I don’t read psychological thrillers much, but when I was in high school I read Andrew Pyper’s Lost Girls, for reasons I no longer remember. I became really obsessed with it, in part because I had a literary crush on the protagonist, a cocaine-addicted, fortyish defence attorney. Take from that what you will.
So I keep an eye out for Andrew Pyper, reading his novels every now and again when I want something a little lighter and a little tenser. In that department, Pyper’s books are very reliable. There are always twists and jumps and guh-guh-guh-ghosts, and a hardened, lonely, Toronto-based, male protagonist who speaks in clipped sentences (“‘Should have called before dropping by. I would have made a point of putting my face on.'”). The Guardians is no exception. At one point I was reading a particularly harrowing section when my upstairs neighbour started playing a very loud horror movie. I wanted my mother.
That being said, there were some things about The Guardians that I found…off-putting. Spoiler alert and possible trigger warning for sexual violence against women.
The basic premise is that, in the fictional town of Grimshaw, there’s a spooky, abandoned house that was originally used as a foster home. One of its occupants, a sixteen-year-old boy named Roy, raped and murdered a female resident, apparently having raped (though not killed) two other young women in former residences. His foster father, realizing that Roy will kill again if given the chance, murders Roy and stashes his body in the crawl space. (No serious discussion is given to Roy’s motivations, family background, or mental state. He is unsalvageably bad. Just go with it.)
Naturally, Roy’s trapped spirit is restless, and (for reasons that aren’t explained) he is able to possess men who come into unwitting contact with him. He then uses these men to lure young women into the house, where he (through his corporeal proxies) imprisons, repeatedly rapes, and murders them.
The novel centres around Trevor, who grew up in Grimshaw but left for Toronto at his first opportunity. He returns after the suicide of his childhood friend, Ben, manages to save Roy’s latest intended victim, and puts his spirit to rest once and for all, after many twists and turns.
As I said, I don’t read psychological thrillers that often. The last one I read before this was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just to see what all the fuss was about. As in The Guardians, violence against women was a major plot point, described in excruciating detail. And it made me wonder: Is this just what thrillers are?
At least once in The Guardians, a rape is described from beginning to end (in a dream, but still). On several occasions, an abducted woman is glimpsed from behind a window or at the front door, naked and shivering, until a pair of hands pulls her back. It’s very important, for some reason, that we know these women are beautiful and young. The amount of detail seemed unnecessary; it seemed exploitative. Most of all, the sexualized violence seemed more like a prop than the point. The book was about Roy, the villain, and Trevor, the hero. The abducted women were merely the bad things that Roy did.
This wouldn’t be so bad if, as in Dragon Tattoo, there were any women who actually did anything. But all the female characters are almost embarrassingly one-dimensional. There are The Victims, of course, and The Love Interest (an old flame of Trevor’s, who demands nothing of him and angelically accepts his flaws), and The Well-Meaning, Lonely Mother. The young woman whom Trevor rescues from the house is dragged naked, filthy, emaciated, and nearly dead from a crawl space, where she was stashed for days next to Roy’s skeleton. She only appears once afterward, whereupon she kisses Trevor on the cheek and tells him what a good hockey player she hears he is.
Women are central to the action of The Guardians, without actually moving any of the action forward. They are the stage on which the male characters act out their insecurities, psychoses, and shameful desires. You know what it is? It’s boring. I’m bored of seeing rape and violence against women – real problems, that affect real people – used in this way.
I’m certainly not the first to point out that violence against women is often portrayed as titillating and sexy in pop culture. Seth MacFarlane drew a lot of criticism after the Oscars, partly for joking about seeing Jodie Foster’s boobs in The Accused – during a scene where she is brutally gang raped. It’s something we should be beyond, but aren’t.
So I’m disappointed to see an author I really like use the trope. The Guardians is legitimately scary, but I would hope Andrew Pyper can do better. In his latest book, the protagonist has to rescue his daughter from the Underworld. I guess…that could…be ok?
Maybe thrillers aren’t for me, after all.