From the New York Times bestselling author of The Stolen Child comes a hypnotic literary horror novel about a young boy trapped inside his own world, whose drawings blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Ever since he nearly drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten-year-old Jack Peter Keenan has been deathly afraid to venture outdoors. Refusing to leave his home in a small coastal town in Maine, Jack Peter spends his time drawing monsters. When those drawings take on a life of their own, no one is safe from the terror they inspire. His mother, Holly, begins to hear strange sounds in the night coming from the ocean, and she seeks answers from the local Catholic priest and his Japanese housekeeper, who fill her head with stories of shipwrecks and ghosts. His father, Tim, wanders the beach, frantically searching for a strange apparition running wild in the dunes. And the boy's only friend, Nick, becomes helplessly entangled in the eerie power of the drawings. While those around Jack Peter are haunted by what they think they see, only he knows the truth behind the frightful occurrences as the outside world encroaches upon them all.
In the tradition of The Turn of the Screw, Keith Donohue's The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a mesmerizing tale of psychological terror and imagination run wild, a perfectly creepy read for a dark night.
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About the Author
Keith Donohue is the national bestselling author of the novels The Stolen Child, The Angels of Destruction, and Centuries of June. His work has been translated into two dozen languages, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. A graduate of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Donohue also holds a Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America. He lives in Maryland.
Keith Donohue is the national bestselling author of the novels The Stolen Child, The Angels of Destruction, and Centuries of June. His work has been translated in two dozen languages, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. A graduate of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Donohue also holds a Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America. He lives in Wheaton, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The Boy Who Drew Monsters
By Keith Donohue
PicadorCopyright © 2014 Keith Donohue
All rights reserved.
Dream boy. Holly watched her son sleep, just as she had done a thousand times before, wondering where he had gone in his dreams. Another minute will be no harm, she told herself, reluctant to disturb his peace. The birdcage of his chest rose and fell, and she found herself synchronizing her breathing to his, just as she had done a decade ago when he was a newborn. Jack clenched his hands into fists, one tucked against his cheek sure to leave a mark on his skin. Beneath his fluttering eyelids, his eyes rolled back and forth as he concentrated on a dreamscape only he could see, a film playing out in his subconscious mind. He seemed deeply under, a child like every other child, a normal son, an ordinary boy in his sleep. She held the moment in abeyance, allowing the illusion to linger.
It had been three years since she had dared to stay so close to her son for so long. A summer day on the beach, her beamish boy broke free and raced across the sand and rocks into her arms, radiant heart jangling under his ribs. Fine soft hair matted onto his scalp, he smelled of salt and sand and soap, and as he kissed her again and again, he banged the top of his crown against the ridge of her cheekbone. He was in love, love, love with her, and she loved him in return with a fierceness that scared her often, she could eat him up. Her bright bold beautiful boy all of seven. He had squeezed her around the neck until she winced. Now but a memory. She watched him sleep, wishing him to come back to her. Back before it all began.
In the middle of the night, Jack had cried out once, a screech that woke her with its animal intensity. She was too tired and too conditioned to abandon the warmth beneath the down comforter, so she waited, tense and alert for an echo. But the quiet returned swiftly as he stilled himself. For half an hour, she listened, fidgeting on her pillow, watching the slow sweep of the alarm clock. Tim had turned his back to her and was little more than a familiar contour, his body sloped like a faraway roll of hills. In the morning, she woke first, only to find him slumbering in the exact position, as though dead to all interruption.
"It's eight," she told her husband. "You wanted to make your rounds this morning. Check the houses now the cold is here."
"Let me sleep."
"No rest for the wicked," Holly said, throwing off the covers so that his back was exposed to the cooling morning, and then she went to fetch their son.
She wanted to wake Jack gently, slowly. His long dark hair fell across his forehead in tangled strands like a forest of kelp, which accented his pale skin and soft features. Beautiful boy. Bending closer Holly reached to brush back his hair, and as soon as she touched him she realized her mistake.
