Review: Andrew Pyper’s Grown-up Ghost Story “The Guardians” Gives Genuine Chills

Andrew Pyper is the kind of author most would-be writers dream of being — instantly successful.

His first published work, a collection of short stories entitled Kiss Me, came out in 1996 to wide acclaim and was followed by a stint as a writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, and also at Champlain College at Trent University. His first novel, Lost Girls(published in 1999), was a national bestseller in Canada and landed the honour of being listed on the Notable Book selection of both The Globe and Mail (in 1999) and The New York Times Book Review (in 2000). Also at the start of the millennium, Lost Girls won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, and the ensuing decade has proceeded to be very kind to him.

Each of his following four novels have been published internationally to global acclaim — The Trade Mission, his second novel, was published in Canada, the US, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands — and each novel consistently ends up on “Best of . . .” lists. His 2005 novel, The Wildfire Season, was listed in The Globe and Mail‘s Best Books of the Year selection; and 2008′s The Killing Circle made The New York Times list of notable crime novels of the year.

His fifth and most recent novel, The Guardians (published in January of 2011 by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House), looks set to continue this trend.

Trevor is a man with secrets. But he is not alone. His three best friends grew up with him in the small town of Grimshaw, Ontario, all members of the high school hockey team: the Grimshaw Guardians. The four boys were inseparable: Randy, the goofy joker and aspiring actor; Carl, the surly heartbreaker who always had his best friends’ backs; Ben, the Zen-like dreamer; and Trevor, the stable one. At 16, they were also the four youngest players on the hockey squad.

But within this tight-knit group, loyal to each other even as adulthood takes them in vastly different directions, a dark secret lies buried, one that stretches back almost 25 years to the winter they all turned 16. But as a small but pivotal character notes at one point in the novel, sometimes the dead come back.

The story begins in the present when Trevor receives the news that Ben, the only one to stay behind when the rest of the group left — or rather, escaped Grimshaw — is dead. He has hanged himself from a beam in his attic bedroom where he still lived with his elderly mother. Now, the ghosts of the past have literally come back to haunt the surviving members of the group.

Told from Trevor’s point of view, the narrative swings the reader from the present, where Trevor and Randy are compelled to return to Grimshaw for Ben’s funeral (the troubled Carl, who has spent his adult life in and out of halfway houses for drug addiction, is unreachable), and back into the past, where again it is Trevor’s voice that shapes the world of four young men on the brink of the inexplicable horrors of adulthood.

The book moves like a slow boil, revealing layers of plot as it jumps back and forth through time, and always from Trevor’s perspective. The novel avoids the clichéd use of flashback by staging these forays into the past in the form of a “memory diary.” At the age of forty, Trevor has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Faced with the increasingly uncontrollable shakes and vivid hallucinations promised by his doctors, he has been advised by a therapist to document the progress of his disease — “not that she used that word. Instead she referred to the unstoppable damage being done to me as an ‘experience,’ as if it were a trip to Paraguay or sex with twins.”

Rather than dwelling on his disease in this way, Trevor begins to write about the past, and when his hands become too unsteady for that, he dictates it into a voice recorder. This is what the reader comes across between chapters (and serving as a prologue) — efficiently-titled journal entries providing the background to what has happened and presenting clues to the unfinished business that lies ahead.

However, the novel consciously calls into question the reliability of memory, a point which becomes crucial to the story. Trevor compares his memory diary to “the sort of half-made-up scenes we used to watch on those That’s Incredible! TV specials, shows that ‘investigated’ the existence of UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster using dramatizations of witness accounts. It wasn’t the truth, but the truth as someone remembered it, and someone else wrote into a scene.”

In the prologue, an as-yet-unidentified Trevor describes a scene he remembers watching from behind his curtains, a scene of the house across the way and apparently of a gruesome crime being discovered by the local police. “We remember all this, though still not everything,” he says. “And some of the things we remember may not have happened at all.”

