'The Boy Who Drew Monsters' Is a Terrifying Treatise on Raising a Difficult Child

by Zachary Houle

31 October 2014

This novel will give you chills, make the hairs on your body stand at end, and, yes, even give you bad dreams.
 

To Sleep, Perchance to Have Nightmares

cover art

The Boy Who Drew Monsters

Keith Donohue

(Picador)
US: Oct 2014

When I was a young boy, perhaps five years old, I had a dream of the bogeyman. It was vivid, and I still remember it to this day. In this nightmare, I was along with a group of children in a field alongside a busy highway being shepherded towards a dark, open doorway that led into a void by a strange creature that resembled a telephone pole with long curly black hair at the top, googly eyes and a beak for a mouth.

In my waking moments, afraid that the dream would reoccur, I came up with an idea. I got my mother to draw a couple of pictures of the bogeymen of my dreams in the hopes that this would please the monsters and abate any further nocturnal unrest. (At two -years-old, my dreams were visited by a monster that I named the Rat-Tat-Tat. I probably got the name from a nursery rhyme. It came to snatch me from my bed. I got her to draw that years later, too.) 

My mother was a much better artist than I, and I figured that my manly dad who worked in a lumber mill would just shrug the whole thing off. After she drew the monster portraits, I put them down in the basement of our home, figuring that that was where the monsters lived. Days later I would find the pictures in the pile of newspapers, so their eventual fate was to be used as kindling. These memories haunt me when it comes to bestselling author Keith Donohue’s latest, fantastic novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters.

The book centers on a ten-year-old boy named Jack Peter. He was diagnosed as a young child with Asperger’s syndrome, making him a high-functioning autistic, but he hasn’t been the same since he nearly drowned when he was seven. Since that event, he has never set a foot outside – unless, of course, he has to go to the doctor’s office, and then it is an ordeal for his parents, Tim and Holly, to get him out of the house. His father home schools him while his mother works.

Jack Peter has one friend, a boy his age named Nick, who humours Jack Peter, or “Jip” as his father calls him, even though the rest of his classmates have ostracized J.P. (as he is also known) for his behavior long ago. As the story begins, Jack Peter’s condition is worsening. He strikes his mother one morning as she rouses him from sleep. He believes there are monsters under the bed, and in his drowsy state she seems to be one of them. When Jack Peter turns to drawing, his parents are somewhat concerned about this new development on one hand, given the subject matter of his drawings (i.e., monsters), but they’re also slightly relieved, as this might be a way for Jack Peter to express himself and eventually get out of whatever “phase” he’s going through.

And that’s when things start going bump in the night. Drawers rattle. Windows shake. A mysterious figure is seen in glimpses prowling through the woods of the family’s coastal Maine home. Voices call out in the night. And on it goes. Basically, Jack Peter’s parents start to experience these things, making them wonder if they’re going mad from the stress of dealing with an autistic son. So in as much that The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a horror novel, its a psychological horror novel. It owes a great deal in style and theme to Japanese horror – and, it turns out, there’s a minor character who is the Japanese housekeeper of a local parish priest. The Boy Who Drew Monsters is as much about style as it is substance, though there’s plenty of the latter. The book reads like a treatise on what it’s like to raise a difficult child.

Here’s the thing: this story is genuinely, deeply frightening. I’ve read just about every Stephen King book that’s been published, and find his works more thrilling than scary, with a few exceptions (Pet Sematary gave me the mild creeps). I’ve watched Cannibal Holocaust at least twice and, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know that that movie is one of the sickest, most twisted works of film horror committed to celluloid. (The film was popular in Japan at the time of its release owing to the rumour that the human deaths in the movie, which turned out to be staged, were real, as it feels that authentic.) I barely flinched at either King or the cannibal film. I don’t read King with all the lights turned on in my house. I didn’t watch Cannibal Holocaust through splayed fingers.

But The Boy Who Drew Monsters, no lie, gave me a nightmare. I dreamed of a white wolf dog – a creature that plays an integral part in the book – who stole my precious pet Calico cat, Dot, away from me. I had to chase after it with poor Dot hanging from the creature’s jaws.

The success of this work is that it reveals the horror that’s in your own mind. Donohue, who has a Ph.D. in English, writes in a very Hitchcockian way; you only get glimpses of things early on in the book, and it isn’t until the novel’s riveting climax that you finally get to see what is behind the curtain, so to speak. The story feels very Gothic, even though there are references to tablets, cell phones, The Simpsons, and countless other modern and pop culture items. If this ever gets made into a movie – and the book is structured in almost a screenplay-on-the-page way – I imagined it to be in black-and-white, just like all of those spooky films from the past, such as The Innocents from 1961.

What’s more, though, the writing is evocative. You can pretty much pick any page and any sentence at random, and be swept away by the lyricism of Donohue’s writing. But I wouldn’t want to give anything away, and, besides, there are red herrings aplenty. So here are the first few sentences, the opening paragraph:

In the dream house, the boy listened for the monster under his bed. An awful presence in the dark had awakened him in the dead hours, and he waited for the telltale sound of breathing. Would there be breathing? Or would it arrive in silence, without warning? He would have no time to defend himself or save the treasures hidden in his old toy box. The possibility of such an attack unnerved him, but he dared not move. He did not dare lean his head over the side of his bed to check the space between the mattress and the wide blue sea of the braided sisal rug. He did not dare turn on the lamp and flood the room with light and risk spooking the monster from its hiding place. There was no breathing but his own, no sound at all but the thrum of his heart.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters is dazzlingly electrifying, full of portending dread, and genuine creepy scares. Never have I have been so unnerved by a novel, at least in some time, and as a literary horror novel, this succeeds on just about every level. True, if you’re paying really close attention, the end of the book isn’t so much as a surprise, but that can be only viewed in retrospect. The novel kept me guessing right through its final pages – I even wondered if this would take a very The Sixth Sense turn, the oldest trick in the book, and have everyone be ghosts. (Thankfully, no.) By withholding key pieces of information, The Boy Who Drew Monsters plays with the mind, creating an unforgettable literary experience.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters

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