Quick as a snake, his arm sprang forward by reflex. His fist struck her just below the left eye socket, and a sharp pain radiated from the spot where bone smacked bone. The second blow glanced off the point of her chin and landed flush on her shoulder. She recoiled and saw his eyes wide with fear and anger.
"Don't touch me," he screamed. "Get away, get away." He launched himself at her again, a whirl of punches and sharp elbows, and she slid farther away, too shocked to defend herself. A feral savagery possessed him as he bounced on the mattress, flailing his limbs, as if he did not know his victim. She stood and backed off, looking for a means of protection without actually laying a hand against her son.
"Stop, Jack, just stop it. What are you doing?"
As suddenly as the attack began, he froze on all fours and raised his face toward her, a wave of recognition coming over him. Penitent as a hound, he bowed his head and slumped, collapsing on his chest.
"What's gotten into you?"
Jack buried his face in the covers and began to cry. Since he was seven years old, he had not suffered easily any human touch. He would shrug off the arm around his shoulders or flinch at a hug or handshake, but he had never before come to blows with anyone. Not even when Tim would wrap him up and carry him to the car when they absolutely had to take him out of the house. Her heart pounded as she fought to calm her breathing, and she felt the contusions on her face and shoulder throb against the hot flush of her skin. Torn between the desire to comfort her son and the urge to flee, Holly could not move one way or another. She braced her feet against the braided rug, anxious for the truce to begin.
"Don't touch me," he said again, his voice now calm and muffled by the comforter.
"Don't worry," she said. "I wouldn't dream of it." With her fingertips she pressed against a spot of pain on her face.
She waited. At last the boy sat on his haunches and crossed his arms, muttering to himself, steadying his vibrating body. His eyes were fixed on a spot somewhere behind his mother, and she watched patiently for the switch in his brain to be thrown. A bubble of spit popped at the corner of his lips. The tight muscles on his neck unwound like bands.
She hoped he had given her a black eye, some mark that would prove to her husband and the doctors what she had been saying for months. He was close to becoming out of control at times, too much to handle on her own. The blankness of the boy's face refused to acknowledge her presence in the room. His porcelain skin reddened, and she stared at his eyes until he returned her gaze.
"What was that all about, young man?"
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You better be."
He frowned and his eyes welled with tears.
"You hurt me, Jack. Why did you hit me?"
The ferocity drained from his body, and all at once be became a little boy again, confused by his own actions. His shoulders drooped, and he tucked his chin into his chest and hid behind the curtain of his bangs.
"You can't do that, you can't hit Mommy."
"Sorry," he said again. "I thought you were coming to get me."
"I was coming to get you, to wake you up."
"No, I thought there was a monster under the bed."
A quick smile split her face. A boy, a boy, just a little boy lost. She clenched her teeth and scowled at him, too late; he had seen her furtive grin. She cleared her throat. "You can't go around hitting people, honey."
"I promise," he said.
So many broken promises, so many pledges to be good. Her head ached. "Get yourself dressed, then. And when you are ready, come down for breakfast, and we'll see what you can do to make it up to me."
"Sorry," he said for a third time, but she had already turned to leave.
* * *
Jack Peter dressed quickly and smoothed his quilt just like he had been taught, and then he tiptoed in his socks to the heating register nearest to the window. Lying on the floor, he put his ear close to the vent, a trick he had discovered one day by accident, as though the house itself had secret passageways for the words. If the blowers were not running, he could eavesdrop on conversations in other rooms, depending upon where he sat. In the kitchen downstairs, they were talking. He could imagine them huddled in the breakfast nook, two cups of coffee breathing their steam.
"Just out of the blue?" his father asked. "Completely unprovoked?"
"What would I do to provoke him? I barely touched him," she said.
"You're going to have a shiner."
"It isn't funny, Tim. He was like some wild animal. He's stronger than he looks."
"You'll have to be more careful."
"Careful?" Her voice rang through the heating duct like a struck gong, loud enough to be heard through the open door as well. "I have to be more careful?"
