The Writer Who Could See Demons

Carolyn Jess-Cooke's books are full of angels and demons, but the writer rejects being pigeon-holed as 'strictly' a fantasy author

When The Guardian Angel’s Journal first started sending me messages through Facebook in 2011, I thought it was something to do with New Age spiritualism. In fact, The Guardian Angel’s Journal was Belfast author, poet and academic Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s best-selling debut novel, and the Facebook posts a canny marketing ploy to stir up attention.

A year later and Jess-Cooke, who was born in Belfast in 1978, has given up academia to write full time and abandoned angels for demons. Her second novel The Boy Who Could See Demons has just been released by UK publisher Piatkus (who recently joined with the Little, Brown Book Group) and is set in Belfast.

The main character is a young boy whose mother has just tried to commit suicide. It can be perceived as a commentary on the ‘secondary impact’ of the Troubles on a post-Troubles generation, or a mysterious, fun tale about demonic possession. It opens thus:

‘My name is Alex. I'm 10 years old, I like onions on toast, and I can balance on the back legs of my chair for 14 minutes. I can also see demons. My best friend is one. He's called Ruen. He likes Mozart, table tennis, and bread and butter pudding.’

The Boy Who Could See Demons has already been compared with Mark Haddon’s award-winning 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Jess-Cooke chuckles wryly and insists that she isn’t the one making those comparisons.

‘They are both quirky books about boys, they both deal with the idea of constructing reality,’ she says. However, while The Boy Who Could See Demons is a book about a child, it isn’t a book for children. ‘It’s a very ambiguous, challenging book. I wouldn’t say it is a children’s book at all.’

The idea of being pigeon-holed into a genre is something that Jess-Cooke seems to be particularly wary of. In an industry that likes to know where it shelves authors, she dodges the obvious labels for her writing.

Despite the fact that her novels to date feature both demons and angels, she says that, ‘I am not a horror or fantasy author. Not strictly.’

A literary author then? ‘Umm, I just like to use the supernatural as a lens to explore different takes on reality.’

In The Boy Who Could See Demons the different realities explored are those of main characters Alex, who believes he sees demons, and Anya, who believes in schizophrenia.

Jess-Cooke says that it became clear to her early in the process of writing the novel that in modern times a child like Alex would be treated as a medical subject. ‘I did a lot of research into schizophrenia and mental health issues. How Alex would be treated and what procedures would be used.’

Of course, she has also done a lot of thinking about the supernatural and other planes of existence. Jess-Cooke notes that whether the demonic Ruen was real in the world of the book or not, as a writer he was a disturbing character to have living in her head.

The seed for The Boy Who Could See Demons were sown when Jess-Cooke read CS Lewis epistolic novel The Screwtape Letters. She was so intrigued by Lewis’s demonic ‘Lowerarchy’ and mirror-image morality – ‘it’s a fascinating, intriguing book’ – that she decided she’d like to write the film adaptation.

‘I spent ages finding out who owned the rights to The Screwtape Letters,’ she says. ‘I contacted his stepson [Douglas Gresham] and finally tracked down the company near Dublin that owned the rights. I asked permission to do it. In the end I got a rather nasty letter saying that, basically, I could get stuffed.’

So the adaptation itself went into cold storage, but the ideas that Jess-Cooke had been toying with stayed with her. The letter-format of The Screwtape Letters works well in a novel, but wouldn’t on stage. So Jess-Cooke had been plotting out ways to reframe a narrative around that idea.

‘That was back before I had written The Guardian Angel’s Journal,’ she says. ‘But that’s the soil that The Boy Who Could See Demons grew from.’

Although Jess-Cooke speaks fondly of her time studying Creative Writing at Queen’s University of Belfast – alongside now well-known names like Deirdre Cartmill and Leontia Flynn – giving it up to focus on her writing seems to be the right decision. The Boy Who Could See Demons has already garnered extensive praise from critics and Jess-Cooke is planning to release a poetry collection about motherhood in 2014 called Motherhood is an Orange.

She is also working on her third novel. ‘This one is a ghost story.’ Still not a fantasy author, though.