A Cosmology of Monsters takes pains to warn its readers up-front that “happy endings” and other narrative conventions don’t apply to real life. The novel swerves and ducks reader expectations throughout – sometimes in ways that dazzle, sometimes in ways that are profoundly frustrating. While the book’s headers are taken from Lovecraft, and his influence hovers over the work (including a beautifully-realised eldritch location, the City), Hamill wants to explore the way horror fiction, haunted houses and monsters intersect with family life. It’s a bold mission and creates a book which I suspect readers will either love or hate.
The book begins with an interesting and only partly successful framing choice: Noah, a seven-year-old boy, collects his sister Eunice’s suicide notes. It’s a striking opening image, which is quickly brushed aside as Hamill takes us on a “deep dive” for the next third of the book into his mother Margaret’s 1960s upbringing; college life; meeting his father (Harry); and their early married life in which Harry becomes troubled, obsessively building a haunted house in his backyard. Noah narrates all this; the effect is jarring, particularly as Margaret’s portion of the text is a beautifully pitched narrative about the claustrophobia of her dwindling life options. This is then snatched away as we turn back to six-year-old Noah and the scratching sounds being heard outside his sisters’ windows at night. For the rest of the novel the focus is on Noah, and – Margaret’s story being presented with such aching empathy – it’s hard not to see him as a comparatively uninteresting subject.
Haunted houses are a recurring theme: offering both the illusion of choice and, as characters are herded through them, the horrors of inevitability. This is true of the haunted house which Harry builds (later expanded into a truly magical attraction, the Wandering Dark) and the otherworldly City (seen in vignettes throughout, and later visited by Noah); inevitability also stalks the characters in the real world. Margaret’s narrative is nail-bitingly oppressive, showing her increasingly trapped by the expectations of heteronormativity. The men presented as her “future” are both terrible – Pierce the processed-chicken heir, who her mother tells her to “try” to be in love with – and fast-food worker Harry, who in a less interesting work might be the lovable underdog. But Harry laughs at her first attempt to pronounce Cthulhu; grabs her and kisses her uninvited; and feels so entitled to the fantasy of her that after one date he tells Margaret he’s “not ready to give [her] up yet”. In a dream sequence (surrounded by pulp magazines, typewriters, thousands of books, embodying the stereotype of the nerd misogynist) Harry tells her that “it doesn’t matter what you want”: this sense of Margaret’s powerlessness is absolutely tangible. For me, Margaret’s story was the high point of the novel, offering a very real cosmology of (real-life) monsters – poverty, reluctant motherhood and the subsuming of female dreams.
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When the book moves on to Noah, the narrative switches to the nocturnal scratching sounds, the abduction of his sister Sydney (Hamill’s portrayal of this character, her teenage rage and abandonment issues, is absolutely spot-on), and his sister Eunice – the writer in the family – who feels trapped by her body and its own burgeoning same-sex desires. These women get such beautifully drawn portraits (Eunice in particular was absolutely heartbreaking, her depression “tak[ing] up physical space, swell[ing] and seep[ing]under closed doors… like poison gas, settling over the house in a fog”), that I found Noah’s coming-of-age story less interesting and often tonally jarring. The monster is slowly revealed as a large wolf-like and goofy “FRIEND” who takes him on night-time trips around the neighbourhood, but it’s oddly lacking in menace – until its attentions become evidently sinister, including a sexual encounter with a sixteen-year old Noah which was truly horror-inducing. The narrative’s constant shifts in focus made it hard to engage with Noah himself; positioned as an outsider, more comfortable haunting the Wandering Dark in a monster suit than dealing with his family’s issues, that disconnect carried over into scenes which contained real drama and significance.
Noah’s wife eventually tells him he’s “safely trapped in the tower of our marriage”; wanting to convince himself, he says that “love and a simple life… this is the real magic”. But for the majority of A Cosmology ofMonsters, it seems everyone marries someone unappealing: Margaret with Harry, Eunice with the disappointing man she picks once she stops writing, and Noah with Megan, whose main appeal is her connection to the world of monsters. The primary moments of joy we see are wholly outside heteronormative family life: Eunice with her first girlfriend, a grown-up Noah with Leannon, the female form of the monster who’s been stalking him since childhood (although this is profoundly tinged with horror for the reader, as Leannon’s interactions with Noah and his family have been largely predatory in nature). I was left with the impression that Hamill has an uncomfortable and uncompromising story to tell about how women and queer-coded characters are railroaded into conformity, but not sure that Noah was the best person to tell it, or that it was combined successfully with the titular monsters. Leannon, in particular, remained a particularly disturbing enigma, both monster and victim, agent and object, largely overlooked by Noah’s self-absorption: she’s an eldritch creature with immense powers who tortures and abducts humans at the behest of the City, and a beautiful perpetually-naked woman, once human, who lives in an otherworldly house that Noah visits to have sex – as he observes, he has “a monster on booty call”.
Towards the end of the book, Noah regains his “haunted house” with a visit to his old monster scare attraction, telling his companion: “I needed that”. The Wandering Dark – offering some beautiful set pieces, including a memorable The Shining-inspired ballroom that left me just itching to visit – echoes the City’s Lovecraftian otherland, “the world behind the world” and it’s their familiarity with eldritch and fantastical locations which offers the Turner family a chance to break free. In the end, we see the redemptive force offered by the deep dark creative well, and Noah makes some incredibly ugly choices in order to make good on his family’s hereditary familiarity with monsters. The last portion of the book, despite the up-front disclaimer of “no happy endings”, delivers a satisfying one, with a return to the City and the flawed character of Harry, now more sympathetic – or at least more human.
A Cosmology of Monsters is a beautifully-written examination of the darkness of family life: as one character remarks, “adulthood gets us all in the end”. Hamill’s portraits of women struggling with their circumstances are achingly empathetic, and I bled a little for every one of them. However, the passivity of the characters is often incredibly frustrating, as are the tonal shifts between out-and-out supernatural or cosmic “horror”, flights of fairytale-like imagination, and Noah’s disconnected perspective. It’s a compelling debut, and an overwhelmingly promising one, but ultimately I felt it lacked cohesion.
A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill is published by Titan Books.