From acclaimed, bestselling author Andrew Pyper, a suspenseful page-turner that explores the repercussions of that most dishonest of thefts: stealing another’s story and calling it your own.
Patrick Rush, a former bright light at the National Star now demoted to the reality TV beat, is still recovering from his wife’s death when he joins a writers’ group in Toronto. His goal: to write the book he’s always felt lived within him. Trouble is, Patrick has no story to tell. And while the circle’s members show similarly little literary promise, there is one exception: Angela. Her unsettling readings tell of a shadowy childhood tragedy and an unremitting fear of the Sandman, a “terrible man who does terrible things.” It’s the stuff of nightmares or horror films. Or is it?
Over the weeks that follow, a string of unsolved murders seem increasingly connected to Patrick. And then the circle’s members start to go missing, one by one. Still haunted by loss–and by a crime only those in the circle could know of–Patrick finds himself in a fictional world made horrifically real. But nothing will put him in greater danger than that ancient curse of natural born readers: the need to know how the story ends.
At once a complex and compulsive read, The Killing Circle explores the side effects of an increasingly fame-mad culture, where even the staid realm of literature can fall prey to ravenous ambition and competition.
About the author
ANDREW PYPER is the author of Lost Girls, his highly acclaimed first novel that was a bestseller in Canada, in the Top 10 on the TimesUK paperback list and in the Top 30 of The New York Times paperback bestseller list. The novel was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by The Globe and Mail and The New York Times and is currently being adapted for the screen. His second novel, The Trade Mission, was selected as a Top 10 Best Book of the Year by the Toronto Star and was published in Canada, the US and the UK to great acclaim. Pyper is also theauthor of Kiss Me, a collection of short stories. While researching and writing The Wildfire Season, he spent three of the past five summers living in the Yukon. His home is in Toronto. Visit his website at www.andrewpyper.com.
Excerpt: The Killing Circle (by (author) Andrew Pyper)
Labour Day, 2007
I didn’t know my son could tell directions from the stars.
Corona Austrina. Lyra. Delphinus.
Sam leaves noseprints on the passenger window as we highway out of the city, reciting the constellations and whispering "South" and "East" and "North" with each turn I make.
"Where’d you learn that?"
He gives me the same look as when I came into his room a couple nights ago and found him sling-shooting a platoon of plastic Marines, one by one, on to the neighbour’s roof. "I’m a terrorist,"he had answered when asked what he thought he was doing.
With Sam I know I’ll get no further than this. It’s because both of us are readers. Not by passion necessarily, but by character. Observers. Critics. Interpreters. Readers of books (most recently the later, furious Philip Roth for me, and Robinson Crusoe, told in bedtime snippets, for Sam). But also comics, travel brochures, bathroom-stall graffiti, owner’s manuals, cereal-box recipes. The material doesn’t matter. Reading is how we translate the world into a language we can at least partly understand.
"North,"Sam says, his nose returned to the glass.
The two of us peer at the slab of shadow at the top of the rise. A square monolith jutting out of an Ontario corn field like the last remnant of an ancient wall.
"Mus-tang Drive-in. End of Sea-son. La-bour Day Dusk ’til Dawn,"Sam reads as we pass the sign.
He leans forward to study the neon cowboy on a bucking bronco that is the Mustang’s beacon, directing us in from the night roads.
"I’ve been here before,"he says.
"You remember that?"
"The sign. The man on the horse."
"You were so little then."
"What am I now?"
"Now? Now you’re a book-reading, star-gazing young man."
"No,"he says, grimacing. "I’m eight years old. And I just remember things."
We have come out here, widower and son, to watch the last movie show of the summer at one of the last drive-ins in the country. The last of the lasts.
Tamara - Sam’s mother, my wife - died eight months after Sam was born. Since then, I have found a parental usefulness in moviegoing. In a darkened cinema (or here, in a darkened corn field) Sam and I can find an intimacy without the dangers of talk. There’s something distinctly male about it. The closeness fathers and sons find in passive, mostly silent hobbies, like fly fishing or watching baseball games.
The guy at the admission booth pauses when he spots Sam in the passenger seat. Tonight’s main feature - a spooky Hollywood thriller currently raking in the last of the easy summer dollars - is R-rated. I hand the guy a bill that more than covers full price for two adults. He winks and waves us on, but offers no change.
The place is packed. The best spot left is in front of the concession stand, well off to the side. Sam wanted to try further back, but I know that’s where the high school kids go. Pot and smuggled rye, teenaged boys and girls and all the things they get away with. It’s not concern for Sam’s moral education, but the nostalgic envy that being so close to these crimes would cause in me that makes me stay up here with the rest of the respectables.
"It’s starting!"Sam announces as the floodlights cut out.
It leaves me to pull our chairs and mothballed sleeping bag out of the trunk with only the light of the commercials to see by. I slide along the side of the car keeping my eye on the screen. This, for me, is the best part of the whole drive-in experience: the vintage ad for junk food. A dancing hot dog, leering milkshake, a choir of french fries. And there’s something about the tap-dancing onion ring that always breaks my heart.
