Book Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters
by Keith Donohue
The latest novel from Keith Donohue (author of the well-regarded 2006 novel The Stolen Child) is The Boy Who Drew Monsters, a sharp-edged and atmospheric entry in that beleaguered sub-genre, the modern horror novel. In the genre’s heyday, when Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King were selling millions of copies of their books, horror had less problematic access to its monsters; in the decade after 9-11, that access is far more complicated. YouTube can now bring instantly to any potential reader graphic terrors that tend to make evil clowns and possessed dogs seem fairly tame, and this has spurred some very satisfactory explorations into interior regions, into mood dynamics and especially family intricacies. More and more good horror fiction is concerning itself with guilts and obsessions rather than attacks and sacrileges.
Donohue is very much a part of this new tradition, and The Boy Who Drew Monsters is his best book yet. Its action centers around a boy named Jack Peter Keenan. Three years before the plot begins, seven-year-old Jack Peter and his friend Nick nearly drown during a family visit to the ocean, and in the three years that follow, Jack Peter withdraws deeper into a semi-violent autism, focusing on drawing an endless array of monsters in a desperate belief that his drawings are influencing reality. His parents, their “dream house” on the coast of Maine now blighted by this near-tragedy, do their best to deal with the changes in their son, and as in several of his earlier novels, Donohue excels in conveying entirely natural-feeling family tensions. The horrors that have crept into the Keenan family are portrayed with an often stylish ambiguity, although Donohue isn’t above the occasional da-da-DUNNN moment, like this one between the two boys in Jack Peter’s room:
On the floor between Jack Peter’s old toy box and the desk, a mousetrap had been baited with a chunk of hard cheese, its killing bar poised to snap. Nick squatted on his haunches to inspect, resisting the urge to spring the mechanism with a quick finger. “What’s this for?”
From the bed, Jack Peter did not look up from the picture. “My mother thinks we have a mouse.”
“Have you ever seen it?” Nick sat on the toy box, remembering when it held their childish treasures.
Jack Peter bent closer to the drawing. “I’ve never seen it because it isn’t a mouse.”
As Jack Peter pours more and more of his unhealthy energies into his drawings, his parents begin to hear strange sounds around and inside the house, and his father one night has a vivid encounter with a pale, shambling man-like creature. It frays his nerves, causing him in one neat scene to snap at his son, “There are no monsters” – which provokes a chilling response:
The boy faced him, a baleful expression in his eyes. “Just look, Daddy. He’s out there now.”
The green ocean filled the window frame in a band across its width, and above it only sky, thick with gray clouds stretching to the far horizon To see the shoreline, Time had to come closer and nearly press his nose against the pane, his breath leaving a fog on the glass. To the right, the rocks wandered in the sand, and directly below the window he could make out the bow of a small wooden boat stored beneath the house. To the left, the headlands rose gradually to the lighthouse, and he worked his gaze back from that landmark to the irregular granite. He would have surely missed the figure crouched in the ledges had he not been expecting to find something. Straining to get a better look in the dim light, he bumped his forehead against the glass He pushed ever so slightly, as if that slight pressure might burst the seam between the inner and outer worlds. The figure on the rocks moved, shifting in its crouch, and it cocked its head toward the house. Tim could not be sure, but it appeared to be a man, a figure that reminded him of the strange thing he had seen that night on the road. White as winter, the hair a clot of whirls, a mangy beard. A wild and lonesome thing.
The prose on display there is indicative of Donohue’s strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are obvious, especially a tendency toward lazy turns of phrase like “ever so slightly” (these are sprinkled liberally throughout the book; there’s hardly a ten-page stretch without “her beamish boy” or “porcelain skin” or the like); the strengths are a bit more subtle, such as the way the description mirrors the way Mr. Keenan’s eyes take in the landscape and only eventually find the horror crouched in front of him.
The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a fast and satisfying read that saves several of its best twists for its last pages. These twists aren’t in themselves remarkably original (readers who treasure, for instance, Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven will recognize some of the rhetorical furniture here), but Donohue’s narrative skills carry the whole thing forward with infectious conviction. It makes for a lean and memorable Halloween treat.