Book Review : Andrew Pyper - The Only Child (2017)
Are you afraid of vampires? Probably not. The term probably reminds you of a centuries-old fart living in a castle far away or Robert Pattinson sparkling in the sun depending on how old you are. My point is, they're not scary because you know what they are, how to avoid them and how to murder them if need be. That idea, that monsters aren't scary anymore, drives Canadian author Andrew Pyper's new novel The Only Child. He wrote a pretty great ghost novel titled The Damned in 2015, but ghosts have always been periodically terrifying because their existence haven't been completely ruled out. This novel is a riskier bet, though as it probes the soundness of contemporary myths and, force is to admit, Pyper does a good job at it. The Only Child is another enjoyable novel from the Canadian.
Lily Dominick is a lonely forensic psychiatrist struggling with the memory of her mother's murder. She's a very successful woman yet has trouble connecting with people on an emotional level and became borderline asexual over the last couple years. Her life changes the day she welcomes a nameless patient who tore the ears off another man's skull for seemingly no reason. The man claims he doesn't actually have a name. He also tells Lily he is over two hundred years old and has sensible information on her mother's death that only she also has. The life Lily built for herself in order to overcome the trauma caused by the brutal death of her mother is about to end, but another one is about to begin. Is it a tragedy or a rebirth? That, you'll have to read The Only Child to know.
What Andrew Pyper tried to do here is demythologizing some of the most iconic horror novels, namely: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevension's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it kind of works. The mysterious "Michael" claims to be the inspiration behind these characters and laments their theatrical and melodramatic nature, which throws everything you and I know about them out the window. And going back to the unknown like this is terrifying. He's not a vampire or a living-dead monster, but something in between you can't quite peg. There are a handful of scenes in The Only Child where that idea lives up to its ambitions. That one in particular where "Michael" uses Lily's long-time friend to show her the extent of his powers is going to stick with me.
So, The Only Child is very enjoyable, yet not quite on The Damned's level. It's not disappointing by any means. They're different novels and the latter set a tremendously high standard for Andrew Pyper to live up to. The Only Child has more pronounced flaws than its predecessor, though. The aura of unpredictability around "Michael" is often undermined by the closeness of the relationship he fosters to Lily. I understand that comes from a desire to deconstruct the aforementioned classic novel and to undermine well-known tropes, except it worked against his character at times. I'm sure Pyper was conscious of that and it was a tough narrative decision to take because that relationship feed the dichotomy inside his protagonist Lily: should she be an unhappy good person (the neurotic forensic psychologist) or a bad person in touch with her inner self (a monster). I just don't think Lily's decision should've prevailed here, but it's a personal opinion.
Andrew Pyper is establishing himself as one of the most original voices in horror fiction and The Only Child is another interesting addition to his resume. He's an author not afraid to tackle the most powerful myths domineering over the genre today and turn them upon their head. I loved the book for confronting the scientific and the unknowable, which alluded to the frail and illusory nature of human knowledge in a graceful and understated way. The Only Child is not as easily to like as The Damned, but it is much more ambitious. It's a novel about certitudes falling apart, which couldn't be any more pertinent to the "fake news" era we live in. Smart and sneaky-scary.