Shaun Hamill Has a Scary Story to Tell You

August 16, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 6 min read

Shaun Hamill’s debut novel, A Cosmology of Monsters, asks what makes a monster. “Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side?” Hamill asked me, adding, “I think it’s all a matter of perspective…”

A Cosmology of Monsters follows the Turner family as they navigate illnesses and hardships. The heart of the family—and the novel—is young Noah Turner. Noah befriends a monster that appears outside his bedroom, and the two of them form a bond that transforms the Turners’ lives. Told with tenderness and brimming with darkness, Hamill’s debut is sure to please readers who have a special literary craving for monsters.

Hamill and I recently discussed the influence of other horror writers, haunted attractions, and, of course, monsters.

The Millions: One thing I admire so much about A Cosmology of Monsters is how it shows appreciation for the horror writers and works that came before it. Among others, your novel mentions Weird Tales, Shirley Jackson, and H. P. Lovecraft. Do you mind talking about your decision to include so many references to other horror writers and works?

Shaun Hamill: I like stories that are in active conversation with other stories, and I always enjoy finding recommendations inside books—when a piece of fiction mentions a book I haven’t read, an album I haven’t heard, or a film I haven’t seen, I feel like I’m being invited into a secret club. With Cosmology, I found a way to turn my own self-indulgence into a narrative asset. After all, this is a story about people who scare other people for a living. They needed to be familiar with their genre, and the characters’ awareness of the horror tradition allows them to grapple with the larger thematic questions of the book in a more direct way than if, say, they existed in a world without Shirley Jackson or H.P. Lovecraft.

TM: The Lovecraft references are especially strong.

SH: Although the narrative shape of Cosmology is sort of a John Irving/Stephen King mash-up, its worldbuilding and philosophy have more in common with Lovecraft. Lovecraft believed that humanity is small and insignificant in a large, uncaring cosmos. Much of his fiction hammers at this idea, with unknowable monsters standing as symbols for a godless universe. When I started reading Lovecraft in grad school, this philosophy seemed a perfect backdrop for a tragic family saga. What was interesting to me was taking that cosmic nihilism as a given, and then saying “Okay, now what? How do you live a life? How do you give it meaning?”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is very much a monster story. Did certain literary monsters from the past guide the way you crafted the monster in your novel?

covercoverSH: The closest literary relative is probably Eli, the child vampire from John Ajvide Linqvist’s Let the Right One In. I was also inspired by “The Window,” a story in Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, in which a young woman sees lights outside her bedroom window that turn out to be the glowing eyes of a vampire. There’s definitely some of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf-Man in there, but I also want to mention a real-life monster: my dog, Sheplin, who laid behind my desk chair every morning, sighing loudly while I wrote (he didn’t get a walk until I was done). His body language and personality were a big influence on the monster’s early appearances.

TM: I want to talk some more about monsters. After I met the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters, I felt pity for it. It’s alone in the dark. The first word it makes out to Noah is “friend.” It can’t really write, and it has trouble playing with toys. It’s a pitiful creature really. Still, though, it is the monster—we know it and it knows it. As I kept reading, I couldn’t help but focus on this question that I’ll pose to you: what defines a monster?

SH: That’s the central question of the book, isn’t it? It’s a nebulous term, hard to pin down. After all, Dracula and Grover are both monsters, and while they both have abnormal physical characteristics, they’re completely different in demeanor and intent. So what does the term mean? Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side? I think it’s all a matter of perspective, and it’s something the book’s characters are struggling with. That’s probably less of a straight answer than you wanted, but it’s as close as I can come.

TM: Here is one of Noah’s descriptions of the monster: “My friend stood and stepped back. It extended the talons of its right paw. It felt more like the hand of an adult human than like that of some unspeakable horror, and, as the creature pulled me into its embrace, I felt warmth and sturdiness.” What is it about the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters that makes it be so comforting to Noah?

SH: Noah has a cold home life. Neither of his parents are around to provide physical affection. His sister Eunice does her best to take care of him, but even her attention is diverted early in the story. The monster is big and warm and gentle like you want your parents to be, and it’s a constant presence for Noah—something he can always count on. There’s more to it, of course, but to say more would spoil some important aspects of the book.

TM: Do you think of Noah as being a monster?

SH: He’s worried that he is, but I want readers to make up their own mind.

TM: Noah is an interesting character. He has a tough life. His dad dies when Noah is very young. His family members have mental-health issues. And, well, his best friend is a monster. I’m curious how he came to you and what inspired him.

SH: Noah’s voice has been with me for a long time. I first heard him when I was on a road trip in my early 20s, and had one of those “lightning bolt of inspiration” moments: a novel about a fatherless boy in a house full of women, coming of age working at the family business. The nature of the business changed, and monsters invited themselves in, but all the family characters and mental illness stuff were there from the beginning. As far as the source material for that inspiration, I grew up in a house of women and have spent a lot of my life dealing with the effects of poverty and mental illness. Like many freshman novelists, I built my story from what my wife likes to call “all my carry-on.”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is a horror novel for sure with violence and terror, but it’s not only a horror novel. It’s also a rich love story. The novel begins with love. The Turner family stays together because of love. It ends with love. The book is often tender and sweet. What do you think the addition of the love stories adds to the novel?

SH: There are a few ways the love stories add to the novel. First, love is an aspect of monstrousness, potentially a cause and a cure (sometimes simultaneously). Second, this book torments its characters, so it was important that I and my reader become invested enough to endure that torment alongside them. Third, love was the secret sauce that turned Cosmology from a rambling, overlong, confused epic (my first draft was 220,000 words) into a more focused, propulsive narrative. Whenever I felt the story getting too big, or heading in a cliched or overdramatic direction, looking to love (both mine for the characters and theirs for one another) almost always gave me a more interesting scene or surprising moment. It made the book smaller, but better.

TM: I don’t want to make the book seem light because it’s definitely not. In fact, so much of the novel is about how we, no matter how hard we try, can’t truly protect other people no matter how hard we try. It’s a bleak outlook—maybe, but I think it’s true.

SH: Agreed. Life is a slow motion train wreck. Disasters will beset you and everyone you care about and you are powerless to stop it. It goes back to that Lovecraftian nihilism I mentioned earlier—we are cosmically insignificant in an unplanned, indifferent universe. That’s another reason love is so important to Cosmology. If life has no inherent meaning, there’s something romantic about living a good life and caring for the people around you. 

TM: The Wandering Dark, the haunted house the Turner family operates, plays a huge role in A Cosmology of Monsters. I can’t let you go without asking about real-life haunted attractions. Do you have a favorite?

SH: When I still lived in Texas, I used to make pilgrimages to a few local haunts in Dallas-Fort Worth with friends, but I haven’t been to one in years. I am terrified of going alone. My favorite was called Zombie Manor, in my hometown of Arlington, Texas, (they’ve since moved to New Brunswick in Canada). I never went there as a customer but visited after hours for a screening of a short film I’d worked on. The staff told us we could walk through the empty attraction and explore, but they didn’t tell us that there was a single cast member hiding in the shadows. When a piece of scenery in a dark corridor reached out and grabbed my arm, it gave me the fright of my life and started my mind down the road toward the Wandering Dark.

is a writer and English instructor. His work appears at the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.

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