Something unseen and unnamed has been trailing me for years. Sometimes pure happiness rides along on its back. Other times it carries bleakness and the kind of heartache that brings you to your knees. Whatever it is, it hides around corners and walks through doors before I can get a good look at it. Melancholia is such a pretty word for such a smothering feeling.
Well, that was depressing. Let’s call it a soul in crisis or a heavy case of spiritual torpor. Or better yet, demon possession. The devil made me do it.
In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, David Ullman is a renowned demonic literature scholar and an expert on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He teaches at a college, is in a failing marriage, and the most important person in his life is his 12-year-old daughter Tess. She’s beginning to show the same signs of melancholia that he struggles with himself.
One afternoon, a mysterious woman comes into his office. There’s something off about her, something he can’t pinpoint at first. She’s painfully thin. Her face seems to change ever so slightly with the light so that he can’t quite grasp what she looks like. She invites him to Venice, Italy, to see something extremely rare. She gives David just enough information to pique his interest but it is also vague enough to make him feel slightly uneasy. His plane ticket will be paid for, a lavish hotel suite is booked, and he’ll be given a generous fee just for showing up.
That evening when his wife declares she’s leaving him, David thinks it’s the perfect time for a trip. His marriage is in the toilet, his wife is openly seeing another man, and his daughter has become withdrawn and constantly writes in her journal. David packs a couple of suitcases and then heads off on what he thinks will be an exciting adventure.
In Venice he leaves Tess with a babysitter. She’s old enough to stay on her own but in a foreign country it puts his mind at ease that the hotel has a baby sitter on site. He’s been given an address and then spends a long time roaming the ancient and crooked streets looking for it (because heaven forbid a man stop and ask for directions).
He nearly gives up but then he finds his destination. He is led upstairs into a room where a man is tied to a chair. The man who answered the door hands him a video camera and practically runs out of the building. The man in the chair is muttering, cackling and obviously cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
The man looks up at David, his face shifting and turning. Another trick of the light? And why is this guy tied up? Is this some elaborate hoax being played out? David points the camera at the man and something inhuman takes a breath and begins to speak. Still thinking someone is playing a trick on him, David begins to interact with the demon possessing the man. He taunts it and tries to get the demon to say its name.
Names have power: Rumpelstiltskin realized that once someone knows your name it’s like they have a small piece of you, a piece you aren’t willing to give up. David asks the demon if he is Satan himself. The demon answers, no, just a demon. Evidently, when you think you’re talking to Satan it’s like thinking you’re talking to Elvis only to find out you’re actually talking to Bubba his third cousin twice removed.
Just when David thinks this is all an elaborate joke, it becomes terrifyingly real when the man begins to speak in the voice of David’s long dead father. He says something David has never told another person, words that David himself tries not to think about.
David rushes back to the hotel, his dealings with what he believes was a demonic entity convincing him that his daughter Tess is in danger. He finds her on the hotel’s roof, her feet perched on the edge. In dream-like slow motion she plunges into the Grand Canal below, her parting words: “Find me.” These two words throw David Ullman into an insane journey across America, following clues hidden in the prose of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He never stops searching for his daughter. Her body was never found. She’s out there waiting for him.
I watched The Exorcist when I was 6 years old. My parents had gone out for the evening and my oldest brother was babysitting me. In his 16-year-old wisdom it was perfectly normal to let his 6-year-old sister watch a girl projectile vomit on a priest and use foul language that would make a longshoreman blush.
The thought of demonic possession has always terrified me because it seems to be a sibling to mental illness. If depression can get in and tangled up a human’s brain who’s to say some other being couldn’t slip on through and try on a human body? The Demonologist scared me nearly as much as The Exorcist. Almost. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take some pills to keep the demons out. Or in.