The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue is the story of the Keenans—Tim, Hollie, and Jack Peter. Also figuring in the plot are their neighbors Nell, Fred, and Nick Weller. The two families are year-long residents along the ocean in Maine’s “vacationland.” The rugged coast and brutal Maine weather figure prominently and add to the book’s spooky atmosphere.
Jack Peter and Nick were born at practically the same time, to parents who’re best friends. They have a sibling-type relationship, with closeness and rivalries sometimes in balance and sometimes not. But they’re very different boys. Jack is on the autism spectrum, although fairly high functioning. At least until they have a near drowning incident together, which occurs three years before the book starts. Since then, Jack hasn’t willingly left his home. Nick visits often, and they occupy their time with typical boy things like playing with toy soldiers and drawing.
Doesn’t sound like a typical horror novel, does it? In fact, Donohue has added strong literary and psychological elements. He spends time with all the varied relationships among adults and children, as they each have their own types of guilt and anger over the states of their lives. However, the families spend more time repressing their feelings than expressing them. Jack Peter expresses his by drawing. Nick draws with him, but also is more verbal with both sets of adults. Hollie and Tim are often at adds about how to care for Jack, Tim wanting to push him into more normality and Hollie looking for outside help. Nick’s parents just seem to drink to suppress their feelings.
All in all, the sadness and discontent is evident in every chapter. Donohue captures the foreboding and darkness exceptionally well. And then strange things start to happen—noises, sightings of people and animals out of place. The experiences are monstrous and scary, but subtle too. Things happen in the house and out of it, affecting Tim, Hollie, and the boys.
The adults are typically slow to believe the mechanism of the horror, and are embarrassed to admit what they suspect. The boys put the equation together, but adults don’t listen and are focused on their own issues. I found myself wanting to shake the characters and yell, “don’t you see??” And that’s just how I like my horror to feel.
I felt like I was in the midst of winter in Maine, living in the Keenan’s “dream house” turned nightmare. Donohue’s exposition of the plot has ideal pacing for a horror story. It’s slow at first, more detailed in the middle, and utterly captivating as the tension builds and the end arrives.