A Monster Calls: The Qualities of Horror

I came late to horror – I think, though I can’t be sure, I only started reading horror after I had children. Most of my horror experiences as a young person involve my friend Amy (this is not her real name) who had just an alarming childhood, characterized by abuses no one, no one should have to endure, let alone children. She loved horror, and metal – really anything that screamed. We’d watch Hellraiser, or the Evils Dead, or whatever other pulp gore-fest, and I would cover my face, go to the bathroom every ten minutes to hide, and then have nightmares like crazy. Amy would howl with laughter. She knew monsters much, much scarier than whatever pin-faced Deadite. Her monsters, I wouldn’t ever want to meet them. 

Conor is being visited by a monster, the kind he laughs at: a green man in a yew tree who tells three tales, demanding a fourth from Conor at the end of the telling. The art here is perfect, reminding me strongly of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – one of my few, memorable forays into kiddie horror as a kid. You can see the other monster stalking his life, the one that makes him immune to your more average monsters like walking trees. But that monster is more a game of hide the birdie; Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. I wasn’t completely on board with the beginning of this story: the way the cancer was never named, the the way the trajectory of the story seemed overly determined – Scheherazade by way of things that bump in the night.

But, something changes partway through the book, and I think it was intentional, this overly constructed start. I snuggled in to fairy tales – even though they were more Grimm and less Disney – confident that these tellings would impart morals and revelations without the requisite pain of true understanding, of confronting the real monster which is more unnamed than the cancer. There was a moment, after Conor does something so awful, so unforgivable, blaming his monsters and I closed my eyes and wished it undone the way he does. This is just a story. This is just a story. Oh, no, no no it isn’t. No no no. The ending is several sharp kicks to the gut, the foot hovering for that last strike of the clock. 

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