The Boy Who Drew Monsters feels familiar, but in a good way. It reads like Stephen King in his prime (see: “Word Processor of the Gods”) or Clive Barker during his Books of Blood phase. Keith Donohue is a master wordsmith, and he recognizes that horror does not have to come from monsters and demons; his novel seeks to identify the terrifying truths within humanity, whether it be adults or children. The Boy Who Drew Monsters primarily centers around two parents attempting to raise a child who has withdrawn from normal life, but its exploration involves more than just the rigors of adulthood, effectively understanding the dilemmas of growing up and how events can change the course of a child’s life forever.
As the title suggests, Donohue’s plot involves a boy who draws monsters, and the book doesn’t take long to get to the gristle of that idea. Jack Peter, affectionately known as Jip, has Asperger’s, and because of a traumatic experience involving drowning at a young age, he’s become so determined to hide from the strangeness of the outside world that he refuses to step foot outside. His parents have, with reluctance, accepted this facet of his personality, but the difficulties coping with it have clearly put a strain on their already turbulent marriage. And so Jip, brilliant and bored, turns to drawing as an outlet, his creativity creating a host of horrors that eventually become reality to the family weathering out a brutal winter in their coastal New England home.
The set pieces are here in spades. Donohue’s setting is isolated, and his descriptions are chilling – both literally and figuratively. Christmastime on the coast means nor’easters, and the prose in The Boy Who Drew Monsters is written by someone who has clearly experienced the kind of freezing conditions he’s writing about. The novel is often bleak and dreary, and there’s no shortage of spooky events taking place at this remote location: bumps on the walls at night, a strange white-haired man running naked around the rocks by the sea, a giant white dog terrorizing the community. There’s no limit to the imagination here, and because these are creatures stolen from Jip’s mind, they’re often sketchy in a childlike way.
But Donohue doesn’t just focus on the scares of monsters coming to life from a blank page. The bigger picture includes Jip’s parents, who, in their own ways, are just as lost in the blinding snow as Jip. His mother, coping poorly with Jip’s outbursts, becomes obsessed with a shipwreck she learns happened just a stone’s throw from their house; his father, already somewhat distance from his wife, suffers from restlessness and a sense of guilt after Jip’s near-death experience. Even Jip’s friend and his parents have their own problems, again stemming from that drowning that nearly took both of the boys’ lives.
The complex characterization drives The Boy Who Drew Monsters, because much of the book lingers on that one idea. Donohue doesn’t include time jumps, nor does he flash back and forth very often. Instead, the novel stays in the moment throughout, creating a tense experience that remains unbroken throughout.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that Donohue’s dialogue is a little too robust to be realistic, especially from the kids’ perspectives. The speech is too flowery and dense, wordy in a way that’s not truthful to real life. But that’s also an artistic choice, one that emphasizes how smart our young protagonist is. And that brilliance also has a dark spot, a sinister side that shines through to give The Boy Who Drew Monsters‘ characters depth.
But even if that deters the reader, stick around for the final twist. Donohue’s plot doesn’t quit until the final page, and even then, the impact of that event sticks with the reader after the book’s been closed and shelved. The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a slow-burn novel that is constantly working on the reader, shaping expectations and then surprising with a different direction. It’s a terrifyingly truthful look at human life disguised in fantasy, and Donohue’s characters are compelling because they feel strikingly real, as though he’s written them into life just like the boy’s artwork in the novel.