The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue
Genre: Adult Paranormal/Psychological
Release date: October 7 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A creepy, atmospheric tale that delves into the terrors of childhood and the regrets and disappointments of adulthood.
Believing himself invisible, Jack Peter was surprised when they remembered to invite him to the table. He saw how they had changed. They were a team again, and he would have to see what he should do about that. The blush of red wine filled the room when his father uncorked the bottle. Piping hot, the spaghetti was no sooner set on the table than they were at it like a pair of wild beasts. They chomped at the bread, slurped at the sauce, and drained their glasses to the lees. They ate as though they had been starving, abandoning themselves to desire, as if the raw act of eating was somehow wicked when true wickedness was just outside the door.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I started this book, but it completely surprised me, in a good way. I had read Donohue’s first book, The Stolen Child, when it came out, and I remember really enjoying it. So I was looking forward to reading his latest. The story starts out creepy and the creepiness just keeps escalating. Donohue clearly loves exploring themes about childhood fears, real or imagined, and in this multi-POV story he gets right into the heads of Jack Peter and Nick, two ten-year-old friends who come face to face with the “monster under the bed.”
Tim and Holly Keenan and their son Jack Peter, or “Jip” as his father fondly calls him, live in their “dream house” in a small Maine coastal town, where Tim is a caretaker for the grand houses in the neighborhood, whose residents are spending winter in the city. But their home life is far from perfect. Jack Peter has Asperger’s and has recently developed agoraphobia, and he has not left his house—other than monthly visits to the psychiatrist—in three years. One morning when Holly goes to wake him up, she surprises him and he strikes her in the face. This sets off a chain of disturbing events that threaten to cripple the family, as well as their close friends who live nearby. One by one, each family member begins to see and hear strange things. But what is real and what isn’t?
There’s a gothic feel to The Boy Who Drew Monsters that I really loved: I could practically hear the crash of the waves on the rocks, and smell the sea salt in the air. Because the story takes place right before Christmas, snow plays a big part in the story (and here’s where you can tell I’m a California girl. I had no idea it could snow by the ocean!) The swirling chill of the snow added a menacing quality to the story, especially when a monster shows up and some of the characters take off into the snowy night to find it.
As you may have guessed from the title, Jack Peter likes to draw pictures of monsters, and this odd pastime leads to much of the unsettling scenes in the book. One of Donohue’s talents is pacing the story so that the reader is only given small bits of creepiness at a time, but all those small moments eventually add up to some very real terror. I started reading this book the night my husband left on a trip for three days, and let me tell you, this is not the kind of book you want to read at night, in the dark, alone! I don’t scare that easily, but I found myself jumping at shadows and burrowing under the covers. Part of the genius of the story is that you’re never really sure whether the scary parts are real, or if they are simply manifestations of stressed out people.
I loved the tangled relationship between the Keenans and the Wellers. The story focuses mainly on six characters: Jack Peter and his parents, Holly and Tim; and Nick and his parents, Nell and Fred. The two families live near each other, and Nick is Jack Peter’s only friend. The boys grew up together, but a terrible accident at the beach three years before the story starts (they both nearly drowned) has put a strain on their relationship. Now Nick’s parents are making him stay with the Keenan family for a week while they go on a cruise to try to rekindle their marriage (yes, there’s some back story to the Weller’s relationship that will explain things). Donohue does a great job of using multiple POV to flit in and out of each character’s head, so that the reader experiences the thoughts of each one. He also uses the classic fear of getting cut off from your loved ones to great effect, as he separates the characters from each other and makes them face their fears alone.
For me, the most interesting character of the bunch was Holly, a mother who must face the fact that she has a special needs child and that there is no escape from that reality. Holly and Tim are at odds with each other over Jack’s situation. Tim is convinced that Jack is “getting better” and will someday grow out of his Asperger’s tendencies. But Holly think he’s getting worse, and it’s driving her to the brink of sorrow. After Jack hits Holly, she rekindles her relationship with the Catholic church, mostly as a way to find answers. She befriends the local priest, as well as his “companion,” a woman named Miss Tiramaku who tells her all about the yurei (Japanese ghosts) who are haunting the town. Holly’s deteriorating mental state, and her journey back around to a sort of acceptance about Jack, was wonderfully done.
The story ends in a fantastic twist, one that I didn’t see coming, but which made me gasp out loud. If you’re looking for a book with a stealthy kind of terror, the sort that builds slowly until you’re about to crack from the tension, The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a must-read.
Big thanks to Picador for sending a review copy of the book!
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