I have a bedtime ritual. I go to bed, do a little reading, maybe do a little writing (because some stupid part of me, no matter how old I get, still wants to be a writer but I can’t say it out loud because for me, it’s right up there with saying “I want to be a space cowboy when I grow up!”). Then I have to watch a horror movie. I have to.
I told someone my ritual and they nodded knowingly when I said I did a little reading because that’s what normal people do and then their eyes bugged out when I said I watch a horror movie every evening before falling asleep. They screeched “I’d get nightmares! Don’t you get nightmares?” The answer is no. I don’t get nightmares from horror movies or from reading horror books. If I watched a romantic comedy before falling asleep I’m positive I would have nightmares. But hey, that’s just the way my brain is built.
Keith Donohue is in my top 10 list of writers who I read and think “Damn, I wish I had written that book!” Donohue’s horror writing is subtle, sneaky and cleverly disguised as literature until something monstrous skitters across the road in front a car or something in a desk drawer starts to move around. I recently finished his latest book: The Boy Who Drew Monsters.
The Keenans live in their dream house by the sea in a coastal town in Maine. Holly Keenan, a tightly wound mother and wife, is a lawyer who works part-time in town. Tim Keenan is a stay at home dad and also the caretaker of the many lavish homes that are only occupied during the summer in their community. Jack Peter, their 10-year-old son, never leaves the house. Both parents know that Jack has been different from birth but what parent wants to believe there’s something ‘wrong’ with their child? Jack shows all the signs of being autistic. He doesn’t like to be touched, hugged, surprised, or looked at. His mom wakes him up one morning and startles him and he hits her in the face. She starts thinking that it might be time to do something more drastic with Jack, that he’s already uncontrollable with his fits of rage. He’s only going to get bigger and stronger and what will they do then? Tim takes a more hands on approach and believes that if they work harder with Jack they’ll be able to manage him and he might become a functioning member of society. This divides them and sends them onto separate paths.
Holly starts going to the town’s little Catholic church. I thought maybe she was looking for an exorcist for the kid because hey, couldn’t hurt. But she’s seeking comfort. The priest serves her cake and tea and talks about God stuff, most of it not really helpful to Holly. There’s a painting of a ship wreck on his wall that Holly becomes obsessed with. After seeing the painting Holly begins to hear strange noises coming from the ocean: children crying, people screaming. The priest’s Japanese maid ends up helping Holly the most, telling her ghost stories and stating that as a child she was considered ‘strange’ like Jack.
Jack’s best and only friend Nick knows to go along with Jack’s fixations. Like most boys, Jack and Nick go through the normal boyhood obsessions: trains, putting together models, marbles. But Jack has moved on to an obsession with drawing elaborate and terrifyingly real monsters. Nick’s parents are a couple of drunks, the kind you have to make sure pass out on their stomachs so they don’t choke on their own vomit. They’re going away on a cruise for Christmas and dump Nick off at Jack’s house.
The days slowly unwind for the 10-year-olds, like days during Christmas break should. Tim makes them breakfast and lunch and then leaves them to go check on the summer houses of the wealthy. While driving, Tim sees something white and long limbed scuttle across the road. He thinks it was a man but the damn thing was impossibly white (I’m pretty white and I can run across a street very fast if there’s a Ding-Dong waiting for me on the other side). Tim thinks he’s going crazy, especially after he sees the same white long limbed man roaming the sand dunes outside the house.
Meanwhile, Nick is getting frightened by Jack’s macabre preoccupation with drawing monsters. There is something to Jack that wasn’t there before, something sly and cunning. Nick doesn’t want to play with him anymore, doesn’t want him to draw any more monsters because the monsters are coming to life. He can hear them outside the house and sometimes inside the house.
Holly is beginning to see and hear things as well and visits the priest again so she can talk to the maid. This doesn’t sit well with the priest because he wants to throw Bible quotes at her and fill her with the comfort of Catholicism. The last thing he wants is Holly sitting around listening to his maid telling ghost stories. Holy Ghost, yes. Booga, booga ghosts, no. Each person is in their own insular world of terror made worse by a big snow storm moving in.
I read the last few pages and then went back and re-read them again. I did not see the end coming. And I liked it. Because it wasn’t pretty and neatly wrapped up and satisfying. Do the monsters win? I don’t know. Okay, I do know but can’t tell you because then you wouldn’t read the book.
End of story.