At the start of Keith Donohue’s new novel, an intelligent, perhaps slightly annoying 10-year-old boy at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum retreats further and further from human contact into the compulsive, single-minded depiction, on page after page of notepaper, of monstrosities.
This boy, Jack Peter Keenan, lives in a scattered village on the coast of Maine with parents, Tim and Holly, who are in varying degrees of ongoing concern, denial and anger. It is winter, and storms, snows, the icy sea and the neighboring pine woods isolate the Keenans from all but a few friends and places. Looming silences and unexplained sounds encroach. A shambling, snow-pale creature with “deranged” hair and a massive white dog or wolf encircle. Images of drowning and being drowned haunt the mind. An unseen figure prowls around the house, trying all the windows. Odd percussive sounds distort a shop’s Muzak. A horde of babies swarms across the clapboards. An elderly Japanese woman with one white eye speaks of vengeful ghosts. The world tightens down until it squeals, then tightens some more.
Clearly, we are in the territory of the wholehearted, up-for-anything gothic, which even as it undertakes a melancholic exploration of the lost, forlorn and bereft operates with the volume cranked and the plot on greased wheels.
As a writer, Donohue always seems to know exactly what he is doing, and in “The Boy Who Drew Monsters” he twists the screw on Jack with the finesse of an expert. It is a pleasure to watch him glide along, pulling one squirming rabbit after another from his copious hat.
In these particular chambers of fiction’s mansion, a certain crucial choice faces the writer. From the mid-19th century to the late 20th, the authors of such whizbangs generally justified their effects with the revelation of either a supernatural force (Lovecraft) or an unstable mind (Poe).
At least in my opinion, the best of their contemporary counterparts — Glen Hirshberg, Graham Joyce, John Langan, Laird Barron, Elizabeth Hand, Nathan Ballingrud, Kelly Link, to name a few of a gifted number — have raised the stakes through imaginative ambitions that blur, even obliterate the customary distinctions between literary and genre writing. Characters arrive on the page bearing, well, character, which is one consequence of a writer’s capacity for empathy, insight and prolonged thought.
What these invented people decide to do with themselves carries both a resonant emotional charge and an inevitability visible perhaps only in retrospect. The prose is lively, alert, musical, unobtrusive, nicely balanced. Plot, if a plot exists, is produced by the often unpredictable characters doing their parts in service to the underlying story. (A famous editor once said to me, “Remember, Peter: story, Story, STORY.” He was not being ironic, though his definition of story may have been a bit hidebound.)
The surrealism to which the fantastic is so congenial and is often overlooked or unused in favor of vampires or zombies — ugh, yawn — becomes a valuable and suggestive tool for acknowledgment of the wondrous, dense, enigmatic and only fleetingly perceived aspects of life.
Donohue knows precisely what I am talking about. In 2006, he published a novel of exactly this kind, “The Stolen Child.” It was one of those books that challenge our reflexive bipolar habits of categorization, and in effect it put him on the map. When I say I’m not sure whether “The Boy Who Drew Monsters” will excite the same affection among dedicated readers of Barron, Joyce and Link, I am not being coy — I really do not know.
This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.
In a novel like this, so dependent on the building of tension within an uncertain and confusing context, we absolutely must feel that we can relax into the writer’s care, so confident of his capacity for casting spells that, at least until the phone rings or the UPS man arrives, the outside world disappears beneath the lines of print. Unthinking, reflexive immersion makes everything work, as does a rarer feature of this book: It is one of those fictions that exert a gravitational pull — from very early on, whenever you set it down, you find yourself thinking about it.
Donohue writes wonderfully, too. His prose is graceful, musical in its cadences, springy, always about the business of making its points while staying out of the way. Most of the literary novelists praised for the all-around swellness of their sentences do not, in fact, write as well as he does. This is all the more praiseworthy in that publishing houses tend to believe that commercial novelists have no business fretting over the quality of their prose. After all, most readers can’t tell the difference, can they? The remarkable careers of Robert Ludlum, V.C. Andrews and James Patterson may hint at an answer.
Atmosphere and atmospherics are crucial to the success of gothic fiction. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Rebecca” and “The Haunting of Hill House” have at least this quality in common, that their protagonists inhabit and move through a largely unknowable world that darkens around them. “The Boy Who Drew Monsters” could not be improved upon in this regard. The little world with Jack Keenan at its center grows ever more strange and dark while his constant drawing turns into an obsession that threatens to destroy him.
This is a very good book by a writer who is even better than that. I just wish that its title did not work the point too evidently, and that at its hard-won conclusion the voice of Rod Serling could not be heard inviting us to join him in the Twilight Zone.
Straub is the author, most recently, of “A Dark Matter.” On Saturday, Oct. 18 at 3:30 p.m., Keith Donohue will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.