we see how characters get battered and beaten by what is and what was.
Of all of his novels, ‘The Wildfire Season’ is the most thematically closest to grasping what it feels like to be in the clutches of depression. Miles is scarred, broken and ashamed. On one hand he is revered and on the other hand looked at with hurt and suspicion. The landscape journey in this story is paramount to the atmospheric hold the prose has on the reader. Not only did it make me edgy and nervous, but it brought me back to all those times I was hunting with my dad or grandpa. Of the subtle change in the way the woods smell when the leaves begin to turn colors and how a crisp bite returns when the snow goes away and winter rot is exposed.
Miles journey is another stepping stone, and we see that, with the full bore panic of Patrick Rush in 2008’s masterpiece, ‘The Killing Circle.’ This one is a precursor to ‘The Demonologist’ in that we get a man searching desperately for his child – in this case it’s his son. The reality here is that Pyper uses Toronto as a backdrop to fuel this panic and we see a man ripped to his core as he wishes and practically begs to be able to just go back, to return to how things were – before. It’s the idea of ‘before’ that constantly rears its head up and this one is no different. Rush wants his wife back, his life back and his son firmly in his arms.
At the very beginning of this post, I shared a quote. It’s actually something I also put on Twitter. It’s also partly what inspired me to write this ‘article.’ Life, as we all know, is a source of constant upheaval. I’ve spoken in the past about how Andrew’s books have been there for me during some high highs and some low lows. Back in June of this year (2022), my wife’s sister, Whitney, took her own life, leaving behind a young son and daughter. It was only a week before the two-year anniversary of their father, Paul, suddenly passing away.
I often think of ‘what if’s.’ What if I had grown up in a bigger city? Maybe I would’ve made the NHL or MLB like I always dreamed I would’ve. What if I had grown up in a bigger city? Perhaps then, I wouldn’t have met the love of my life and my son wouldn’t be here? That quote from ‘Oracle’ also sent me down the grief rabbit hole (and I’ll discuss Pyper’s grief subplots shortly) thinking about how Paul is now missing so much of our life and my son’s life. He was over the moon to have a grandson. He couldn’t believe it. Amanda and I were told long ago that we most likely couldn’t have kids. So, we got a dog. And Paul loved OJ as though he was his grandson and OJ loved him back just as much. And, now, my thoughts drifted to Whitney and thinking of all the moments she’ll miss. Grief and heartache are tough to overcome and when we get sad and down and depressed, we revert to the central theme that I’ve been focusing on here – before.
‘Why can’t we go back to how things were before?’
His next novel really dove into that idea. 2011’s ‘The Guardians’ follows a group of friends in a small Canadian town. They’ve grown up, but remain haunted by the events that happened all those years ago. When one of them dies, they reunite and try to get to the bottom of why things happened and what they can do to overcome it. Much like the characters featured within, I find myself thinking back to childhood and those friends I had back then. The ones you drift away from, the ones who just stopped talking to you one day and you’ve never spoken with since. Youth is a complicated mess, one that I’m having to retread slowly as my son begins Grade 1 and starts the formative development of friendships. Andrew’s examination of what makes friends friends and how some remain friends and others don’t, is a fascinating journey. It’s also within his overall storytelling ARC focusing on grief and loss.
This continues through into 2013’s ‘The Demonologist,’ which I’ve discussed and into the bleak and despondent depths of 2015’s ‘The Damned.’ Within this novel we are introduced to Danny Orchard, best-selling writer who just-so-happens to have survived a fire that claimed the life of his twin sister, Ash. His near-death experience has unlocked something, that allows the pull of ‘over there’ to dig its hooks in and transport him to an upside down version of his real life. Andrew pulls no punches here and within the novel he continually bludgeons the reader with different scenes where grief overrides the senses. A specific moment with Danny and his mother in a bathtub is haunting and so, so very powerful and one I’ll not soon forget.
‘The Damned’ once again paired a family member having struggled with the loss of a family member. This aspect carries on, into 2017’s ‘The Only Child.’ Pairing ‘The Demonologist’s’ world-wide quest with ‘The Killing Circle’s’ hunt for the main suspect, we follow Lily, Forensic Psychiatrist, who was rescued many years ago from a remote, northern Canadian Town. She’s forged a life in New York, but when a strange patient arrives, she is sucked into a cat-and-mouse game which leads to her discovering things about her and her past.
Grief and a longing to return to her youth is paramount throughout and we get little snippets of her life before the incident that are filled with an atmosphere akin to longing for the past.
Now, as I sit here working on this piece, I wonder if some of this is triggered by my own grief? Or a failure to process it? Books are a unique artistic endeavor, much like song lyrics, where even when the storyline follows a specific arc, it can still resonate with the reader/listener in a specific manner. Allegory and metaphor and vagueness all work to create an illusion of what the reader ingests and what the mind expels.
We leave the world-sprawling ways of ‘The Only Child’ and arrive in the Pacific Northwest with 2019’s ‘The Homecoming.’ And what a perfect title and central idea in relation to my ramblings within this feature. What Andrew attempts (and delivers) with ‘The Homecoming’ is tailormade for film or television. We follow the Quinlan family, whisked away following the death of their father, to a sprawling mansion. It’s a surprise to them, that he had this mansion without them knowing and a surprise to them that he is worth millions of dollars. All they need to do is remain there for a month and they get to split the inheritance. But not all is what it seems and layers get unraveled and secrets revealed.
