The Damned by Andrew Pyper (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 10, 2015)-Andrew Pyper gives Stephen King a run for his money in his terrifying new novel. When twins Ashleigh and Danny Orchard were 16, they both died, but Ash is the only one that stayed dead. Danny survived, and twenty years later he’s found the love of his life, Willa, and hopes to settle into life with her and her young son, Eddie. There’s only one roadblock to their happiness, and that’s Ash. Ash has been dead for 20 years, but that doesn’t mean she’s been gone. She’s been a near constant presence in Danny’s life, and he’s never gotten attached to anyone else for fear they might get hurt, or worse, but Willa isn’t like everyone else. They met at an Afterlifers meeting, a group that cropped up after Danny wrote his bestselling novel, The After, about his personal experience in the afterlife. It made him somewhat of a celebrity, but he didn’t feel like he was really living until he met Willa. Now Ash is back with a vengeance, and she seems determined to destroy the life that Danny has made. She also seems to be gaining traction in the living world, able to manipulate reality like never before. But why? Is it just hate that drives her? Jealousy? Danny doesn’t think it’s as simple as that, so he sets out to find the truth behind her death, before she takes everything he has.
To understand what makes Ash so scary is to understand her in life. Ash seemed to lack a soul, a sociopath that put on a good face in public, was a golden girl to all who knew her, except for her family, who lived in terror of her. When the twins were 16, she perished in a fire in an abandoned Detroit house, and even though Danny nearly died trying to save her, it wasn’t enough. Ash was a terrible person, who did terrible things, but somehow, at times, the author manages to paint her as a heartbreaking creature, worthy of empathy. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and when it hits you, it’s startling, even in its subtlety. Danny narrates, and it’s obvious that, in spite of everything, he has love for his sister, his twin, his other half, and it makes his fear of her all the more tragic. A particularly telling scene is when he finds her diary. It’s so sad…watch for it, because even though it’s a brief scene, it’s important.
So, yes, Pyper is scary good at the psychological intricacies and subtleties of a family in crises, and that makes up a huge part of this book, but what will tweak your horror strings is his rendering of an otherworldly Detroit, and the dead souls that inhabit it. It’s a dreamlike, horrific landscape, and yet, what makes it so odd is that it’s definitely “other” but is so close to reality that it veers into uncanny territory. It’ll give you chills, promise. This is thoughtful horror, and I love that, but it’s also a twisted love story, and aren’t those the best kind? If you haven’t discovered Andrew Pyper’s work yet, I can’t think of a better place to start.