OK, I know monsters don’t exist. There are no vampires, bogey men or Frankenstein’s creatures. These are monsters of fiction, and are not real.
There is no space monster as depicted in the films Alien and Aliens and it will not come crashing through the bathroom window at night to get me.
There is no longer a big bad wolf living under my bed, as there was when I was a child, with enormous teeth all the better to eat me.
Shape-changers cannot slip under the door and lurk in the shadows, waiting to spring.
Ghosts of poor unfortunates who died in a sinking ship in the 19th century are not haunting people and leaving icy footprints on the stairs.
Oh but they are, they are.
At least they are in the American writer Keith Donohue’s masterful horror novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and while by day it all seems like a bit of nonsense, by night, every creak and bump in the house announces that there could be a bit of truth in that fiction…
It is, of course, the power of an excellent and accomplished writer to make you believe the unbelievable.
There will be no spoilers here, but I can say that The Boy Who Drew Monsters focuses on two 10-year-old boys, friends whose lives changed when they are both nearly drowned in the sea three years before. Nick becomes a loner but manages to function fairly normally, while Jack Peter is diagnosed with autism and refuses to leave the house, spending almost all his time drawing pictures.
Then strange things start to happen. Jack Peter’s parents start seeing creepy apparitions and hearing noises as if something is trying to get into their house. The horror escalates, and then they discover their son has been drawing monsters…beings that somehow seem to be coming to life. Then they discover that a ship sank in the sea in front of their house in the 19th century, and the bodies of some of the drowned were never found.
There has been some criticism of the end of the novel but—again without any spoilers—I thought the ending was great. Why? Because I can’t stop thinking about it. Donohue makes you question your beliefs about what is real and what is not, the power of the imagination and the power of suggestion. Granted, there are holes in the plot and certain plot points that remain unresolved at the end—but this leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind.
While verdicts on The Good Read website of The Boy Who Drew Monsters are mixed, acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub wrote a glowing review in The Washington Post. According to Straub, “This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.” You can read the full review on Donohue’s website here.
I’ve been a fan of Donohue’s writing since his masterful first novel, the magical reality story The Stolen Child (2006), inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name. The novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller.
Donohue lives in Maryland, and by profession is an archivist with a PhD in English—Irish literature, to be precise. He was 47 before his first novel was published and despite large success, he still has a day job as the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the US National Archives.
Actually, horror is not usually my choice in novels. I prefer non-gory crime, historical romances and stories of everyday life, but Donohue’s compelling literary prose and ability to build tension in the narrative hook me every time.
Although I found the book terribly scary, I could not tear myself away from it, save to gingerly look up the stairs or behind the door to make sure there really wasn’t a monster hiding there. Thanks, Dr Donohue: with The Boy Who Drew Monsters, you have scared the living daylights out of me!