Into the Abyss

‘A Cosmology of Monsters’
Goya, Los caprichos, number 43, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” 1799, Museo del Prado, particular. (Wikimedia Commons)

“There is no such thing as a happy ending. There are only good stopping places.” So reads the suicide note of Eunice Turner, sister of Noah Turner, the protagonist of Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters. Hamill’s debut novel has the trappings of the scary stories we look for around this time of year—a lethal monster, a gruesome haunted house, the sense that something isn’t quite right. But Cosmology dives beneath the tropes to explore our deepest anxieties about narrative and storytelling. Why do we tell lies—whether grand societal fictions or the half-truths that travel within families? Who gets to decide when the story ends? Is a happy ending just a lie by omission?

Noah knows that the stories we tell can enlighten or obscure, liberate or confine. As the narrator of Cosmology, he guides us through the decades-long history of the Turner family while a dark presence—a wolf-like monster in a hooded red robe, eyes glowing orange, teeth bared—stalks each member of the family. Noah’s mother Margaret pretends she doesn’t see; his father Harry copes with the visitations by building The Wandering Dark, a sprawling, immersive haunted house in the family’s backyard. Noah’s older sisters have their own ways of handling the darkness: Sydney craves the spotlight to outshine the fear; Eunice writes stories to exorcise the ugly truths whispered to her in the night. Although each of the Turners is visited by the creature, they rarely speak of it in the house. But when Noah first sees the hooded figure, at the age of six, he does what lonely children often do in horror stories—he lets the danger in. As children begin disappearing from their town, Noah must face the possibility that his new friend is responsible.

Hamill’s novel deftly blends fantastical monstrosities and everyday trauma; there are monsters real and metaphorical that the Turners must confront. The creature consoles Noah through his family’s experiences of physical and mental illness, poverty, marital disillusionment, abuse, disappearances, murder, and suicide—all of which, like the visitations of the monster, they ignore to keep the peace. Eunice, the born truth-teller and storywriter, suffers especially, writing in her journal that she wishes everyone could “stop pretending” so that she doesn’t have to pretend, too.

Life makes monsters of everyone, but it’s always possible to come back.

A Cosmology of Monsters seems unique among new books (and debut novels) for prioritizing plot over exposition and atmosphere. If my description sounds vague, that’s by design. The twists and reveals start appearing early in the book; in a narrative spanning decades, the clues for deciphering what this horror is and what it wants are left for the reader to connect. Disturbing the breadcrumbs would be a disservice.

Cosmology at times feels like a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft’s phantasmagorical brand of horror. As in the stories of Cthulhu, incomprehensible, ineffable, otherworldly darkness lies just beyond the everyday, past the human categories of right or wrong, light or dark. Reflecting on his family’s past as an adult, Noah wants to tell this kind of story: as he puts it, it’s the kind of tale that shows that “the ‘real world’ humans inhabited was in fact nothing but weak gauze ready to be pulled aside to reveal an abyss of terrors underneath…. The same basic concept as religion—the world is not the world—but twisted.”

Indeed, all of the Turners know in their bones about another world—the City, an upside-down place where they find themselves transported in dreams or nightmares. The City’s slithering, fun-house streets call to the darkness in each character, and they seem to be drawn further in when the wolf-creature is near. Within the text itself, scraps of another narrative unfolding in the City break into the flow of Noah’s account, cataloguing the City’s perversions of the Turners that turn their domestic lives into something monstrous. These intertextual flourishes make it clear how much Hamill loves stories; his characters explore the canon of horror literature and let those tales seep into their own.

Noah’s life is a story of finding himself to be an outsider to the real world and drawn, through his friendship with the wolf-creature, into another. Though an ominous presence to most, the monster is a friend to Noah. Just as Noah lets it in (while the rest of his family tries to ignore it), he lets darkness into himself as well. Later, working at The Wandering Dark, teenage Noah creates a costume to look like the monster. He’s amazed at how much more comfortable he is in the wolf’s skin than in his own—and that he prefers being a story’s monster to being its hero. As Noah grows into adulthood, he becomes a Möbius strip of a person: trying to separate man from monster, and finding they might be one and the same. As each of his loved ones is slowly, indelibly written into the story of the City, Noah must decide what narrative he wants to be in. By the end of the book, his choice is anything but straightforward. Did the story end in the right place? What makes a happy ending anyway?

Noah gives the last word to his father Harry, the creator of The Wandering Dark and the first of the family to be plagued by the monster. Unlike Eunice and Noah, Harry insists that all scary stories have a happy ending. Before opening night, Harry tells the cast of The Wandering Dark: “When the credits roll, or the reader closes the book, or when our guests walk out tonight, their lives will go on. Because they faced the dark, the sun will shine a little brighter tomorrow.” As Noah ends his tale, he remembers his father’s words: “Life makes monsters of everyone, but it’s always possible to come back.”

But is that really true? If Harry is right, is Noah wrong? In the end, the story demands that you choose. How you feel when you close the book will vindicate that choice.

A Cosmology of Monsters
Shaun Hamill
Pantheon, $26.95
336 pp.


Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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