MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
What if the scariest thing isn't a monster in your life, but the emotional demons in your own family? That is an idea Shaun Hamill writes about in his debut novel. NPR's Mallory Yu treats us to the story.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: "Cosmology Of Monsters" is about a family, specifically the Turner family, who own and operate a haunted house called The Wandering Dark. Shaun Hamill says, growing up in north Texas, he spent some time at haunted houses, but...
SHAUN HAMILL: I'm a big chicken when it comes to this stuff. I would go with my friends because, you know, it was a Halloween-type thing to do. And I love Halloween. But I would end up with, like, my face buried in somebody's shoulder the entire time.
YU: The novel spans many years during which Noah Turner and his family build The Wandering Dark. It's a maze of pitch black rooms for visitors to walk through, armed only with a single flashlight. As a teenager, Noah feels at home in the haunted house. His job? Playing the house's monster. He jumps out and scares groups of teens who venture through the doors. And he's very good at the role of monster because he's been friends with a supernatural beast since he was little.
HAMILL: It's got orange eyes, big claws, wet, rattling breath. But it's also incredibly warm and soft and has the capacity to be incredibly gentle.
YU: And, Hamill says, Noah Turner is predisposed to liking the creature because he feels like he's the outsider in his own family.
HAMILL: So an outsider is able to sort of make its way into his life by being there for him in a way that his family isn't.
YU: Noah's family actually can't be there for him because they have a lot going on, and their family drama makes up much of the horror in the book.
HAMILL: Because I was really interested in exploring the fact that, you know, life is a slow-motion train wreck. Like, it's just a question of how long it is between disasters in the average life.
YU: Noah's had a lot of loss in his life, more than most. And his older sister Eunice experiences depression and suicidal thoughts. Shaun Hamill says writing about her mental illness from Noah's perspective reflects his own experience. Hamill's father is mentally ill, and he says as a kid in the late '80s, he didn't always understand what was happening.
HAMILL: You know, when you're living with a bipolar person, sometimes you don't know who that person is going to be from day to day, especially when you're little.
YU: So in his novel, Hamill explores the horrors of depression without judging Eunice. He says even though the creature stalks the Turner family throughout the years, it isn't the cause of Eunice's mental illness, and it isn't a metaphor for it, either.
HAMILL: By not making the monster, like, pure metaphor and suddenly fixing everything by, you know, vanquishing this thing, I hope that lends the struggles that the characters face a little bit more reality and lets it be messy and real.
YU: And in the backdrop of this messy human horror, Shaun Hamill creates a cosmic world full of creatures who use humans as food, entertainment, slave labor, which might feel familiar to fans of 1920s horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Hamill references the writer's stories throughout the novel but says he struggles with Lovecraft's prose and his politics.
HAMILL: He was a racist and, you know, a xenophobe. You know, it's very much there in a lot of his writing.
YU: So he wanted to go beyond Lovecraft's limitations, to question the very idea of monstrousness, human or otherwise.
HAMILL: I feel like everybody has this fear that we all have inside of us that, you know, if people really knew us all the way through, they wouldn't be able to love us because we're bad. We're gross. We're disgusting. You know, and I think it was less about, like, accusing them of monstrousness but more about them struggling with their own fears of being monstrous.
YU: For the time being, Shaun Hamill plans on sticking with horror a little while longer. Being scared, he says, can be useful for us.
HAMILL: It allows us to sort of look directly into the dark, you know, the unknown, the things that we're most anxious or afraid of and then walk away and keep on living. What horror does is I think it gives a valve to sort of look it in the face and then walk away and feel more alive for a while because of it.
YU: "Cosmology Of Monsters" allows readers to look the monstrous in the face. It's the small flashlight to keep you company when you're ready to venture into the dark.
Mallory Yu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.