"Holly, the walls have ears."
"I don't care if he can hear me, maybe he should be listening to me. Maybe you should listen. Something has to be done."
His father dropped his voice, changed the tone, so Jack Peter had to creep closer to the register.
"It was just the one time, Hol. Just the once. I'll talk to him. We'll work on him not hitting, but I don't want to have him all doped up. Don't want to increase his meds."
"Couldn't you at least talk to the doctor?"
He stubbornly refused to answer her. They would be sitting there, silent, staring away from each other, through the window, at the newspapers, eyes following the rising coffee steam. Jack Peter had seen it before, again and again.
After some time, his father spoke calmly. "You shouldn't have startled him. Something must have set him off for him to react so ... violently."
"He said there was a monster under his bed." She lifted her face toward the ceiling. "More like a monster in his bed."
"You shouldn't have touched him."
"My own son."
"Our son," he said. "He was just afraid and you set him off. Match to a fuse."
Jack Peter heard one of them rise from the table and cross the room, but he could no longer make out what his mother was saying, though he could hear the anger roll through her muffled voice.
"No," his father answered. "I think that would be impossible. A terrible idea. Look, I'll work harder with him."
Stealing away as quickly and quietly as possible, Jack Peter left his spot and stationed himself at the top of the staircase, careful not to give himself away. He caught the tail end of his mother's answer.
" ... if something happened to us, then we'd have to make those kind of arrangements."
"Please, Holly," his father said. "I won't send him away. He'd be miserable in one of those homes."
Send him away. Away, away, where would they send him?
"You don't know that," his mother said. "Maybe he could be happier, maybe they would find a way to better control—"
"I won't do it," his father shouted.
"—his behavior. Get him outside. Conquer his fears."
His father said, "But he's our son. I can't believe you'd even suggest such a thing."
"I can't have him hitting me, Tim. Hurting me, or hurting himself. I don't want to send him away, but I'm at my wit's end."
"I'll talk to him," his father said softly. "I'll take him to see Wilson, make the necessary adjustments."
A prolonged silence filled the void, rising like the sea from the bottom till it engulfed the whole house. Wrapping his arms behind his head, Jack Peter waited for it to end, but he dared not leave his listening post. He would not go away, he would not go outside, he would make them stop, and they would see and they would keep everything as it was. He would show them. He would make them see.
At last his father pushed away from the table. He would be walking to her for a hug. "And I'll check under the bed," he joked. "For monsters."
Freed, Jack Peter bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen, beaming for her, but she would not turn to face him. At the sink, doing dishes, she was not ready. Dressed in her jogging clothes, she looked ready to run away. His father flashed a greeting, waved his hand for the boy to join him and be still. A bowl of oatmeal with a crater lake of maple syrup in the middle had been put at his place at the table.
"Tim," she said at last. "I'll be back from my run soon, and then you can make your rounds. Make sure to fetch Nicholas on your way home. He's coming over to play with Jack this afternoon."
Jack Peter picked up his spoon and drew a line across the thick surface. The syrup ran and spread like blood. Work to be done, he told himself. Not away, not away, but here. Inside.
A pale yellow sun hung low in the salt sky. Winter had blown in overnight, and the cold gave an air of lonesomeness to the empty roads and deserted vacation homes. Tim loved the dying light of December and the absence of the people and set about his business with a kind of gleeful freedom. He had a dozen properties to take care of in the village and another dozen scattered on the eastern edge of the peninsula, and he had worked his way through three of the four homes on his list for the day with not a soul to bother him.
The Rothmans' summer place was the biggest and finest house in the village, fronting the crescent beach, ideally situated with a view of the lighthouse to the north and the unspoiled sand and rocks to the south. Tim parked the Jeep around back and stood in the driveway, admiring how seamlessly the new mansion blended in with the grand old New England Victorians that dotted the coast. But it had been built less than ten years ago. His son was older than the house. The wind cut through his jacket, so he hooked the lapels against his throat and jogged to the door and fumbled for the keys.
