There’s a demon in the White House — horror writer Andrew Pyper explains how it got there

Who of us hasn’t said about politics, “What a nightmare!” “Scary!” Sometimes, our impressions are closer to the truth than we might think. Canadian horror writer Andrew Pyper’s new book, “The Residence,” is set in the American White House in 1853, during the tenure of President-elect Franklin Pierce and his First Lady Jane Pierce, just after a terrible train crash kills their only surviving son, Bennie. We asked Pyper: Why set a horror story in The White House? Here’s what he said.

“I didn’t set out to write a novel about Franklin Pierce. In fact, I’d never even heard of Franklin Pierce before I embarked on research into haunted houses more generally — recreational, Google rabbit-holing.

Jane Pierce fascinated me first, then Franklin. Then the question of their marriage intrigued me. There was every reason to think that (it) would not be successful: they had all their children taken from them; he deceived her, promising her that he would not run for office; he was a drinker; she was more of an abolitionist and he was sort of a compromiser ditherer. Then they moved into the White House and had one of the most notably failed administrations in the history of the United States.

So (it was) the question of what makes a marriage? All intimacy, in all of its forms, boils down often to a shared proclivity or a secret or a crime.

For me, it was less about the White House (being) an interesting place to situate a haunted house story, but rather what if a married couple in the most pressurized domestic situation I can imagine — the president of the United States in this public official residence — what if they have a secret? Something that’s so profound and so literally unspeakable that it carries them into their post- administrative life and it carries them into the grave.

Second, what if that secret in a way is America’s secret? That it has to do with this thing that this country even to this day refuses to look at directly, the cumulative damages of its loss, its crimes — slavery specifically — the legacy of slavery and all of its bloodshed. What if the secret of this marriage reflects on or speaks to the larger crime that is the foundation of the United States?

Once I thought, OK, this is a gothic story by its very nature, and using Jane’s claim in her letters that Bennie returned to her … well, what if he literally did? Now we have a ghost story. (That) was an opportunity to explore a resident of the White House who is still there today, some kind of entity that the Pierces brought there; some kind of malevolent force.

That was how I invented the idea of Sir. I don’t think the novel ever uses the word demon, but he has that kind of demonic personality, he seeks confusion and distress and chaos. There’s a line in the book where he says, to paraphrase, the best way to destroy a nation is destroy its leader and the way you destroy the leader is you break his heart.

It’s very hard to be sympathetic to the president of the United States, given who is in the White House right now, but it must be a profoundly lonely place to live and to exist. You live where you work … it’s private and yet it’s surrounded by floodlights, so therefore it’s not private at all. It isn’t theirs.

There’s an opportunity for the four or eight years that those men live there, for some kind of breakdown, some kind of vulnerability, a break in their spirits. It would be a wonderful place for a demon because you’re able to cling to these people who can’t escape.

One of the challenges of writing a haunted house story is how do you explain why the people don’t just leave? You have to have a good reason. In the case of the White House, there’s nowhere to go, you cannot leave. That also adds to the psychological aspect of the story — something bad is here, but there is no way out.

I hope the novel is a way to think of what’s happening now. We’re all here in this awful moment together. To see it in mythic terms, that there really is evil in the world, and that evil at the moment holds the highest office in the world and it is executing cruelties and denying people their liberties. We can think of this in political terms, we can think of it in electoral terms, we can think of it in policy terms. I hope the novel invites readers to think of it in moral terms.

There are moments in history where it just comes down to good and bad. Which side are you on?”

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deborah Dundas

TORONTO STAR