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A Monster Story With a Heart

Shaun Hamill delivers on a feel-good monster story in A Cosmology of Monsters, the perfect read for October.

As a first-time novelist, Texas-born Shaun Hamill says he didn’t have much input into the cover of his book, but he lucked out there much as he did with his title. You could say it was cosmic the way the stars aligned for this literary horror novel, and that’s exactly what he was going for with the title.

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will notice the connection, and Hamill is certainly a fan. “I was reading Lovecraft and cosmic was in my head,” he says. “Lovecraft’s monsters are related, and the monsters are related in my book too.”

As for the cover, he says it “rides the line between whimsical and pulpy.” A hairy monster hand is intertwined with a human hand, not in a scary way, but in a way that implies a connection. It’s the humanity that Hamill gives to his monsters—and all of his characters—that makes A Cosmology of Monsters much more than just a good horror story.

I had to ask how Hamill decided what his monster would look like, because that seems like the most important part of any scary story. “I always knew that I wanted the monster to have a robe and that the robe would be red,” he says, comparing it to the inverse of a Little Red Riding Hood image. “I knew what I wanted it to look like and played with a batlike creature, but my wife and I had just gotten this dog … ”

I won’t give too much away, but Hamill’s monster does call to mind a furry friend who just happens to be able to fly. The monster is a comforting presence to Noah Turner, just as Hamill’s dog is to him while’s he writing in his office. Noah thinks he’s the only one in his family who can see the monster, but this creature’s history with the Turners goes much further back than he knows.

By the time Noah arrived on the scene as the youngest of three children, his father Harry was already gone, his mother Margaret was overworked and his sisters Eunice and Sydney had their own problems. When a monster starts scratching at his window, Noah is lonely and just curious enough to let it in.

Around the same time, his mother and sister Sydney decide to resurrect the haunted house named The Wandering Dark that Noah’s father had begun before he was born. Hamill says he’s never been an active participant in a haunted house like his fictional family, but that the idea came out of his love for Halloween.

“I was very into costumes as a kid and a lot of that’s reflected in Noah trying to wear a Batman costume to the play,” he says. “There’s something about the iconography, the time of year. I grew up in North Texas, so the many haunted houses popping up, all the decorations, there’s an interesting magical quality [to Halloween] that still sticks with me.”

Hamill, who now lives in Alabama, says he used to make short films in Texas and once did a screening at a local haunted house attraction. As he was wandering through the set, an employee disguised by the scenery reached out and grabbed him. “That really got my wheels turning,” he says.

It’s Noah that does the grabbing at The Wandering Dark, as he dons a monster suit and stalks haunted house visitors in search of that one good scare. But scares in A Cosmology of Monsters exist outside The Wandering Dark too, as young girls start disappearing from the small Texas town.

The Wandering Dark opened and drew strong crowds despite the curfews and real-life nightmare taking place in our town. I stalked strangers, banged on walls, rattled doors, and harvested ripe, full-bodied screams … I was a good monster. I loved the work. When I wore the costume, separated from the world by a barrier of fur and fabric and plastic, nothing else mattered.” – Noah, Chapter 10

Hamill, who wrote this book while he was getting his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says he was going for a certain eerie suburban gothic vibe throughout the novel. “Dark wonder was the word I kept using,” he says. “It took me a while to find the story. Chasing that vibe was the thing that got me through this book and the arrow that helped guide the story.”

He also uses a nonconventional structure to tell his monster story and give each member of the family equal time on stage. Hamill wanted to write a big family novel, but that’s difficult to do in 300 pages, so he broke the story up into units or scenes named after Lovecraft stories and incorporated jumps in time to cover more ground.

“That contributes to sort of a sense of dread too, just keeping the reader a little unsettled as you’re pulling them along,” he says about the jumps. There are also interludes spread throughout the novel that take place over a span of about 45 years and go deeper into each family member’s thoughts.

“It’s me at my most instinctive as a writer,” explains Hamill. “It’s a way to give each member of the family sort of a chance to have center stage for a moment and get deep into their emotional and psychological states. These sections do a lot of the emotional lifting of the book, because this is a family that doesn’t talk about things. It ties the beginnings and ends of the book together in a way that I was really happy to discover.”

The section of the book where Noah first meets his monster is called “The Thing on the Doorstep.” It’s the title of a Lovecraft short story that ends with a corpse arriving at the main character’s door.

Although Hamill’s “thing” is not a corpse and doesn’t turn up at the door, the idea is that everyone has their own thing or monster they’re struggling with.

“The creature is not on the doorstep, it’s in the window but still wanting to be let into the house and waiting for its chance to get in,” says Hamill. “There are other currents running through that section. Sydney is dealing with her final year of high school and fighting with her mother to honor her father’s legacy. Margaret is on the edge of complete financial ruin, just barely staving it off and forced into this uncomfortable situation. That could have even been the title of the whole novel. We all have our thing on the doorstep.”

A Cosmology of Monsters if one of our fall/winter reads for 2019-2010. View the full reading list here.

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