Published in 2011, A Monster Calls is a short novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay. It’s billed as a “children’s book,” with a target audience somewhere in the 10-16 range. But it’s one of those children’s books that — like The Hobbit and Matilda and Harry Potter — is meant to appeal to young and old alike.
While Betsy and I were in Oxford, England, a little over a year ago, I picked up a copy. I had never heard of it, or its author, but the art looked beautifully grim, the story looked intriguing, and it seemed to have won lots of praise and awards. So I grabbed it and lugged it back to the States, where it sat on a shelf, unread.
Then yesterday, I saw an ad for a movie titled A Monster Calls, and assumed (correctly) it was based on the neglected book I’d bought. I figured it was the perfect excuse to finally read the thing. So I did. Or tried to, anyway.
I got a quarter of the way through and had to put it down. It was bad. Not scary-horror bad, just plain old bad-writing bad. Boring, unconvincing, unoriginal. I read the rest of the plot in a summary on Wikipedia, then skimmed through the rest of the book to confirm.
What’s wrong with it?
For starters, the monster — the one on the cover and in the title — isn’t scary. At all. He looks scary in the art, and he’s meant to be scary in the text, but it never happens. Physical appearance aside, the dude just isn’t very menacing. He never does much harm to anyone. Mostly, he talks to the main character (a 13-year-old boy named Conor). And he talks. And talks. In polite conversations where they take turns and consider each other’s points thoughtfully. Terrifying, right?
Books about non-scary monsters can certainly work. But when the art and the tone try so hard to convince you otherwise, it’s a pretty big letdown.
Conor himself says more than once that he’s not afraid of this oh-so-frightening creature. Why not? Because he’s scared of something even worse: real life. His mother is dying of cancer, and he has this recurring nightmare about her that he won’t tell anyone, that he can’t even stand to think about.
See, the book isn’t really about monsters outside. It’s really about the monsters within. Like, whoa. Who knew monsters could be symbolic of other things?
The actual purpose of the monster — and I am not making this up — is to offer therapy sessions for Conor, to help him work out his emotional baggage. To be fair, the book doesn’t call them “therapy sessions.” The therapy comes in the form of stories. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories, and then Conor will tell him a story, revealing what’s in his dark and secret nightmare.
Look, I like stories. I’ve read thousands and written dozens. That’s why I bought the book in the first place. But I gotta say, reading a story about someone hearing a story is not high on my “exciting” list. It’s possible to make a story-in-story interesting, but the author has to make the reader care, and that just doesn’t happen here. The monster keeps insisting that stories are wild, dangerous things (which they can be), while Conor keeps saying it’s going to be boring.
Maybe Conor should have written the book.
Besides the unimpressed protagonist and the un-scary non-villain, other story bits include:
- Conor’s mom, who (as we said) is dying of cancer, which is Very Sad.
- Conor’s douchebag dad, Conor’s condescending grandma (who has a Heart of Gold), and Conor’s friend Lily, who serves no purpose I can see, at least in the first quarter of the novel.
- A high school, which features such remarkably original characters as a Bully With Two Sidekicks and a Well-Meaning Teacher Who Just Doesn’t Get It, with “it” being Conor’s teen angst.
Most of the tropes above aren’t necessarily bad, and can often be good. Monster as metaphor, story-in-story, death of a parent, tough adolescent relationships — these are solid building blocks for a story. You can’t tell a story without tropes, after all.
But tropes only work if you recognize that they’re old, they’ve been done a million times, and you have to put a fresh spin on them. The problem with A Monster Calls, I think, is that it not only fails to dress up these old devices, it treats them as something brand-new and remarkable. “Look,” the story seems to say. “We’re using fantasy to deal with issues in real life. Did I just blow your mind, or what?”
Also, as I may have mentioned, the monster is about as scary as a bottle of mineral water.
Here’s the thing, though. People love this book. The New York Times called it “a gift from a generous storyteller and a potent piece of art.” The Telegraph hailed it as “a beguiling and heart-rending tale, tender and eviscerating in turn.” It’s won loads of prestigious awards, bestselling authors have praised it, and it has 4½ stars on Goodreads.
Why the disconnect between my experience and theirs?
Well, for starters, they read the whole book. I might like it better if I read the latter three-fourths of it. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
Another thing is expectations. They were (perhaps) expecting just another book, so any outstanding qualities may have shone extra bright. I was expecting something amazing (the cover alone lists five major awards, on my version), so I was bound to be harder to please. To be fair, I think the book is more mediocre than truly awful.
Yet another factor: The real-life story behind the novel itself is genuinely touching. A beloved author named Siobhan Dowd (who I’d never heard of before yesterday) came up with the idea for this book, but died before she could finish it. Like the mother in the story, she had cancer, so the book was very personal for her. The fact that another author took her idea and ran with it, and created something that so many people like, is really beautiful. So that might be part of it.
And of course, art is subjective, and people just have different tastes. I didn’t like it, but they did, and I’m glad they did. To each their own, etc.
Still, all that said, I do see this book as part of a larger pattern that I wrote about years ago. American Gods and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, and above all The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, are books that received universal, effusive praise. I forced myself to read them all cover-to-cover, and found that they ranged from mediocre (Gaiman and Sanderson) to awful (Rothfuss) to borderline physically painful (Beagle).
It’s odd, isn’t it? Opinions vary, as I said, but I do wonder why I diverge so sharply from mainstream and critical opinion in those cases, when my tastes are so “normal” in so many other areas. (I love Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling, Robert Jordan, Isaac Asimov, and J. R. R. Tolkien, to name just a few.)
I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last look at the art, which is excellent, as I said — definitely the book’s best feature.