Gothic fiction with children at the center, either as victims or perpetrators, invites comparison with that genre’s masterwork, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. And that is unfortunate: it is the rare modern novel that doesn’t suffer from the comparison. Keith Donohue’s The Boy Who Drew Monsters is no exception. It’s not that the book isn’t an intriguing tale that will keep the reader turning pages; it’s simply that it can’t measure up to a masterpiece.
Setting his story in a Maine seacoast community during the bleak off-season – the beach in winter – Donohue creates the kind of out-of-the-ordinary environment where things that go bump in the night (and during the day for that matter) can credibly bump away. Empty beach houses, a blizzard, snow-covered roads and shifting sands – it’s a setting ripe for the supernatural.
Jack Peter, a fairly high functioning autistic 10-year-old with a fear of the outside, is “the boy” of the title. Terrified of leaving the house, he spends all his time drawing monsters and more monsters. It’s a harmless activity, even something to be encouraged for its therapeutic value, or so it seems to his beleaguered mother and his stay-at-home father. Still, this fixation on monsters might be a cause for second thoughts. And then, when strange things start to happen – ghostly figures appear outside the house, something seems to be trying to break in, a human bone materializes on the beach – even a third thought.
Jack Peter’s mother worries about being able to control the boy after he accidentally hits her; his father plays down her fears. His one playmate, Nick, seems more to be forced into his company than to be a friend. And while things get stranger and seemingly more dangerous in and around the house, Jack Peter continues his obsessive drawing.
The plot is complicated by the story of an ancient shipwreck on the coast and unrecovered bodies, tales of Japanese spirits and ghosts from the local priest’s housekeeper, and wild animals appearing on the beach. Unfortunately while these threads seem to offer possible alternative explanations for the events, they really seem to clutter the narrative. After all, in the end it is about the boy who draws the monsters. Take a lesson from The Turn of the Screw: less is more.
Donohue is at his best when dealing with the family dynamics, both Jack Peter’s family and Nick’s. He has a feel for the internal tensions that can develop in a family dealing with an extraordinary child. Holly, Jack Peter’s mother, feels that even at 10 her son is too big to control. Tim, his father, finds it easier to ignore problems while hoping for the best. They are unable to make any connection between their damaged child and the strange events. She is more willing to look for ghosts from the shipwreck. He is focused on some external threat, man or animal.
If you’re looking for some spooky Halloween reading, and you’ve already read The Turn of the Screw, The Boy Who Drew Monsters will do for a change. On the other hand you could always reread Henry James.