Every once in a while a famous writer will publish a novel under a pseudonym. Joyce Carol Oates, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, and Anne Rice have all done this. Sometimes they do it because they're trying out something rather different from what they're best known for, perhaps a genre novel rather than their usual literary work or simply a book in a different genre, and don't want to confuse their readerships. Sometimes, I suspect, they do it in order to find out what sort of critical reception their work is likely to get without the benefit of their reputation clearing the way for them. Occasionally, though, it's all part of an elaborate hoax or game.
As just about everyone who is likely to read this review knows by now, the British Fantasy Award-winning Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney is actually one and the same as the novel How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce. Both titles play games with the reader. William Heaney is, of course, the protagonist of the tale, a man who makes his living with what at first appears to be great cynicism by running a British social welfare agency while devoting his spare time to being part of a three man team dedicated to the creation and sale of forged editions of nineteenth century novels like Pride & Prejudice. Heaney, a rather rumpled, middle-aged divorcee, who seems to be familiar with half the pubs in London, also writes poetry, which he considers garbage and which he passes off as the work of one of his partners in forgery, a handsome male model named Jaz who looks much better on the book covers than Heaney ever could. How to Make Friends with Demons is also the name of a book, largely written by Heaney when he was in college, that has recently been published by a disreputable college acquaintance named Fraser under the latter's name and without Heaney's permission. Then there's Heaney's marriage which, although it produced three pretty good kids, went down in flames at least in part because he was also faking it there, pretending to love a woman whom he initially married more or less because he knew that she was a safe, if passionless choice. So, Heaney appears to be a fake all around. He's cynical about work, his avocation involves forgery, he considers his art schlock, and he's been a bad husband. This, by the way, is a description of himself that Heaney would sign off on quite willingly.
If this were all there was to William Heaney, however, Joyce's book would be considerably less interesting than it is. Our protagonist may claim to be cynical about his job, yes, but he does work quite hard at it, even risking his life on one occasion for a schizophrenic homeless person, and it's difficult to believe that he doesn't do some good. The considerable amount of money that he earns through the forgeries he donates to a homeless shelter called GoPoint where he's considered something of an angel. His poetry, if the literary establishment isn't hopelessly incompetent (which Heaney would claim it is), is quite good. He genuinely loves his children, and the attractive young woman named Yasmin, who appears to be chasing him, certainly sees something worthwhile about him. And finally, when it comes to making friends with, or at least acquaintances with, demons, Heaney definitely isn't a fake.
The novel is told in alternating, sometimes complexly nested segments centering on two primary time frames. We spend the majority of our time with Heaney the middle-aged, world-weary bureaucrat going about his often bored, sometimes angst-filled life. Interspersed with that plot line, however, we also follow Heaney the young college student, dabbling in the forbidden arts (though only as part of a game, an early exercise in forgery as it were), a young man who is still innocent enough to be sincerely in love. We also read the first-person experiences of an Iraqi war veteran named Seamus who, even more than Heaney, has spent time in the company of demons.
Joyce is a subtle writer and one of the things he does extraordinarily well in this book is leave out information, doing so in such a way that not only don't we particularly miss it at the time but, when it is eventually revealed, we don't feel particularly cheated either. We learn early on—and here, being less skillful than Joyce, I'm afraid that I can't avoid some spoilers—that something nasty has occurred in the attic of Heaney's college dormitory. Someone has apparently conducted an experiment in black magic. There's a pentagram on the floor and a goat's head nailed to the wall and, surrounding the head, are photographs of a number of young women whom Heaney has dated. He clearly isn't responsible for these actions though, is in fact enormously upset when he uncovers them by accident, and quickly suspects his rather slimy fellow student, Fraser. Only later does it come out that Heaney, using materials easily available in various well-known books on the occult, had written a fake grimoire which was then stolen and used successfully by Fraser. There's no way that it should have worked, but it did, and Fraser has raised something nasty. After several of the young women, whose pictures Fraser had pinned on the wall in the hope of creating some sort of love spell, meet with serious consequences Heaney, hoping to save his current and sincerely-loved girlfriend from a similar fate, flees college with no explanations to her or anyone else. Years later, although he has become conventionally successful, his entire life since that event has been emotionally stunted. Over the years, however, he has discovered that he has a genius for seeing demons.
William Heaney's demons are not your conventional Satanic fallen angels, though. In fact, although he has made a study of them and can describe them in great detail, Heaney still, all of these years later, has no real idea where his demons come from or even what purpose they serve, beyond making humanity miserable. Except for the fact that they're totally silent, they might be said to have more in common with Poe's Raven than with anything let loose from some Christian Hell. He knows that there are "one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven known demons. Precisely," and he insists that, although "Fraser . . . claimed to have identified a further four . . . it's plain that he's confusing demons with psychological conditions" (p. 1). Oddly enough, though, if it weren't for the fact that a number of other people in the book do in fact see the demons, thus giving Heaney's claims some objective proof, they might easily be interpreted as psychological conditions, perhaps, more than anything else, those that afflict him. A psychiatrist does at one point diagnose Heaney as a high functioning schizophrenic. By his own testimony the demons that he sees primarily seem to haunt people who already have serious mental health issues, the depressed, the homeless, the schizophrenic, those consumed by guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder, and they "feed on us at every compass point," Heaney insists. "They lap, they slurp. They devour us in cruel slow motion" (p. 218).
To the extent that they have a physical component his demons seem to be constituted primarily out of a greasy, ash-like substance, with features that can only be vaguely discerned. They are largely passive and slow moving and human beings with the ability to see them can to some extent avoid demons by the simple expediency of staying away from the places they tend to haunt. As is implicit in the lines quoted above, Heaney's demons sometimes take on the characteristics of vampires, though in their predilection for specific locations and for those with guilty consciences they also seem rather like Victorian ghosts. The demons described in Seamus's journals are particularly memorable, and can even take on some of the attributes of a vengeful djinn or a more subtle version of the furies.
Those who appreciate emotional subtlety, well-developed characters, existential horror, and fine writing will find much here to admire. Those looking for more graphic horror, complete with blood and gore, might want to look elsewhere. I don't want to give away too many of this fine novel's secrets, but what you need to know is that Graham Joyce is one of our very best practitioners of dark fantasy, and it doesn't really matter whether he chooses to publish under his own name or prefers to pull his reader's leg under a pseudonym.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
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