Monsters, by Emerald Fennell, comes out in about a month’s time, and is by far one of the creepiest books I have ever read – in a good way. It tells the story of two children who meet on their summer holidays, in a seaside town in Cornwall where murders are starting to occur. These two thirteen-year-olds are, let’s say, less than pleasant individuals. They both have quite troubled lives, alongside a worrying interest in violent crime. Together they decide to solve the murders going on in the town.
So it’s a sort of detective story. It deals with a lot of really dark issues in a very light tone, and is wonderful, readable, and quite disturbing. It’s very funny, a dark comedy that at times slips from the comedy into the purely dark. For me it reads like a mixture between Roald Dahl and Angela Carter – a terrifying, beautiful, mixture.
(On a side-note, I don’t quite know how to class this book – which is possibly a good thing. The central characters are thirteen, and I picked it up at the Young Adult Literary Convention in London, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for very young readers – probably for over-16s, just because of some of the very dark themes hinted at. It is very, very creepy, and beyond the themes of murder there are a few other Angela Carter-esque themes that can be quite unsettling.)
This book gets slowly darker and darker as it goes on, something I loved. I read the second half in one sitting (despite it being quite late at night); I was so thoroughly gripped by it. As if an interest in murder is not enough, the children start to play games where they re-enact these murders, and get tourists to pay them to give “murder tours” of gruesome locations around the town. I loved how thoroughly the book unsettled me. The narrator is a brilliant character, and her light tone in the face of horror is incredibly funny to read, if in a slightly grotesque way. She is such a funny and interesting character to read, and her voice flows so well, that you cannot help but like her – something which becomes more and more disconcerting as the book grows darker. The writing is so brilliant and easy to read that it leads you into a sense of calm, until you are shocked out of it by the subject matter.
I thought the plot and the characters were brilliant. Miles and the narrator a terrifying but fascinating pair. Obsessed with murder, entirely unconventional and creepy, they are great characters. The other tourists and inhabits of the town – Mr Queen, Winnie, Uncle Fredrick and Aunt Maria – were also very well done. I’d say the characters are more like Roald Dahl or Dickens characters than realist human ones, but even where they’re not (I hope) realistic, they are remain very interesting.
The only thing I’m not certain of in this book is the ending. I can’t decide whether I thought it was perfect or that it didn’t work. It was brilliantly unsettling and cleverly written. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which is both good and bad. It meant that I was surprised, but also that the ending wasn’t quite what I wanted.
What I did like about the ending was that it was unexpected. I knew something very creepy had been going on for a long time, and I had separate hunches at various points in the book that Uncle Fredrick, Mr Queen and Mr Podmore were in some way involved, but I certainly didn’t expect them to all be part of it. I thought that reveal worked well, as did Winnie’s murder. My problem was this: throughout the book I felt like Miles was at heart more sinister than our narrator. This was perhaps because I was tricked into liking her and thinking better of her by her narrative voice – but it meant that I didn’t find the ending that satisfying, even if it did seem clever. The other problem was that of Uncle Fredrick. They almost seem to team up with him at the end – implying that next year they can all go on a happy murdering spree together – and this I really didn’t like. Uncle Fredrick was surely the most loathsome character in the book. He very much reminded me of the uncle in Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop. Although it’s never said explicitly, it’s heavily implied that he is sexually abusing the narrator; certainly he is beating her and abusing her other ways. Yet this was never really dwelt upon and never really resolved in any way; instead the two children almost seem to side with him in the end. I felt that she hated Uncle Fredrick too much to just accept him in the end, and I felt that he had too little respect for her to suddenly take her and Miles under his wing as, effectively, apprentice murderers. This unsettled me more than anything in the entire book – and unlike the rest of it, I don’t think it was in a good way.
All in all though, this is an unsettling but gripping read, a really great, inventive book – horrid in all the best ways. I have a feeling it’s one of those books that I’ll be thinking about for a while. I don’t think it’s for everybody, but if you like Roald Dahl or Angela Carter, and if you like your comedy dark and unsettling, this is definitely one for you.
Greatest strength: The light tone, and the way it so wonderfully and horribly juxtaposes with a lot of the subject matter.
Greatest weakness: As I’ve said, I’m still uncertain how I feel about the ending.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘My parents got smushed to death in a boating accident when I was nine. Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it.’
Which pretty much sums up the tone of this book.