On the His Dark Materials trilogy

Ghost in the Machine

By Diana Peterfreund

My first reading of The Golden Compass left quite an impression on me: I started having recurring nightmares about intercision. I began cautioning friends who had bought the novel for their seven-year-olds (fresh off reading Narnia) and recommending the book to folks who like to be scared. Forget Stephen King; I’ve got Philip Pullman. But where the master of horror capitalizes on the everyday object or circumstance (rabid dogs, killer automobiles) in order to inspire fear in his readership, Pullman evokes terror through a form of torture completely alien to our own experience.1

It is telling that, of all the pain inflicted on the characters throughout the trilogy-severed fingers, watching a loved one die and knowing you are the cause, being shot, nearly bleeding to death, realizing that you are a murderer, having your brains dashed out, losing a newfound love forever–not one is written with the same depth and visceral detail Pullman devotes to the physical and emotional anguish you have the potential to experience when your soul lives outside your body.

D¦mons are the most beloved and most commented-upon aspect of the books-an emblem of the series, more so than the Tolkienesque objects (alethiometer, knife, spyglass) that lend their names to each title. The story begins and ends with d¦mons, and d¦mons and their nature are crucial to every turning point in the trilogy.

In The Subtle Knife, the supremacy of d¦mon-related distress is made explicit when, in chapter two, Mrs. Coulter fails to get information out of a witch  …

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