“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.