Weekly Reads: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Hello all, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!

Despite attempts to cool down on reading, I did read three books this week—but one of them you’ll hear about on Thursday, and another I’m saving for a bigger project. So today, I’m just going to talk a bit about A Monster Calls.

Have you seen the excellent recent horror film, The Babadook (2014)? I don’t love the ending, but aside from that, it’s one of the recent gems that makes me feel like the horror genre (on film) is having a resurgence. (Another I enjoyed for this reason was It Follows, but I digress.)

If you haven’t seen The Babadook and you enjoy horror, you should. (There will be minor spoilers in this post, but I think you’d still enjoy it.) If you have seen The Babadook, you’ll recognize similar strokes in this book, but from a different perspective: in The Babadook, a mother becomes increasingly stressed as the weight of her life with grief and a bogeyman out of a dark children’s story press their influence on her. In A Monster Calls, a 13-year-old boy (Conor) whose mother is dying of cancer is visited by a bogeyman who tells him strange tales, while the stress of his life comes to a climax.

I don’t think this book is necessarily well-served in talking about its mechanics, which is why today I deal mostly with themes, aesthetic, and genre, and since A Monster Calls so closely resembles another unique piece I’ve seen in another medium, talking about them together is useful. A Monster Calls and The Babadook convey that our reactions to death and dying can be complicated—sometimes mundane and boring, sometimes terrifying—and that grief contains multitudes. The ending of this book feels a little too tidy, while the ending to The Babadook felt a bit too strange and inexplicable and open; I suspect that may be the hardest thing to write, since there isn’t a defined endpoint to those feelings and horror is often awkward with endings. (The main events stop, but the monster/killer is usually still around somehow and “one last scare” implies their inevitable return.)

It’s a similar idea and a not altogether dissimilar story in terms of the darkness in unearths in the characters, as well as the way it intertwines horror with grief, giving it emotional weight. (I think it’s a counterbalance to the overly detached reaction we can have now to the classic horror slasher, where the victims are largely fodder and the villains the cheered-for anti-heroes.)

The stories diverge emotionally in that the monster in The Babadook represents the deepest fears and turmoil of the character(s), whereas the monster in A Monster Calls appears to reveal and instigate those things in Conor—and he isn’t afraid of the monster at first, because he is simply so mired in what he’s going through that he doesn’t fear anything but dealing with his own inner turmoil. I prefer the way the bogeyman in the film works on the basis of horror, since I enjoy horror (and things that are viscerally scary), but these bogeymen serve different purposes: the Babadook is a creature who reflects the compartmentalization of grief, whereas the Green Man reveals Conor’s absorption in his conflicted feelings—he could get eaten, sure, but he’s dealing with worse.

But there’s also a somewhat similar aesthetic in these two pieces. In the film The Babadook, we get to see a picture book at the centre of the horror, depicting the bogeyman in black and white with messy lines and pop-outs. The illustrations in A Monster Calls are along those lines as well, although they mostly use textures to add a sense of dimension:

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(Jim Kay’s illustrations in this book are brilliant, in my opinion, so if you do pick up a copy, don’t go without them.)

I don’t know that there’s a way for me to review this book from a detached perspective—if you’ve seen cancer work on people in your life, then you can relate to the monster it creates, both inside and outside of you. And that deeply relatable feeling will resonate even in this book’s flawed moments, I think. (Although I can say with some confidence that it has some truly beautifully written lines, so between that and the illustrations, it may be worth it even if the horror/fairy tale bogeyman + grieving isn’t appealing to you.)

But if it sounds worth a read to you, then it’s a quick one, and worth thinking about, both in terms of this take on the horror genre, and in terms of a novel—for young adults, even—that deals with the rougher edges of grieving.

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