Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.

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.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely FineTitle: We Are All Completely Fine
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror
Rating: 7/10

Daryl Gregory’s novella is only 192 pages long, and I finished it all in a rather enjoyable rainy Sunday morning. It’s horror, but it’s fairly light horror. It’s got monsters and suffering and appalling torture, but it’s also got lots of humour and hope.

It begins with six unusual people coming together for group therapy. Harrison became famous as ‘The Monster Detective’, a hero who inspired a series of novels. Stan became equally famous after being imprisoned by a family of cannibals who ate his limbs (and his friends). Barbara claims that someone known as the Scrimshander cut her open and peeled back her flesh to carve messages on her bones. Greta’s body is covered in dense, intricately carved scars. Martin refuses to ever take off his sunglasses, but sees things others don’t.

Each of these patients are sole survivors, marked by scars inside and out. They’ve all faced monsters, but Dr. Jan Sayer is the only therapist who has not dismissed their experiences as delusion. She’s brought them together, hoping that their knowledge of a monstrous other world will enable them to help each other live in the normal one.

I requested this book because the blurb suggested that it could be a fantastic character study, and the novella certainly delivers on that point. For the first half or so, there isn’t much of a plot. The characters just tell their stories and we get brief glances into their current lives. And it works very, very well.

Gregory’s writing is excellent, masterfully detailing the characters – Harrison’s awkward tendency to overthink everything; the polite, well-groomed appearance that covers Barbara’s tortured past; the way Martin immediately develops an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group. For a while Greta is noticeable only because of her persistent silence, while Stan, on the other hand, dominates every session with indulgent monologues about his suffering.

Whether I liked these characters I can’t quite say, but I was instantly invested in hearing their stories, understanding who they were, and how the hidden world of demons and monsters had shaped them. We Are All Completely Fine is, first and foremost, a character-driven story and it works brilliantly as such.

But there is a plot and, unfortunately, when this starts to develop about halfway through, the novella begins to falter. This is partly because it’s not a great plot. Although it ties the characters individual stories together quite neatly and gives us a bit of action, it’s just so… dull. Like something from a B-grade horror movie.

A second problem is that the plot comes to dominate the story when it’s actually the weakest element. The characters, who were strong enough to drive a narrative on their own, fade into the background of a plot that’s not nearly as interesting as they were. I still enjoyed reading about them, especially as Martin comes out of his shell and Stan’s old-man grumpiness lends a  wonderful dose of humour, but it just wasn’t the same.

The novel starts out feeling fresh and well-crafted, and then degenerates into something totally forgettable. I was left with the odd feeling of being very pleased and terribly disappointed at the same time. Since it’s so short though, I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot.