Sunday 11 December 2022

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Small-town kid confronts cape-wearing wolf and traverses the dark corridors of mental illness.

A Cosmology of Monsters tackles many elements of the typical dysfunctional family story: sexuality hurdles, financial struggles, unrequited love, adultery, parent/child quarrels, and suicide. Oh, and it has one more thing: a relationship between the narrator boy Noah Turner and a wolf-like creature, which may or may not be the only one of its kind.

The connection between Noah and the monster – it initially communicates by writing terse messages in chalk – becomes more complex (and even weird) as Noah ages. The creature becomes a comfort to Noah as he deals with his own conflicts and those between his mother and his two sisters. Considering Noah’s family’s history of mental illness, is this monster, with its orange eyes and red cape, really visiting Noah? Is it a hallucination? Is it a physical manifestation of a mental illness? 

Author Shaun Hamill indulges in a fair amount of narrative sleight of hand. Noah narrates, for instance, how in 1968 his father Harry (whom he never knew) meets and courts Noah’s mother Margaret. Noah reflects on her decision to choose his father over a safer, more financially stable prospect. Harry, a local with a passion for paperbacks, pulp magazines, and comic books, particularly horror and Lovecraftian fiction, admits he lives with his mother, who is contending with paranoid schizophrenia. Moreover, what a jarring experience when Noah details Margaret contemplating the abortion of a child that turned out to be him. 

Much of the story revolves around The Wandering Dark, a haunted house the Turners build in their Texas town. Noah, assuming the role of a wolf – now there’s something to think about – learns how to move through the facility’s secret corridors to achieve the maximum scare. 

The book also details Noah’s interactions with his family members. Most compelling is the relationship with his sister Eunice, who serves as a second mother while battling her own demons. 

The Wandering Dark, reconstructed based on Harry’s old drawings, is a haunted house, but it is also a symbol of the life that Noah, existing in the shadow cast by mental illness, must navigate. Though the novel resorts to dream/nightmare sequences that I found abrasive, Hamill redeems himself with some impressive world-building.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

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