The Boy Who Drew Monsters is two incomplete novels crammed into one.
Striving to be both a work of literature and a horror story, Keith Donohue’s latest novel falls short of both. The Boy Who Drew Monsters plays on a fairly overplayed idea: Jack Peter is an autistic boy who has an inexplicable ability but can’t communicate properly. As a result, his parents, Holly and Tim, are terrorized by the beasts that come pouring from his brain onto sketch paper. Their own relationship is stressed because of their son’s issues, and their town thinks the boy is strange. Jack has one reluctant friend, Nicholas, who is drawn into the drama—literally (more on that later). A Japanese housekeeper who tells all sorts of ghost stories understands Jack Peter completely, and frightens everyone with her eccentricities.
We’ve all read something like this at some point, but the same can be said for almost every story told. A literary ambition would seem to set this novel apart, but Donohue’s idea of literature seems to mean little more than an impressive, nearly Shakespearean vocabulary. Unfortunately, multisyllabic words don’t match this story’s tone or its content –and they’re everywhere, from the waterlogged prose to even the dialogue. The characters speak in such an affected manner that tense moments are made laughable when someone has something to say. And there’s no greater failure in horror than when the manner in which the story is told declaws the tension.
It would be unfair to say that Donohue fails completely. The book has some genuinely unsettling moments, mostly involving the man-beast from Jack Peter’s drawings. Structurally, Donohue knows how to keep readers reading, with a cliffhanger at every page break. And, frankly, horror novels often promise grisly images, and The Boy Who Drew Monsters is no different.
But the man-beast only goes bump in the night, the cliffhangers are just a string of teases and the promise of some gut-churning moments never pays off. Finally, once it is revealed that Jack Peter’s friend Nicholas was a figment of his imagination all along, nearly 300 pages of false suspense leaves this reveal as nothing but a last-ditch effort at rewarding readers.
Donohue attempts to blend what most readers would consider “literary fiction” with Stephen King. That’s not the worst idea in the world—it’s a pretty damn good one, actually—but it just doesn’t work. This book could have been rightfully considered both a work of literary and horror fiction if Donohue had only relied more on his talents as a writer than on the supposed definitions of those genres. As it stands, The Boy Who Drew Monsters is two incomplete novels crammed into one. The author should have simply set out to write one novel and waited to see what his readers would call it rather than worry about where the bookstores would shelve it.