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Book Review: A Cosmology of Monsters

A Cosmology of Monstersa cosmology of monsters
Shaun Hamill

Pantheon, 2029
★★★★☆

In the acknowledgements of this book, Shaun Hamill calls it a “literary genre hybrid.” That’s a really good description, because this is a very odd novel. It’s got elements of cosmic horror, sure, but it’s not really scary in that way, necessarily. It reads more like a literary novel, especially in the beginning, and the scary bits are all to do with the banal realities of everyday life. I almost feel like there’s a very large metaphor being teased out here, one that I’m struggling to properly articulate but that has something to do with everyday tragedies as horrifying monsters. It’s about a haunted family, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Gothic, it definitely has elements of Gothic family sagas.
A Cosmology of Monsters is narrated by Noah, the youngest member of the Turner family. He begins with his parents’ meeting one another in 1968, and writes on until sometime in the late 2000s, detailing the terribly sad dissolution of his family as a result of some sort of monster that seems to be on their trail. This monster is easily the least developed part of the book, and its origin is never truly explained; it seems Hamill isn’t altogether concerned with that, but rather with the effect of this monster on the Turner family. The monsters feed on pain, and the Turners encounter a lot of it.

This didn’t feel like horror to me, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, it felt deeply, deeply sad. It gave rise to a feeling of existential despair, albeit one being buffeted by hope. It’s really the story of a single family, their trials and tribulations, with a really weird fantastical element thrown in. There’s a lot of allusions to horror writers, particularly Lovecraft, and the “City” that repeatedly features in the narrative definitely feels like something Lovecraft would have created.

Technically speaking, the book is extremely readable and engaging. It always baffles me how there are just some books that manage to suck you right in and make you feel like a comfortable guest. I picked this book up and immediately, something about the writing style felt familiar and easy, and I grew attached to the characters in all their flaws (especially Margaret and Sydney; I adore “unlikable” women).

This is more of a 4.5 for me, but I would have liked a bit more explication regarding the origin of the monsters and the City; yes, we get a resolution, but it felt a little too vague for me. I also think that, although the book started out very strong when it was describing the early days of the Turner family, it started to stagnate just a tiny bit when it transitioned to simply being about Noah and his daily encounters. It was never boring or slow, but the quality of the second half, in my opinion, did not quite measure up to the quality of the first. I also think the two halves suffer from a kind of cognitive dissonance – the fantasy elements in the first half are light, barely there, while the second half turns into full-on monster movie, which was a little jarring.

This book isn’t just for readers of fantasy and horror; I would highly recommend this if you’re a literary fiction reader. This is a wonderful book with an achingly sad story at its core, filled with vibrant, flawed characters struggling to find their place in the world.

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