At the start of Keith Donohue’s new novel, an intelligent, perhaps slightly annoying 10-year-old boy at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum retreats further and further from human contact into the compulsive, single-minded depiction, on page after page of notepaper, of monstrosities.
This boy, Jack Peter Keenan, lives in a scattered village on the coast of Maine with his parents, Tim and Holly, who are in varying degrees of ongoing concern, denial and anger. It is winter, and storms, snows, the icy sea and the neighboring pine woods isolate the Keenans.
Looming silences and unexplained sounds encroach. A shambling, snow-pale creature with “deranged” hair and a massive white dog or wolf encircle. Images of drowning and being drowned haunt the mind. An unseen figure prowls around the house, trying all the windows. Odd percussive sounds distort a shop’s Muzak. A horde of babies swarms across the clapboards. An elderly Japanese woman with one white eye speaks of vengeful ghosts. The world tightens down until it squeals, then tightens some more.
Clearly, we are in the territory of the wholehearted, up-for-anything gothic, which even as it undertakes a melancholic exploration of the lost, forlorn and bereft operates with the volume cranked and the plot on greased wheels.
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As a writer, Donohue always seems to know exactly what he is doing, and in The Boy Who Drew Monsters he twists the screw on Jack with the finesse of an expert. Watching him glide along, pulling one squirming rabbit after another from his copious hat, is a pleasure.
This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement that should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve endings.
In a novel such as this, so dependent on the building of tension within an uncertain and confusing context, we absolutely must feel that we can relax into the writer’s care, so confident of his capacity for casting spells that, at least until the phone rings or the UPS man arrives, the outside world disappears. Unthinking, reflexive immersion makes everything work, as does a rarer feature of this book: It is one of those fictions that exert a gravitational pull — whenever you set it down, you find yourself thinking about it.
Donohue writes wonderfully, too. His prose is graceful, musical in its cadences, springy, always about the business of making its points while staying out of the way. Most of the literary novelists praised for the all-around swellness of their sentences do not write as well as he does.
Atmosphere and atmospherics are crucial to the success of gothic fiction. The Fall of the House of Usher, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and The Haunting of Hill House have at least this quality in common, that their protagonists inhabit and move through a largely unknowable world that darkens around them.
The Boy Who Drew Monsters could not be improved upon in this regard. The little world with Jack Keenan at its center grows ever more strange and dark while his constant drawing turns into an obsession that threatens to destroy him.
This is a very good book by a writer who is even better than that. I just wish that its title did not work the point too evidently, and that at its hard-won conclusion the voice of Rod Serling could not be heard inviting us to join him in the Twilight Zone.
Peter Straub reviewed this book for The Washington Post.