In the dark of night, a monster approaches Conor’s bedroom window. The massive, human-like gnarl of branches with its thunderous voice fails to frighten the boy. You see, Conor has already glimpsed the source of his personal terror. It lives in his nightmares.
A Monster Calls was written after Patrick Ness used outlines and ideas from the British writer Siobhan Dowd, a Carnegie Medal-winning author who died of cancer in 2007. The final product is a taut, suspenseful reflection on losing a loved one, accompanied by the message to be honest with one’s self.
Conor’s mother has cancer. His life has become a vigorous attempt to take care of the house while dealing with isolation and cruelty at school. Since everyone has heard that his mother was sick, they have avoided him as if he was carrying the illness, too.
On top of this, Conor’s grandmother has arrived. To say that she and Conor don’t get along is a vast understatement.
“You and I need to have a talk, my boy,” she said, standing in the doorway and blocking his escape.
“I have a name, you know,” Conor said…“And it’s not my boy.”
The looming prospect of living with her is infuriating. Conor would much rather with his father, who lives on the other side of the Atlantic with his new wife and daughter. Dad visits, but makes it clear that there is no room for Conor in America.
And so the ancient monster starts to visit Conor, always at 12:07. He takes the form of a tree next to Conor’s house, forming the branches into arms and reaching into the window. In the wake of each visit there are tokens. The floor is covered in blood-red berries. A sapling sprouts in the middle of the room. There is something more important that the monster intends to give, as well as something crucial that it needs in return.
I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before…And when I have finished my three stories, you will tell me a fourth.
Stories are wild things, according to the monster. It demonstrates this with each telling. Sometimes the villain gets away, and sometimes the hero does something unforgiveable. In exchange, Conor must expose the truth that he’s been hiding and confront what has truly been terrifying him.
Both authors brought significant expertise to this book. Ness is known for the striking and suspenseful Chaos Walking trilogy, in which settlers on an alien world fight madness and the darkness in their own hearts. In both that series and this story, he masterfully brings a sense of humor to what would otherwise be very grim books. Dowd caught attention with her smash second novel The London Eye Mystery and won her medal posthumously for Bog Child. All four of her novels were published after her cancer diagnosis.
The title is short compared to those of many young adult novels, and it is accompanied with some frightening imagery from Jim Kay. Kay’s black and white pictures rank with Stephen Gammell’s in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Dave McKean’s on the covers of the Sandman graphic novel.
A Monster Calls was an absolutely infectious and quick read. It offers plenty of heart and substance in addition to its straightforward storytelling and unsettling imagery. Like the monster says, “Stories are wild things.” If you can handle this one, you will be rewarded.