The Damned by Andrew Pyper
Genre: Adult horror
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: February 10 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A top-notch horror story with depth and emotion, beautifully written, with enough chills to keep me on edge.
Sometimes there is a scent that precedes her appearances, less borne on the air than held tight against my face, an invisible, smothering cloth. And soaked in this cloth an odor that carries a feeling with it, particular as the past. It’s the same sugary, teenaged-girl perfume that clouded the rec room parties and school gym dances of our youth, combined with something foul, something gone wrong. A neglected wound spritzed with Love’s Baby Soft.
This was my first Andrew Pyper book, but it certainly won’t be my last! The Damned is a fresh take on ghost stories and life after death, and at times it reminded me of both The Lovely Bones and What Dreams May Come, although it’s completely different from either of those books. Pyper has come up with one chilling and terrifying ghost named Ash, who hitches a ride back from hell to terrorize her family. This story scared the pants off me, and if you love the kind of atmospheric horror that creeps up on you slowly, rather than the bloody slasher variety, then you will love this book.
Danny Orchard is a semi-famous author who wrote a book about his experience in “heaven” when he briefly died in a house fire but was resuscitated soon after. But unfortunately, Danny didn’t come back alone. He brought back his twin sister Ashleigh, who died in the fire with him. Ash was a disturbed girl in life, and she’s even worse as a ghost. Danny’s grown up now and has met a wonderful woman named Willa that he wants to get to know better. But Ash is determined to keep Danny from ever finding happiness, because she’s convinced he shouldn’t be alive. If Danny wants to start a new life, he’s going to have to figure out a way to get rid of Ash for good.
That’s a very brief synopsis of a rather complex story, but I didn’t want to get into too much detail, because you’re going to want to experience each surprise for yourself. Danny narrates the story and flits back and forth through time, gradually revealing what’s happening. I love this method of storytelling, which may frustrate some readers, but it works so well for a story like this with so many mysteries to unravel. Danny tells us of his near-death experience in the fire, but he later admits that it wasn’t the only time he died and went someplace else. Little by little, the reader comes to understand what a terrible and lonely life Danny is living, all because he is being haunted by his psychopath of a dead sister who will go to any lengths to keep him from any kind of lasting relationship.
The best part of the story for me was Pyper’s atmospheric descriptions of Detroit, a city that nearly becomes a character itself. After reading The Damned, I’m convinced that the best city in the world to set a horror story in has got to be Detroit (side note: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes is set there as well). I’ve never been there, and after reading this book I’m not sure I ever want to go there. Not only do we get to experience Detroit as it is today, with its seedy, rundown neighborhoods and abandoned car factories, but Danny’s various trips to the afterlife take place in a Detroit that is a scarier and more twisted version of the real place. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a story that pulls off this kind of “duality” as well as this one.
If you’re going to write a proper horror story, then you need to have some tormented characters who suffer at the hands of an evil entity, and Pyper gives us plenty of torment in this book. It seems Danny can never live a life of happiness, because each time he starts to get close to someone, sister Ash comes along and ruins things for him. And when I say “ruins,” I mean she injures or kills the new person in Danny’s life. So he has resigned himself to a lonely existence, rather than cause harm to someone he loves.
That is until he meets Willa at a support group for people who have had near-death experiences, called “Afterlifers.” Willa is an outspoken woman with a ten-year-old son named Eddie, who has her own terrifying death experience to deal with, but she and Danny recognize something in each other, and despite his fear of Ash screwing things up, the two begin dating. I loved their relationship, mostly because Willa is such a strong woman and doesn’t scare easily. She sticks with Danny even after she sees proof of Ash’s evil. I also loved Danny’s growing relationship with Eddie, who is wise beyond his age and even saves Danny’s life at one point.
And Ash. I can barely talk about her without getting goosebumps! She is the epitome of evil, a girl who is popular and beautiful on the outside, but has a twisted mind and is able to manipulate people to do the unthinkable.
If you’ve ever given any thought to what happens when we die (and who hasn’t?), I’m afraid The Damned will not offer any comfort to you, because even those souls who are “good” end up in places that aren’t necessarily considered heaven. Pyper doesn’t actually use the words “heaven” and “hell” to describe the afterworld, but readers will understand what he’s talking about without them. In this version of the afterlife, heaven and hell are inexorably entwined, and Danny, who is intimately familiar with both life and death, can easily navigate this strange territory.
The only misstep for me, and really I can hardly call it that, was an odd shift at about the half-way point of the story, when Danny decides to investigate Ash’s death, convinced that someone murdered her. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a murder mystery, and although the horror elements were still present, the tone of the story at that point felt different. As it turns out, Danny uncovers even more horrors surrounding his sister, and this section ultimately made the story stronger.
Pyper throws in lots of small details—like Danny’s mother’s Omega watch that he brings back from the afterlife—that give this story so much depth. A final showdown (you know there had to be one!) between Danny and Ash takes place in a location that is not only poignant but somehow brings the realms of the living and the dead together. The Damned is a perfect book for fans of horror stories, but it will resonate with many types of readers, and therefore I recommend it to everyone!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy! Quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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