A Cosmology of Monsters

A Cosmology of MonstersWhile I love the film version of The World According to Garp, I’ve never read a John Irving novel. I should rectify that at some point, but I mention it here to illustrate that I’m missing what Stephen King cites as a significant influence on Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters. That being the case, I still loved Hamill’s book. A Cosmology of Monsters strikes a perfect balance between a literary and genre horror novel. Fans of works at either end of the spooky spectrum should appreciate this tale.

Before I talk about the story, I need to laud this book’s gorgeous exterior (pictured to the left). The cover stopped me dead in the store the first time I saw it. I loved the evocative illustration combined with the bright orange and blue hues. A special shoutout is owed to Na Kim and Kelly Blair, who are listed as being responsible for the jacket illustration and design, respectively. They, and Pantheon Books, did a terrific job on the eye candy. That said, I will now jump into the actual narrative.

Spoilers Below (although I try to keep things vague)

The idea of a horror novel based around a haunted house attraction is brilliant, and that alone might’ve been enough for me to enjoy this work. Yet, by the end of the story, that aspect feels like a minuscule part of the book. The opening pages follow the protagonist’s mother and father, a huge Lovecraft fan, as they start their relationship and marriage. Unfortunately, things take a tragic turn for the father, who dies of cancer. From there, the story focuses on Noah, the youngest son of the couple, as he grows up. His childhood is complicated by the appearance of a monster, who he befriends, and the disappearance of his sister. Eventually, after many twists and turns, Noah discovers a hidden world in which monsters are made, and he must make some horrible choices to save the people he loves. There are a lot of details I’m leaving out, but that was just a quick summary. You’ll need to pick up a copy of the book for the full yarn.

I enjoyed this entire novel, and I read it in only three sittings. There were two standout moments for me. The first was a sexual scene between the monster and Noah. This scene surprised and confused me, and I’m impressed anytime a writer does that to me. Eventually, the scene makes sense as it’s foreshadowing a later revelation, but in the moment, I was befuddled and couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I just loved that feeling. The second standout moment of the book was the ending. It’s a gut-wrenching ordeal where the protagonist makes a Faustian bargain. I’ll let you discover the choice Noah makes for yourself, but I was impressed by how dark the story got in the end. Conclusions are where many tales fall flat, and I was happy to discover that A Cosmology of Monsters did not. I was left wanting more stories set in the universe of this book. Hopefully, one day Shaun Hamill will continue Noah’s dark journey or give us a new protagonist’s insight on the dark city at the heart of this narrative. That said, based on reading this novel, I’ll be happy to check out whatever Hamill does next. If I still haven’t sold you on A Cosmology of Monsters, you should give a listen to Shaun Hamill’s interview with the Lovecraft ezine for further enticement.

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The Ancestor

The AncestorIf someone were to ask me to direct them to a modern gothic novel, I’d point them straight to The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni. While I was drawn to the story by the premise of discovering a monstrous ancestry, I just did Ancestary.com last month, the sense of the gothic is what truly fascinated me about this read. Of course, cryptozoology also plays a significant role in the plot, and, since I previously won a contest concerning cryptid monsters for my flash fiction, Feeding Time, those elements of the story appealed to me too. Overall, Trussoni brought all the eclectic elements together into a perfect mix.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Alberta, finding out she’s the heir to the prestigious Montebianco family in Italy. I absolutely loved this setup because I had no second thoughts about why Alberta would be willing to go off and visit her family’s ancestral castle in exchange for a fortune. If someone told me I was royalty and had a castle, and I could pay off my student loans, I’d be on the first plane to Italy too. In horror stories, even exceptionally good ones, I often struggle to rationalize why the protagonist investigates a strange noise, heads into a spooky basement, etc. Trussoni deftly dodges that pitfall, and you totally buy Alberta’s willingness to travel to an isolated castle in the Alps. Before I get into some spoilers, I should also add that I listened to this story on Audible, and the reader, Heather Masters, did an incredible job bringing the narrative to life.

Spoilers Below (although I try to keep things vague)

Most of the story takes place in the Montebianco Castle, and you get the strongest gothic horror vibes from this section. Alberta becomes more and more aware of her own isolation as the helicopter that dropped her off doesn’t come back, and the harsh winter weather makes any other escape from the Alps impossible. She also gets better acquainted with the family’s dark secrets while exploring the castle and getting to know the residents. Throughout this part of the book, I kept assuming her ex-husband, Luca, would eventually show up and save her. I was conflicted on this point because, while I liked Alberta and wanted her to be okay, I didn’t want to see her turned into a damsel in distress rescued by her ex. Thankfully, Trussoni made a shocking decision regarding the character of Luca and his super nice father. This was the highlight of the book for me because it took me by complete surprise. Everything after that moment felt like icing on an already delicious cake because my assumptions on where the narrative was heading vanished.

The horror in this story comes from a lot of different places too. First, there’s the horror of isolation, Alberta being trapped in Montebianco Castle reminded me of The Shining at many times, except, in The Ancestor, the protagonist isn’t confined with family. Instead, she’s trapped with strangers, like the dangerous groundskeeper. Next, there’s the horror of Alberta’s monstrous ancestry. This plays out in two ways. One, she inherits a high risk of miscarriage. Two, there’s the horror of the actual identity of some of her relations, who are, let’s say, unique beings. All these ingredients culminate in a terrific book-stew. And I didn’t even mention the fast pace, which keeps you moving through the story quickly.

I highly recommend giving The Ancestor a read or listen. I first heard about it by watching The Lovecraft eZine, and if you’re on the fence about picking up the book, I suggest giving that interview a watch (it’s linked here). Trussoni also wrote Crypto-Z, a narrative podcast, that ties into The Ancestor, and I’ve listened to the first episode, which was excellent. Lastly, I had the pleasure of attending Trussoni’s first Writing Hang-Out Session via Zoom, and I enjoyed getting to listen to the attending writers and Trussoni discuss their work. I believe it’s open to any interested writers, and you can find the details about attending here.

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