‘The Guardians’ is being promoted as a “haunted house” novel, and so it is, but through the device of the haunted house, Pyper has actually written a masculine coming-of-age story and a study of male bonding. It seems that here, the ‘bad’ house represents a dark place where a boy’s innocence is lost and the beginnings of an man’s adult identity is forged, by the most traumatic of circumstances. Where other recent books such as Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ explore themes of female development and friendship through the device of a haunting, ‘The Guardians’ examines the creation of male identity, through positive masculine experiences such as mutual acceptance, the shared triumphs and disappointments of team sports and of peer support through expressions of controlled rebellion – but it is the negative forces of masculinity that fuel the ‘horror’ aspects of the story.
There are absent, feckless fathers, there is masculine susceptibility to suggestion and pack mentality and above all the warping of character and sexuality that results in a hatred of society and violence towards women as encapsulated within the presence that haunts the house. The book creates many uncomfortable episodes for the reader, particularly a female one – and it’s supposed to.
At first, the setup of the novel seems tediously familiar: Four friends share a terrible secret dating back to their high school years, they swear to keep it amongst themselves, and do so, for two decades. (Lois Duncan’s ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ came to mind). The story begins 25 years later, as Trevor, the central character, is woken by a phone call from Randy, now a failed actor, with the news that Ben, the only one of the four to remain in their home town of Grimshaw, has hanged himself. Ben’s obsession with the house opposite his window dominated his life, and now he is dead the others must deal with the secrets that place may still hold. Unable to contact Carl, the last absent friend, Trevor and Randy return for Ben’s funeral. But the past begins to repeat itself when a young woman goes missing, and the men they find they must venture back into the Thurman House, where the repercussions of their terrible childhood secret waits to catch up with them, and they come to realise that Ben’s vigilance may have been keeping the town safe after all.
The story is told by way of reflections contained in the diary of its narrator, Trevor, a 40-year-old former Toronto nightclub owner. Moving a story along using epistolary means is a long favoured literary method, and Trevor’s diary entries tell us of the events that happen to his 16-year-old self, which are interspersed with the ‘contemporary’ events happening to his present, Parkinson’s ravaged, forty-year-old self. All the predictable plot elements occur: the evil in the house revives, another woman goes missing, Trevor’s regretful first love is rekindled. In the diary he is preserving his memories, both good and bad. He is using the diary as a confessional, a catharsis for the burden he has been pushing away for twenty-five years. But his writing is also a way of coming to terms with his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which is deteriorating his physical condition almost daily.
I found it a refreshing twist to have a main character who is trying to call upon all the courage of his better self to confront the evil squatting in his home town, weak and inured as he is to running from it for two decades, and is also battling memories trying to engulf him within the ‘haunted’ house. But in his most heroic moments he is also struggling to control a body that is becoming less and less subject to his will. For me his physical as well as mental challenges added a whole new dimension to what might have been too conventional a tale, albeit well written. To use the words of one of the characters, “There’s always something worse than you think. Closer than you think” – this could mean the anticipation of a crippling disease, or the idea that there are some people out there who may be capable of anything.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.