The house was colder inside than out, and he searched for the thermostat to turn up the heat and flipped on the lights in the pale noontime. In the kitchen, new and clean birch cabinets glowed like honey above smooth slate countertops and the spotless stove and refrigerator. A few tasteful prints lined the walls, and in the dining room, the chairs sat precisely three inches from the edge of the table, awaiting company. Alert for drafts, he wandered room to room, absentmindedly checking windows that he knew were closed. A layer of dust furred the shells and curios laid out carefully on the sideboard, and he drew a line with his fingertip along the edge of a mahogany credenza. Bound in frames, pictures of the Rothmans were everywhere: the father in his white dentist's jacket, brandishing a tool of grave menace; the mother with the same practical smile in every photograph. Two children—a boy and a girl—progressively aging from toddlers to teenagers, perfect teeth glistening in the Maine summer sun. Even the dog was perfect, a Shiba Inu regal as a coiffed fox. In a gilded mirror, Tim saw himself prowling through their possessions like a thief, and he quickly turned away.
Tim sat in Dr. Rothman's easy chair and inspected the Persian rug between his feet, wondering if he had dragged any sand or mud inside. The room was simple and elegant. A Steinway upright took up one wall. More photographs of Mrs. Rothman in her best swimsuit. Arts and Crafts mirrors and lamps. White pine beams and finishing trim. The furniture, spare pieces, summer home, finer and newer than his own. A castle built crown by crown, bridge by bridge, tooth by tooth.
Money. He dug into his front pocket and fished out a ten, the same crumpled bill he had tucked away three days ago. He knew without looking that his wallet was empty. Never enough money. The plan had been for him to go back to school, finish his degree, but when their son was born and later diagnosed, they decided after many long nights of argument that Tim would put ambition aside to care for the boy most of the time.
"I make more money," she had said, and it was true, even as a small town lawyer just starting out. "So it only makes sense, when he's still little, for me to keep my job. What's so terrible about being a stay-at-home dad? You can always find something seasonal or part-time, we'll work it out."
He had stumbled into the caretaker's position with Coast Property Management, but he often wondered if Holly had not secretly welcomed the chance to escape the responsibility of daily care for the boy, right from the beginning. When J.P. was younger, Tim took him along for odd jobs when Holly was not free or when they could not find a sitter. But after Jip developed his phobia, those excursions with his son became nearly impossible. Just as unlikely as returning to college after all these years. He was old enough to be a freshman's father.
With the sole of his boot, he scraped at a spot on the rug. The wind rattled the windowpanes behind him, and he hoisted himself from the easy chair, stiff with cold, and climbed the stairs to check for drafts in the bedrooms. In the dentist's boudoir, the king-size bed floated like a raft on a wide expanse. A single wrinkle creased the bedspread, and he smoothed it with two hands, picturing Dr. Rothman and his wife, perfect and tan, resting on a summer afternoon, worn out with relaxation. The wind whistled through a chink in the walls, and Tim followed the sound, past the daughter's room. He caught a glimpse of a giant stuffed bear, won at some seaside carnival, sitting on Goldilocks's chair.
The door at the end of the hall was closed, and when he opened it, a sharp odor leapt from the boy's bedroom, as if it had been trapped for three months. Something dead in there. On the walls were posters of all the Boston sports stars, Red Sox and Patriots, Celtics and Bruins. A pair of water skis stood in the corner, and on the shelves and dresser careful lines of shells and starfish, a dried mermaid's purse, a stick of driftwood bent like a narwhal's horn. A scrapbook lay open on the schoolboy's desk. Pages of an ordinary summer. The whaleboat out of Boothbay, a clambake on the beach, a set of printouts from the big annual fireworks in Portland. And the boy and his sister in the bright sunshine, climbing on rocks, kayaking on the calm Atlantic, holding a pair of trophy fishes no bigger than perch. The boy and his sister, darkening to bronze from July to September. He turned the last page and thought of his son.
Excerpted from The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Copyright © 2014 Keith Donohue. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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