With The Guardians, Toronto’s Andrew Pyper has produced a haunted house novel, a psychological thriller, and a coming-of-age story. With deft prose and pristine pacing, The Guardians is an intelligent and engrossing page-turner, despite some predictability.
An abandoned house in the small town of Grimshaw serves as a lightning rod for tragedy. Four boys — Ben, Trevor, Randy, and Carl — witness horrible things under its roof. When Ben commits suicide twenty-four years later, the others return to find that the crimes of the past have returned to threaten their present lives.
Previous to this, Pyper produced four other novels and a collection of short stories, and has enjoyed substantial commercial success. The Guardians lacks the inventiveness and black comedy of his previous novel, The Killing Circle, but moves with greater urgency.
Pyper’s forebears here are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House — both concern hauntings that might be explained away as a character’s psychosis. Likewise, for most of The Guardians, we’re unsure whether or not we can trust Trevor’s account. Even he seems uncertain — couldn’t most of what he believes he’s seen be explained by stress or Parkinson’s?
Pyper falls short of James and Jackson, in part because he offers a greater degree of closure in his story. The Guardians follows, rather than subverting, the conventions of the genre — so at times feels formulaic. Pyper excels at pacing, but can be predictable, although the story will engage even if readers unravel its mysteries in advance.
Pyper understands that the haunted house story offers a structure within which to examine the interrelation of past and present. Without forgetting his obligation to ratchet up the suspense, Pyper develops and examines the relationships between men, in both youth and adulthood, and the dynamics of male bonding and competition. Female characters get short shrift, not because Pyper doesn’t draw them well, but because they’re simply not the book’s focus, so rarely present.
Pyper’s prose can be workmanlike, but is often elegant and forceful. He offers a more intriguing character in Trevor than those peopling most so-called “literary fiction” (to invoke the most redundant, unliterary, yet ubiquitous marketing phrase I know). In giving Trevor Parkinson’s, Pyper adds an affecting and human dimension to his difficult struggle to comprehend and combat the corrupting influence of the house.
If our most brutal hacks, like Dan Brown and John Saul, would cede shelf space to writers like Pyper, then good genre fiction might receive the respect it deserves. The Guardians, though not Pyper’s best, stands out amongst the dross of both its own genre and more “acceptable” Canadian novels.
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