An inclination towards horror is a hereditary trait, passed down through a family like hair color or flat feet. Sometimes it’s a love for horror, instilled throughout a family with evenings spent sharing books, shows or movies. Sometimes this life in horror is less than voluntarily - a family thrown into the echoes of a trauma that reverberate through generations like a ricocheting bullet. In Shaun Hamill’s novel A Cosmology of Monsters, a Texas family finds themselves in both scenarios - their lives encased in horror both real and escapist.
Noah Turner’s family has made their living scaring people almost his entire life. When he was six, Noah’s mother and two sisters opened The Wandering Dark, a haunted house, as a way to pay the bills. Growing up, Noah immersed himself in the family business, helping to scare the teenagers that came through The Wandering Dark looking for a good fright. And Noah knows a thing or two about scary - his best friend is a mute monster that visits him at night: a clawed beast that has been haunting his family for the last 30 years.
Noah’s Calvin and Hobbes-like relationship with the monster - a wolf-faced horror garbed in a red cloak - runs parallel with the real-life trauma that has been inflicted upon his family his entire life. Disease, disappearances, mental illnesses - Noah and his family have struggled to remain together despite life doing everything in its power to rip them apart.
A love for horror - passed down by his father who gave his mother an H.P. Lovecraft book on their first date - has helped the family stick together - working together to keep their haunted house running. The Turner family, though, isn’t exactly a loving family. The real-life horrors the clan has stumbled through have left Noah and his loved ones hollow and bitter, walking through life like zombies. Their fear has turned them into shells, like something has harvested out of them all that was good and left what remained to sleepwalk through life, inflicting horrors upon others with their haunted house.
It’s no wonder, then, that Noah’s monster offers an escape and a connection that he does not feel elsewhere in his life. Noah can’t bring himself to feel anything about the girls at school and he struggles in his classes but at night the monster takes him flying. It reads comics with him, draws pictures and - when Noah is a teenager - the monster and Noah’s relationship takes on a different, more adult nature. Noah loves his monster - so why can’t he shake the fear that it has something to do with the trauma and darkness his family has suffered through since well before his birth? Is the monster’s interest in Noah reciprocated love or is there something more sinister at play?
A Cosmology of Monsters is a tremendous debut from Hamill. The prose, humane and sympathetic towards its characters, pulsates with a warmth that urges readers on at a clip, all while instilling in them a sense of dark dread at what’s just around the corner.
Hamill, who has has titled the novel’s chapters after Lovecraft stories, understands the famed weird horror author’s power came from the unknown and unexplained. Much of the dread in A Cosmology of Monsters is born from the fact that the book routinely reinvents itself, catching readers off guard and preventing them from ever getting a good handle on what to expect from the story until the final, bittersweet end. And then, maybe even after the last page, readers will be left with questions. Hamill has built an exciting mythology in his book, hinting at dark and terrible things that exist in the shadows surrounding the Turner family, but he also understands that the more details of this mythology he keeps in the shadows, the more haunting those ideas become.
Hamill has created something that hopes to be timeless, unfettered by the changing tastes of those looking for a fright. He achieves this by focusing his story on the horrific things that will never change - a family’s struggle to love one another through hard times, the feeling of alienness and isolation that comes with adolescence, the allure of escapism to cope with real-life tragedies life can bring.
The real horrors that the Turner family has inflicted upon them are answered with their love of the fictional horrors Noah’s father introduced them to. Real horror is unavoidable and will always be there, nipping from the shadows that envelop our lives, but self-applied horror - controlling when and how we are scared - can be a fantastic way to cope with the horror that comes. A Cosmology of Monsters understands and celebrates this idea. Hamill meets horror with horror and the resulting book is one of the best times you’ll have being scared this Halloween season.