This statement sets the tone for what follows, which, coupled with the first-person narrative, allow — and maybe even challenge — the reader to try and decipher what is true and what is the fevered imaginings of young men dealing with too much, too soon.

Trevor and Randy are ostensibly in town for a funeral but end up resurrecting long dead secrets in the process. When Tracey, the daughter of a former fellow Grimshaw Guardian, goes missing in the same way their young, beautiful music teacher, Heather Langham, disappeared 24 years earlier, they realize that what they tried to bury and forget about so many years ago — the thing that kept Ben in Grimshaw as a self-appointed guardian of the past — has somehow reared to life again. This fact is made more eerie to them by Tracey’s acknowledged similarity to Heather Langham in appearance and bearing.

As Trevor and Randy take it upon themselves to investigate her disappearance, they are drawn further and further into the past, with Trevor’s memory diary serving as a guide for the reader to draw connections and realize the implications at each turn of the narrative.

The Guardians is an adult ghost story, and like all ghost stories, it requires and provides a haunted house. The old Thurman house, 321 Caledonia (at the end of Caledonia Street, across from Ben McAuliffe’s house), is the one place in town “we never even dared each other to go.” The narrator notes that the adults could not visualize their houses as being haunted, but the children had no choice. However, this haunted house holds more real horrors than what can be dreamed by any child. Yet, this is not a typical supernatural horror story. It is a psychological crime thriller, which also functions as a credible ghost story.

The principal character himself casts doubt as to the reality of what he sees and remembers. So when he sees ghosts in the window of the abandoned and derelict building, he blames it on his Parkinson’s symptoms and begins to wonder if Ben’s alleged mental illness — his obsession with watching the house — is beginning to take hold of him too. However, this very denial only enhances the sense that his words are merely excuses to stop himself from recognizing the truth in front of him. As he says, when they were children, “It spooked us. But no more than the werewolf and vampire comics we traded among ourselves that delivered brief, dismissible chills. Even then we didn’t think there was such a thing as a real haunted house. Of all the things we ended up wrong about, that was the first.”

One interesting thing about The Guardians is that aside from the main plot, there is an interesting subplot that deals with the nature of relationships between men. The story talks about how men are hardwired to react certain ways to situations — to be guardians, so to speak — no matter how much of a toll this might take and regardless of the long-reaching effects of their decisions.

“We were good guys. Unquestioned loyalty. A soldier’s duty. This is what our coach, our fathers, every hero we’d ever watched on the Vogue’s screen had taught us,” Trevor recalls in his memory diary. “Standing up for the fellow wearing the same uniform as you, even if it made little sense, even if it meant getting hurt. This is how it was supposed to go in hockey games, anyway, and in war movies, and in the lessons handed down from our baffled, misled fathers. But here’s the thing we found out too late to make a difference: our fathers and movie heroes might have been wrong.”

But the novel also talks about the strength of the relationships between men, despite the fact that, as the author says, men typically don’t talk about certain things. Upon hearing about Ben’s suicide, Trevor notes sadly, “There was a love between us too. A sexless, stillborn love, yet just as fierce as the other kinds. The common but largely undocumented love between men who forged their friendship in late childhood.”

With this novel, Pyper seems to be seeking to fill that gap; to provide this documentation of the internal lives of men — not the college-kid, beer-fuelled boasting of a Tucker Max or sex-chasing pickup tips of a Neil Strauss, but the musings of men coming to terms with growing older and making sense of what accomplishments they may or may not have achieved in life, and what legacy they will leave behind.

Pyper exhibits crisp writing, and an economy of words and detail, like an abstract drawing which surprises you with the depth and perspective evoked by a few, well-placed lines.

With The Guardians, he merges the crime fiction genre with psychological thriller and supernatural drama in a narrative that starts off slow and menacing and picks up the pace to the point where it is impossible to stop reading until you come to its stunning, breathless conclusion.