Book Review: The Only Child by Andrew Pyper
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 23, 2017)
Length: 304 pages
Last year I had the distinct pleasure of reading The Damned, a chilling psychological horror that immediately landed Andrew Pyper on my must-read authors list. It was thus with great excitement that I approached his newest novel The Only Child, which sounded like it would be a very different experience—which just made me even more curious.
When the story opens, we get to meet protagonist Dr. Lily Dominick, a doctor at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center whose job involves working with some of the country’s most dangerous and disturbed criminals. Lily, however, is battling a darkness of her own. Growing up, she has always been aloof, keeping others at a distance so that few people know about the traumatic experiences in her childhood and the details surrounding her mother’s violent death. But the past has come back to haunt her now, in the form of a new client at the clinic—a man whose only identity is a patient intake number and a police report detailing his horrific crimes. In spite of herself, Lily is drawn to the stranger, even before he tells her that they have actually met before, a long time ago before she was old enough to remember. He also claims he knew her mother…and the truth behind how she died.
At first, Lily is dismissive of the client’s statements. After all, he did not look old enough for any of his wild claims to be true. But then Michael, the name the man has chosen to call himself, has an explanation for this too, declaring that he is more than two hundred years old and was in fact the inspiration for many of the monsters in classic literature. At this point, Lily is almost sure the clinic’s newest patient is just another deranged psychopath suffering from delusions of grandeur, only there are few things about her he couldn’t have known—unless he is telling the truth, of course, which should be an impossibility. Unfortunately for Lily though, she doesn’t realize Michael is the real deal until it is too late. To free herself from this real-life monster, she will need to embark on a dangerous journey over oceans and across continents to unlock the secrets of her past.
Lately, I have been reading a lot of books that make references to or are inspired by the classics. I have to say, little did I expect to find this as well in The Only Child though. In a way, it was a pleasant surprise, as who doesn’t love a little Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Pyper managed to incorporate three of the greatest gothic horror novels of the 1800s into this strange tale, and he did it in an interesting and clever way.
On the flip side of this, however, there are the lengthy sections in the middle of the book detailing how Michael inspired these classic works, told mainly via flashback chapters in the form of letters to Lily. While the ideas were generally good, I was not as pleased with their execution. At best, they were a distraction from the main mystery plot, and at worst, it sometimes felt like I was reading an entirely different book. Rather than blending seamlessly with the rest of the story, the “classic monsters” angle felt like it was tacked on like an afterthought—almost gimmicky, in a way. That said, I enjoyed the added literary atmosphere immensely, which elevated this novel beyond your usual suspense-thriller. Other than that, though? The references to Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson and their works admittedly made very little impact on the story, which was kind of a shame.
Still, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did. While it was not quite as mind-blowing as The Damned, the plot was addictive all the same, and I blew through the entire novel in about two sittings, a reliable sign that this was a enthralling read. At times the story seems confused as to what it wants to be (a portentously gloomy horror? Or a modern supernatural thriller?) but to its credit at no time does the pacing let up. The clues and developments come at you fast, punctuated by brief glimpses into Michael’s riveting history. While some of the plot points feel patently over the top, the possibility has crossed my mind that this is merely another one of Pyper’s nod to the classics, which would be a very clever touch if that’s the case. The characters were also genuinely compelling, if somewhat flawed, especially Michael whose presence is at once eerie and fascinating.
Overall, I thought The Only Child was a good read, if a little overambitious, resulting in a story that is not as focused as I would have liked. Still, for fans of the gothic horror tradition, it may be well worth it to take a look. I also felt this novel was an interesting direction for Pyper, one that I felt was bold and different, making me excited to read more of his future work.