This might be the most on the nose novel Pyper has released regarding familial longing and unspoken tension. Each character is flawed, each member of the Quinlan family has their own issues and secrets withheld, but isn’t that like all of us? Isn’t that how it is at family reunions and celebrations of life’s and birthdays and holidays? When you smile and give your uncle a hug even though he posted something grotesque on Facebook a month ago? Or when you ask how life is with your cousin, even though they got in their trucks and honked the horn for freedom? (Caveating this here – these are just examples, not specifically directed to any of my actual family members.) Andrew brings these people to life with such candor that you know these characters within minutes.
The book ends with the reader learning the horrible truth and the awful reality of the family patriarch’s deception. It sets his long-time readers up with an open-ended question; where next? After the heartache he’d been delivering, at this stage now in his twenty year career, how could we possible go any darker and more despondent?
I’ll admit – I’m not a huge historical horror guy. Katsu – great. She’s a stunning writer. But I definitely don’t seek it as a standard reading detour for me. Which eases into where Andrew took us next. When it was announced, I was tentatively excited. On one hand, it was a new Pyper book. On the other hand, I’m not overly keen on the White House and US politics stuff. But reading the synopsis had me hooked and I couldn’t wait to see what was delivered.
So, in 2020, we got ‘The Residence,’ and with this novel – his most recent official physical release (until the next which I’ll touch on in a minute) – Andrew went full on with the ‘longing for the before’ narrative. Franklin and Jane Pierce’s son, Bennie, dies in a tragic train crash shortly before Franklin becomes President. Jane is devastated and spends her time in the White House searching for a way to bring Bennie back, to talk to him once again. It is the culmination of all of his prior work, or stacking the bricks one-by-one to crush the reader as we learn about a mother’s heartbreak and grief and how she struggles to find any meaning to go on. While not officially ‘post-partum,’ in essence it is. A mother losing her child, especially one so young, would be a pain that would sear into someone’s soul.
When my son was born, he had extreme complications, and while I won’t go too far into it right now, I was told that they had lost him. My wife as well. I set down my copy of ‘The Wildfire Season’ (how’s that for coincidence, eh?) and followed their instructions about what I needed to do and what forms needed to be completed. I was numb and floating and panicked and collapsing. I imagine some similar things needed to be done after Bennie passed away, but I was fortunate to have a very different outcome. Jane was not, and Andrew brings her sorrow to such a level that it’s surprising the pages didn’t drip with tears.
So, where does that leave us?
Well, for starters, it brings us back around to 2021’s ‘Oracle,’ and to a degree 2022’s ‘Oracle 2: The Dreamland Murders.’ Within both, Andrew utilizes Nate Russo’s upbringing and trauma as a leaping off point to connecting with those lost and those searching. It creates a chasm of emotional pain that awaits the reader/listener and when they get too close to the edge, we get pushed over, landing heart-first into the horror and sorrow that cushions our fall.
If you’re involved in the Indie Horror Community, you’ll see many writers (me included) who release several releases a year. It’s the nature of the beast when you’re your own publisher. Andrew is in a different category altogether – a traditionally published, dark fiction writer. While it feels like forever since we’ve had a new Pyper book, the reality is, we’ve had five projects in the last five years, and a sixth if you include the docu-drama that was made about the research into writing ‘The Residence.’
In an interview I did with Andrew a number of months again, he did mention that he had something in the works that was wilderness/forest related. What the story is based around and when will it arrive? Right now that’s unknown. We’ll be patiently waiting. I’m writing this in the week leading up to when I had expected to be going to Toronto and would’ve been fortunate enough to finally meet Andrew in person and visit with him. I was going to do my best to try and get some details out of him, but alas, the work event was cancelled and I’m left with the sadness of what could’ve been.
Much like what prompted this long-worded love-letter to Andrew’s grief encrusted bibliography. His work runs the gauntlet of devastation and yet, always, at its core – throughout each and every novel/release – we get that haunting aspect of characters longing to go back to where they came from and scenarios around despair and all-encompassing sorrow.
I’ve long yelled into the void about my love of his work and I’ve long stressed how much his work has connected with me and I think, especially as I age and grow even more introspective, I see the threads of the life I wonder about and how this connects with his work and what his characters go through.
I think I’ll finish with this.
My life is all the better for where I am and the person I’ve become. I have good days and bad days. But I try my best to find small nuggets of sunshine, no matter how thick the clouds. Some of you might be reading this, or even seeing this, and rolling your eyes and shaking your heads. ‘Oh, look, Steve’s talking about Andrew Pyper again.’ Hey, fair. But for me, it’s more than just books. It’s more than just me loving an author’s work. His novels have always been there and continue to be there and somedays, they’re the little glimmer of sun within the clouds.
I may never be able to return to how things were when I was a child. Of riding my bike without a care in the world through the cut-through trail on my way to the Watson’s house, or heading to the boat launch with a stack of CD’s and a six-disc changer, knowing I’d be zapping the batteries while Simon and I lounged around for the entire day, only returning home when it was so dark we were scared a bear would eat us. But I can return to the world’s Andrew’s created. Reconnect with these characters and use their lessons and their experience to dampen my own grief.
We’ve all lost loved ones, those who we wish beyond anything that they were still here for milestones and special occasions. Those we think about fondly and wonder just what their lives would be like if they were still here.
The only author I’ve read who accurately depicts that and delivers the literary prose to describe it perfectly is Andrew Pyper. His work seeks to answer the ‘why’ of how come we can never go back? How come things can never be the same? And what would’ve been, had things happened differently.
As always, I’ll await word on a new Pyper book and I thank Andrew for his kindness and friendship.
We are broken, but we can be fixed.
We may never be able to go back, but we can always revisit.
Such is true for good books and old memories.
If you’d like to discover Andrew’s work you can find more here;