What is it that fascinates us about creepy children? It’s a cultural obsession that dates back to Henry James’ 1898 The Turn of the Screw, if not earlier. Perhaps it’s the unexpectedness of the source—the discordance of seeing an apparently innocent child speaking and acting in a way that would be unnerving even in an adult. If I had to guess, though, I’d say the most likely explanation for our interest in disconcerting kids is that it taps into something like the uncanny valley; children think and act in ways that recall adult behavior but also differ from it in very subtle ways, and in the hands of a skillful writer, those differences can become deeply unsettling.
It is this sense of “offness” that is Keith Donohue’s starting point in The Boy Who Drew Monsters. It is also, ultimately, the novel’s greatest strength. Though Donohue has an undeniable way with words and a superb feel for atmosphere (“The snow deadened outside sounds to a whisper, while the old house creaked and groaned like a timbered hull rolling in the waves”), his latest novel feels strangely unfocused—entertaining enough for a leisurely spooky read on a rainy day, but lacking depth where one most expects to find it. Donohue’s experiments in the uncanny are thus the novel’s saving grace—not quite enough, perhaps, to make the novel truly memorable, but interesting nonetheless.
Ten-year-old Jack Peter (“Jip”) Keenan is the titular boy. Diagnosed at a young age with Asperger’s and suffering from paralyzing agoraphobia since a near-drowning at the age of seven, Jip lives increasingly in a world of his own imagination. Though his parents Holly and Tim do their best to accommodate their son’s needs via therapy, medication, and homeschooling, the strain of caring for Jip has begun to wear on them by the time the novel opens, and Holly in particular fears that Jip is getting worse—perhaps even “out of control.” The only real bright spots on the horizon are Jip’s continuing friendship with the neighbors’ son Nick and his increased interest in drawing, which his psychiatrist hopes will offer valuable insight into his thought processes. Slowly, however, it becomes clear that Jip’s drawings may be more than the healthy outlet of a troubled child, particularly when the outside world begins to mimic the strange and macabre scenes Jip sketches. As winter falls in the Keenans’ small town in Maine, Holly and Tim bear witness to a string of unexplained phenomena: loud rappings on the windows, a cadaverous figure lurking in the snow, and screams rising from the ocean depths where the unrecovered victims of an old shipwreck lie. And when Nick comes to stay with the Keenans for a week, the situation goes from unnerving to outright dangerous.
Jip, in Holly’s words, is an “indoor boy”—trapped inside both his house and his own mind. It is appropriate, then, that Donohue keeps his novel tightly—even claustrophobically—focused on only four characters: Tim, Holly, Nick, and Jip. And while Tim and Holly at times feel undersketched, the sections told from Jip’s point of view are simply masterful—perfectly calibrated in their off-kilterness. Donohue is careful not to lean too heavily on Jip’s idiosyncrasies. The stylistic tics, the slight detachment from the outside world, the baldly logical trains of thought: all are subtle. Take, for instance, Jip’s thoughts as he draws a house buried at the bottom of the ocean:
One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. He remembered the sound of the Dr. Seuss book, its music in the background of his mind as he drew, and he could picture the illustrations and how the book was about counting things and observing details. Say, what a lot of fish there are. Windup fish swimming in the sea all the way from Japan, and the lady with the cloudy eye knows how he works. Inside his head. All these fishes need deep water, and if the ocean came and rose above the roof, Daddy would be dead, and Mommy, too, and Nick, bodies floating in the deep. Their friends could come and gather the dead and drowned and hang them up to dry. The end. No more pictures to draw, no more secrets. His hand cramped, and then the pencil grew heavy as a spade.
This is not simply a nice bit of characterization; this is a truly ingenious way of keeping us, the readers, guessing. We are privy to Jip’s innermost thoughts, but what we see there confuses rather than enlightens us; the way in which Jip thinks is just unfamiliar enough to hint at the novel’s secrets while simultaneously veiling them. In effect, Donohue has taken the driving narrative force of the traditional mystery/thriller—the teasing push-pull between concealment and disclosure—and grounded it firmly in the psychology of a single character. It’s a very neat trick, although there is, of course, a danger to it; Jack’s disorder could itself become something eerie, alien, and unknowable—the ultimate source of the novel’s horror. By and large, though, the disorienting nature of Jip’s narration has something of the opposite effect; the reader experiences in some small way what it must be like to be perpetually out of sync with other people. And all of this is, of course, entirely fitting in a novel that imagines what it would be like if the mind of an autistic child became a prison not just for him but for those around him as well.
Unfortunately, it is largely in depicting Jip’s relationships with those around him that Donohue falters. To be sure, there are some poignant moments involving Tim and Holly’s fears for their son, but these moments feel tacked on rather than fully explored—the kind of thing one is obligated to include in a novel dealing with a special-needs child, but not something that truly interests Donohue. The problem is most glaring, though, when it comes to Jip’s complicated friendship with Nick. By all rights, this relationship should be at the heart of the novel, both because it is interesting in and of itself (though I couldn’t swear to it, I suspect that nuanced portrayals of friendship between boys are relatively scarce in contemporary fiction), and because of the revelations of the novel’s final chapter. Ultimately, though, the impression I was left with was one of false depth; indeed, the twist at the end of the novel risks falling flat simply because the relationship it ought to complicate was not wholly fleshed out to begin with. Events that should pack a real punch thus feel oddly untethered in the context of the novel as a whole. Consider the moment when Nick discovers another of Jip’s drawings:
He could not make out the details, so he took the page to the window and held it at an angle to catch the available light. Two boys, half-dressed and floating beneath a wavy line, were locked together, wrestling, surrounded by fish and a ragged-clawed lobster on the sand. One boy pushed down on the other’s head while the other boy had his arm round his attacker’s shoulder to drag him to the bottom of the sea. The boys were mirrors to each other, a self-portrait fighting with itself.
This is foreshadowing at its best; the symbolism is gripping, suggestive, and just ambiguous enough to keep the reader in the dark. That said, it is an oddly isolated moment; for all its thematic relevance to the novel’s conclusion, the scene ultimately adds little to our understanding of the boys’ relationship. At the end of the novel, we are left with a sense of the boys’ relationship as troubled and codependent, but we still have very little grasp of the emotional underpinnings that would make that codependency interesting.
In the end, then, The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a novel that sits uncomfortably between genres; ghosts and goblins are a bit too thin on the ground to truly satisfy readers looking for quick scares, but the characters—Jip excepted—don’t have quite the depth necessary to sustain a psychological thriller. Donohue’s novel is a pleasant enough way to pass the time in the days leading up to Halloween, but come November, you may find yourself packing it away with the skull punch bowl and fake cobwebs.