I set up Sam’s chair, then my own. Snuggle up next to each other under the sleeping bag.
"En-joy Our Fea-ture Pres-en-ta-tion!"Sam says, reading the screen.
The parked rows await the sky’s final turn from purple to black. A single honk to our right, a minivan rollicking with sugar-freaked little leaguers, brings muffled laughter from the vehicles around us. But there’s something nervous in these sounds - the bleat of alarm, the reply of hollow mirth. To make this impression go away I try at a laugh of my own. A dad laugh. And once it’s out, I inhale the familiar mix of gas fumes, popcorn, burnt hamburger. Along with something else. Something like fear. Faint as the perfume a previous guest leaves on a motel pillow.
The movie starts. A scene of introductory horror: a dark figure pursuing its prey through a field at night. Flashes of desperate movement, swinging arms and boots and jangling keys on a belt. Jump edits between the killer’s certain stride and the other’s panicked run, fall, then sobbing, crab crawl forward. A brief shot of hands dripping with what may be oil, or wet earth, or blood. A close-up scream.
We don’t know who this person is, this certain victim, but we recognize the context of hopeless struggle. It is the dream all of us have had, the one in which our legs refuse to carry us, the ground softened into black syrup, taking us down. And behind us is death. Faceless and sure, suffering no such handicaps.
We’re so close to the screen that to look at anything else forces me to turn all the way around in my chair. An audience of eyes. Looking back at me through bug-spattered windshields.
I sit forward again and tilt my head back. The autumn dome of night, endless and cold, lets me breathe. For a moment. Then even the stars crowd down.
Sam has turned at all my fidgeting. I force myself to look straight ahead at the actors on the screen. Enormous, inescapable. Their words coming from every direction, as if spoken from within me. Soon the film becomes not just any dream, but a particular one I’ve had a thousand times.
I’m standing before I know I’m out of my chair. The sleeping bag spilling off my knees.
Sam looks up at me. Now, his face half in shadow, I can see his mother in him. It’s what gives him his sweetness, his open vulnerability. Seeing her in his features brings the strange feeling of missing someone who is still here.
"You want anything?"I ask. "Tater tots?"
Sam nods. And when I reach my hand out to him, he takes it.
We shuffle toward the source of the projector’s light. The blue beam and the glimpsed orange of matches lighting cigarettes in back seats - along with the dull glow of the quarter moon - the only illumination to see by. And the same dialogue broadcast from the speakers hooked to every car window.
What are you talking about?
The thing that lives under your bed. The eyes in your closet at night, watching you. The dark. Whatever frightens you the most...
Somebody opens the door to the concession stand and a cone of light plays over our feet. Sam runs to stay within it. Pretending that if he touches the unlit gravel before he gets inside he’ll be sucked into another dimension.
Which we are anyway. The Mustang’s snack bar belongs to neither Sam’s generation nor mine, but to whatever time it was when men wore ties to buy cheeseburgers. Just look at the posters on the walls: beaming sixties families stepping from their fin-tailed Fords to purchase treats for adorably ravenous Beaver Cleaver kids. It’s almost enough to put you off the food.
But not quite.
In fact, we need a tray. On to which I pile cardboard boats of taters, foil-wrapped dogs, rings so greasy you can see through the paper plate they sit on, as well as a jumbo soda, two straws.
But before we can leave, we need to pay. The girl at the till is speaking into the air. "No way,"she says, hang-jawed. "No way."And then I notice the cord coming out of her ear. The little mouthpiece thingy under her chin. "For real?"
"I’ll meet you where we’re sitting,"Sam says, grabbing a hot dog off the tray.
"Just watch for cars."
"They’re parked, Dad."
He gives me a pitying smile before running out the door.
Outside, after I’ve paid, the sudden dark leaves me blind. A tater tot leaps off the tray and squashes under my shoe. Where the hell did I park anyway? The movie tells me. The angle I’d been watching it from. Up a bit more, off to the side.
And there it is. My ancient Toyota. A car I should really think about replacing but can’t yet. It’s the lipstick and eyeliner Tamara left in the glove box. Every time I open it to grab my ownership certificate they spill out into my hand and she is with me. Sitting in the passenger seat, pulling down the visor mirror for a last-minute smearing. When we’d arrive at wherever we were headed to, she would turn to me and ask, "Do I look okay?"Every time I said yes, it was true.
I keep my eyes on the Toyota’s outline and stumble toward it, right next to the van of little leaguers. Quiet now. Their attention held by the movie’s suspense.
Why is he doing this? Why not just kill us when he had the chance?
The tray falls from my hands.
It’s not the movie. It’s what’s in front of my car that does it.
There’s our fold-out chairs. The sleeping bag.
Except the sleeping bag is lying on the ground. And both chairs are empty.
A couple of the minivan kids are sniggering at me, pointing at the unsheathed hot dog on the ground, the dixie cups of extra ketchup splashed gore over my pants. I look their way. And whatever shows on my face makes them slide the door shut.
