The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew MonstersTitle: The Boy Who Drew Monsters
Author: Keith Donohue
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Picador
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, fantasy
Rating: 4/10

Minor spoilers, but I wouldn’t recommend this anyway.

Tim and Holly Keenan live in their dream house by the sea, but the dream was lost when it became clear that their beloved son Jack Peter (aka Jack, J.P. or Jip) was unnervingly different from other children. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the difficulty of taking care of their son began to take its toll on the couple. Then, three years ago, Jack and his best friend Nick almost drowned while swimming, and the trauma caused Jack to develop acute agoraphobia. Since then he’s been an ‘inside boy’ – he never plays outside, doesn’t go to school, and has to be swaddled in blankets to avoid panic attacks on trips to the psychiatrist or the doctor.

Holly is convinced that her son’s condition is getting worse, particularly after she touches him without warning and, shocked, he punches her in the face. Afraid of what he might do when he’s older and stronger, she tries discussing the problem with Tim, but he is convinced that Jack is getting better, so he doesn’t want to consider increased medication or placing their son in a mental institution.

In the meantime, Jack starts drawing the monsters he sees – at which point his parents and his best friend Nick start to see them too. His father sees grotesque, paper-white naked man out in the snow on a freezing night. His mother hears banging at the doors and windows as something tries to get into the house. Nick opens his closet door one night and sees the drowned bodies of his parents hanging there – just before they’re due to go on a Caribbean cruise.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters aims to be a quietly unnerving literary horror novel – Jack Peter is a boy who other people find monstrous and scary, and that conflict is externalised with the appearance of real monsters that threaten his family and his best friend. But the whole thing is very poorly executed and fails to be either a scary horror novel or a heartfelt domestic drama.

The plot moves at a glacial pace, when it moves at all. The author sets up the supernatural experiences – sightings of the naked white man for Tim; an intruder banging on the windows for Holly – and then cycles through those and a few other random events for most of the novel without elaborating on anything. The spaces in between are filled with the ebb and flow of everyday life – getting up in the morning, taking a shower/bath, eating breakfast, doing stuff, eating lunch, doing more stuff, eating dinner, going to bed etc. Holly goes to work, Tim stays home or runs errands, Nick comes over to play, Jack draws. It’s frightfully tedious.

Tim, Holly and Nick all fail to figure out what’s going on until the very end. For some reason, Tim and Holly both doubt each other’s accounts of weird experiences, even though they’re going through something similar. Jack has drawn many pictures of the naked white man, so he obviously knows something about it, but Tim never sees the pictures, even though he’s home most of the day. Holly does some investigating when she sees a striking painting of a shipwreck that happened right on the shore where they live, and starts digging up information on the victims and theories about ghosts. Sounds promising, but it turns out to have NOTHING to do with the plot. It’s little more than a red herring that gets an alarming amount of space on the page only to be cast aside for the climax.

There’s actually a hell of a lot that goes to waste in this story. Holly starts going to church and speaking to the priest about Jack, but this is just a distraction. The priest’s housekeeper is an old Japanese woman who also has Asperger’s (although it doesn’t show) and offers some hope of getting through to Jack, while giving Holly some interesting ideas about different kinds of Japanese ghosts. This, too, is mostly pointless.

At the beginning, Tim checks up on one of the holiday homes he oversees for rich clients, and starts feeling sorry for himself because he doesn’t have any money. Sounds like money would be an issue, but it’s total bullshit and is never mentioned again. After all, Tim and Holly Keenan are living in a dream house by the sea. It’s large, comfortable, and heated for the icy winter months. They have two cars, drink wine at dinner, and enjoy indulgent holiday traditions. If they have ‘problems’ with money, it’s only that they’re not millionaires with a holiday home, and are forced to spend some of their disposable income on Jack’s meds.

The only thing that seemed worthwhile in the development of the story was the way the tensions between the characters were revealed through day-to-day interactions and flashbacks. Tim and Holly were living their dream until Jack ruined it. They were best friends with Nick’s parents until infidelity marred that relationship. The Keenans frequently compare Nick with Jack Peter, longing for the son they expected but will never have. You can’t help but wonder why Nick maintains his friendship with Jack Peter and does so much to accommodate him, especially once you start to see how frustrated and resentful he is around Jack. And Jack is an incredibly difficult person to have as a friend – selfish, erratic, cold, even cruel.

Unfortunately, the character dynamics aren’t nearly enough to carry this novel and none of the characters are particularly interesting or likeable on their own. With almost nothing to move the plot forward, it lurches slowly towards a sudden, half-baked climax. Characters who didn’t have a clue what was going on figure it out all at once in a disappointing reveal that many readers will no doubt have predicted long before. Worse, this reveal doesn’t make much sense, so we’re hardly any better off than we were at the beginning.

Only at the very end is there something really good – a grotesque twist that almost made me increase my rating. But no, when I thought about it, that twist didn’t help, because it’s not something that was properly set up and developed throughout the novel. It’s the kind of thing that should have informed the entire story, and deeply affected key characters, so that when you look back you finally understand what was really going on and see everything in a different light. Instead, it’s more like a throwaway idea. It’s great, and it gives the reader a shock, but it’s just tacked on to the end of a tedious, badly structured, poorly written book. Give this book a miss.

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