Review: The Only Child by Andrew Pyper (2017)

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My Rating: 5 stars                                          Read: 3/18/2017

Release date: May 23, 2017

Blurb:

The #1 internationally bestselling author of The Demonologist radically reimagines the origins of gothic literature’s founding masterpieces—Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula—in a contemporary novel driven by relentless suspense and surprising emotion. This is the story of a man who may be the world’s one real-life monster, and the only woman who has a chance of finding him.

As a forensic psychiatrist at New York’s leading institution of its kind, Dr. Lily Dominick has evaluated the mental states of some of the country’s most dangerous psychotics. But the strangely compelling client she interviewed today—a man with no name, accused of the most twisted crime—struck her as somehow different from the others, despite the two impossible claims he made.

First, that he is more than two hundred years old and personally inspired Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker in creating the three novels of the nineteenth century that define the monstrous in the modern imagination. Second, that he’s Lily’s father. To discover the truth—behind her client, her mother’s death, herself—Dr. Dominick must embark on a journey that will threaten her career, her sanity, and ultimately her life.

Fusing the page-turning tension of a first-rate thriller with a provocative take on where thrillers come from, The Only Child will keep you up until its last unforgettable revelation.

Review:

As soon as I read the blurb for this book, it moved to the top of my wish list and I was thrilled to get an ARC to read. I read it immediately, dismissing dozens of others in my TBR pile. Was it worth the rush? In a word: yes. Move it to the top of your 2017 “must read” pile right now.

I love gothic horror, so the promise of this blurb: a retelling of the origin of Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein sounded intriguing. Add on the promise of a more literary approach and I’m there.

This book is essentially a literary horror story, similar in vibe to Let the Right One In or Interview with a Vampire–it attempts to retell old myths in a modern and realistic setting while retaining a bit of the magic and all of the dread.

The main character, Lily, is a doctor at a psychiatric hospital. She’s young but buttoned-up, work-focused, and feels alienated from other people. She has a horrific event in her past that has led to both her damaged psyche and her clinical interest in psychopaths–her mother was brutally murdered when Lily was young, and Lily witnessed it but managed to escape on a “magic horse”. Of course, the horse was her imagination. An allegory. A mind protecting itself from true horror (or so she believes).

One day, Lily is assigned a new case, a man who ripped off a stranger’s ears in front of the police. This man, Michael, tells Lily he was arrested purposefully in order to be sent to her. He says he’s her father and shortly thereafter he escapes the asylum. Of course, Lily doesn’t believe him, but the man seems to know something about her mother and her past, and Lily is so hungry for these missing pieces of her history that she allows herself to be lured into a cat-and-mouse game, following Michael across Europe.

Michael claims to have inspired the three great gothic masterpieces, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He leads Lily around Europe, visiting the places where these stories were born. For example, the banks of Lake Geneva, where Michael met Mary Shelley and told her his story, or Edinburgh, where Michael sought out journalist Robert Louis Stevenson in order to get him to write a more factual retelling (which didn’t, in fact, end up as factual as Michael wanted).

Along the way, Michael also shares details of his own true past and of Lily’s and her mother’s. Lily waffles between telling herself she’s a psychoanalyst exploring a fascinating case and believing Michael really is more superhuman than delusional.

Revisiting the original gothic tales and their writers “real lives” was like catnip to me. But besides these rather fangirl pleasures, the book maintains a strong thread of the main story line. I bought in right away to the idea that Michael was superhuman, so the tension wasn’t so much “is he or isn’t he”, but rather, it was in watching Lily;s logical side unravel and figure out the truth. It was clear there was some secret buried in her past that was coming, and I wanted to keep reading to figure out what that was.

Also, the main father-daughter relationship was interesting. We come to believe Lily really is the daughter of this creature, his only offspring. (How, you ask? Not to give too much away, but Michael’s creation was Frankenstein-esque and Lily’s conception unique and never to be repeated). So I was interested to learn how Lily’s non-human side would pan out and how the author would resolve the father-daughter dynamic. We have father: a monster who has killed hundreds of people and is yet compelling and attractive, and daughter: a woman who has held down her true nature and has all the constraints of polite society, law and ethics ingrained. Would they walk off into the sunset together, two happy monsters? Would she reform him? Would he corrupt her? Would they kill each other?

As with Frankenstein, I ended up feeling sorry for the monster and wishing for a happy ending for him despite all the horrible things he’d done. Well done, Mr. Pyper.

There is creepiness and gothic murder aplenty along the way. The horror in this book is quieter than your typical slasher, but it is very reminiscent of the classics that Michael claims to have inspired, an echoing I adored. There is constant danger to Lily, from both her father (who can turn from loving to murderous in a heartbeat, like Jekyll/Hyde), the people who trail them, and even from Lily herself who may not be able to handle the truth. And there are some wonderful horror set piece scenes that really sink their teeth into you. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this as a film.

The writing is simply amazing with gorgeous descriptions and sharp dialog. It’s very smart and poetic without becoming self-important purple prose.

There was fear in her only a moment ago, but something more powerful has entered her, something enveloping, supple, elemental. Hidden in a London hotel room watching her parents on a recording of her first moments of life. A family divided by time, by death, now singing the same song.

Finally, the ending of the book worked for me on every level.

This is destined to become a horror classic, but don’t postpone the pleasure of reading it. I believe I’ll read it again myself and take it slower to savor it this time.

Book Links:

Goodreads

Amazon  (is currently available for pre-order)

 

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