I drift away from the Toyota, scuffing through the aisles between the cars. Slow, deliberate scans in every direction. Poking my head into the vehicles and noting the hundreds of North American lives in recreational progress–the dope-smoking kids, gluttonous adults, the couples slumped under comforters in the backs of pick-up trucks.
But no Sam.
For the first time the idea of calling the police comes to mind. Yet it remains only an idea. Sam’s been gone three minutes at most. He has to be here. What might be happening is not happening. It can’t be. It can’t.
My son’s name comes to me from someone else. An alarmed third party.
I start to run. As fast as I can at first. Then, realizing I won’t make it the length of a single row, slow it to a jog. A pushing-forty man trotting his way through the parked cars in the middle of the main feature, rubbernecking this way and that. It’s the sort of thing people notice. A teenager in his dad’s convertible wolf whistles as I go by, and the girls bunched into the front with him offer an ironic wave. Without thinking, I wave back.
When I finish zigzagging all the rows, I start around the perimeter of the lot. Peering into the shadowed fields. Each line of corn another chance of seeing Sam standing there, hiding, waiting for me to find him. This anticipated image of him becomes so particular that I actually spot him a couple of times. But when I stop for a second look, he’s gone.
I make it to the back of the lot where the light from the screen is dimmest, everything bathed in a deep-sea glow. The corn rows seem wider here, and darker. The roof of a distant farmhouse the only interruption on the horizon. No lights in its windows. I try to blink it into better focus, but my eyes are blurred by tears I hadn’t felt coming.
I thought you were a ghost.
I was a ghost. But ghosts don’t get to do things. It’s much better being the monster. The kind you don’t expect is a monster until it’s too late.
I bend over and put my hands on my knees. Sucking air. A pause that lets the panic in. The horrific imaginings. Who he’s with. What they will do. Are doing. How he will never come back.
I saw someone. Looking in the window.
Did you see who it was?
A man. A shadow.
I have already started to run back toward the concession stand when I see it.
A figure disappearing into the stands of corn. As tall as me, if not taller. There. And then not there.
I try to count the rows between where I was and where the figure entered the field. Seven? Eight? No more than ten. When I’ve passed nine I cut right and start in.
The fibrous leaves thrash against my face, the stalks cracking as I punch my way past. It looked like there was more room in the rows from outside, but now that I’m within them there’s not near enough space for a man my size to move without being grabbed at, tripped, cut. Not so much running as swallowed by a constricting throat.
How is whoever I saw going any faster than me? The question makes me stop. I lie down flat and peer through the stalks. Down here, the only light is a grey, celestial dusting. With my open mouth pressed against the earth, it’s as though the moonlight has assumed a taste. The mineral grit of steel shavings.
I teach my body to be still.
The thought occurs to me that I have gone mad between the time I left Sam and now. Sudden-onset insanity. It would explain crashing through a corn field at night. Chasing something that likely wasn’t there in the first place.
And then it’s there.
A pair of boots rushing toward the far end of the field. A hundred feet ahead and a couple rows to the left.
I scramble to my feet. Moaning at my locked knees, the muscles burning in my hips. I use my hands to pull me ahead. Ripping out ears of corn and tossing them to thud like another’s steps behind me.
"The villain leaps off the page...Pyper does an impressive job building suspense, offering enough narrative twists and turns to keep the reader nicely off balance. Basing the experience of the novel in Rush's first-person perspective, he is able to capture not only the depths of the haunting and gradually mounting terror, but also the more routine aspects of the character's life... A strong and compelling read."
—The Vancouver Sun
"A thumping good read, a real creep-fest."
"The Killing Circle is the best of a quartet of outstanding mystery-thriller novels by Andrew Pyper. A riveting prologue, impossible to put down, quickens the beat and leaves you with a twist in the pit of your gut. The twist weaves you through the story of fear, panic and resignation and it drives you onward, page by page, to the conclusion... a challenging and compulsive read that clearly demonstrates Andrew Pyper as a unique storyteller on the Canadian scene."
"Rising star [Pyper] doesn't disappoint in [this] fast-paced, funny thriller. A terrific ride of a mystery...the story hurtles along. Pyper is so good at dropping clues. The thing is, he's also good at introducing so many twists that you'd swear his plot was inspired by a bowl of rotini."
"Extraordinary...Powered by an ingeniously nonlinear narrative and suffused with a tone thick with dread, this is easily Pyper's most ambitious — and absorbing — work to date."
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Very smart, very scary, very good: once I started I couldn't stop. Fans of dark and witty suspense will love The Killing Circle."
—Peter Abrahams, author of Oblivion and End of Story
"Few are better at conveying an omnipresent sense of dread and horror bubbling just beneath life's seemingly mundane routines. The Killing Circle will keep you up one night reading and another four checking the locks on the doors."
“If Andrew Pyper scripted our collective nightmares, we’d all be dreaming and screaming like the narrator of his gorgeously written and thoroughly unnerving suspense thriller…. This is a terrific yarn.”
—The New York Times
“This is one great read: darkly lyrical and atmospheric, it's as haunting as it is gripping. Highly recommended.”
“Frightening and action-packed.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Spookily terrific...Great suspense and a great story. ”
—Winnipeg Free Press