‘A Monster Calls’ is a book I’ve returned to several times, and one I find myself thinking about a lot. It’s been an important piece of my development as a writer. The main reason this is the case is because, despite my issues with its presentation, this is a book which draws from grief and terminal illness to deliver an intensely affecting narrative.
There’s a lot to learn from the book in terms of how to craft a story that makes the readers really care, really feel some deep emotion from every scene. So, let’s explore how it does this.
Despite what you might expect based on everything I’ve said so far, the book does not open with some crushing, sadness-inducing passage. Like most books about monsters, it opens with fear instead. A monster calls just after midnight, and our main character, Conor, is anticipating a nightmare.
These fantasy-imbued fears are one of two prominent strands in this story. I’ll save the nightmare for later, though, because I first want to talk about the monster itself.
In a lot of ways, ‘A Monster Calls’ is a purely contemporary, realistic story. But it also includes a monster, drawing from fantasy and horror to implement the main benefits inherent to those genres, specifically in the ways this monster functions. The monster represents a real fear, a real threat – huge, looming, coming towards you to scare and hurt and –
Conor isn’t scared. At least, not of that monster. He’s disappointed it isn’t the other monster, the one we thought this represented. It’s a clever subversion because we have both the figurative monster and the thing it represents at the same time – Conor isn’t scared of the metaphor because he’s currently dealing with the real thing. We don’t know yet exactly what this is, but the monster promises he will be scared of it by the end.
In a clever bit of detail, the monster looks frightening, but only wants to talk. He wants to tell Conor three stories before Conor will tell him a fourth. His truth. His nightmare. This is important as well because fundamentally, this is something frightening. The subject matter here? It is something both we and Conor want to avoid, to look away from, to run and escape from – but we need to confront it. And in the end, that confrontation will reveal how important and necessary it always was.
The monster is a force of nature, perhaps even nature itself. And it is a frightening force, but it is ultimately calling to help Conor with his fear. What do these two things mean? We’ll have to wait for the answer to that question, since the monster is leaving us alone. Alone with Conor. Which is affecting not for what it does, but what it doesn’t. It leaves both us the readers, and Conor, in a state of anticipation. That dreadful sense of waiting that pervades throughout Conor’s life these days.
His encounter with the monster was a dream. Obviously. However, branches and berries are left on his bedroom floor the next morning. In other words, it’s a nightmare that affects his reality. This reality is the second prominent strand in the story I alluded to earlier. And most of all, this reality takes the form of people. The important people in Conor’s life.
Most important of all, is the character we are introduced to first, once Conor and the monster have been established. Mum. Most significantly and most affectingly of all – her illness, and the torment of the treatments she is going through. And Conor is going through, vicariously.
One of the things that strikes me about this illness and treatment is the avoidant way the book refers to it. We’ll read about hair loss, and going into hospital, and throwing up, and weight loss, and tubes… but the book doesn’t want to use the word ‘cancer,’ just like Conor probably doesn’t. Just like no one ever wants to use that word. Because naming it, is admitting to it, and admitting to it… means you have to deal with it.
But the secondary effect of this decision, is that it gives the story’s more affecting moments a greater level of relatability for a greater number of readers. Since it could refer to this one illness, but equally, much of the story can apply to a vast number of torments and tragedies facing people and families all across the world. And that gives the story an added edge.
This same chapter introduces us to the next most important character – Grandma. Admittedly, it does so in an indirect way, introducing us not to Grandma herself, but to Conor’s dislike of her, a discussion and a memory that is brought on by the reveal that she is coming to stay.
There are a number of reasons Conor gives for his dislike of Grandma. She is judgmental of him, calls him “my boy,” has old things like a clock that no one is allowed to touch, and she isn’t a normal grandma – not really cooking, and still going to a job.
Of course, the real reason he hates his Grandma is because she represents a possible after, a possible future – one without his Mum, one where he lives with his Grandma.
For us, the arrival of Grandma is a critical piece of information, offering painful insight to how bad Mum’s worsening condition is. But Conor either doesn’t realise that aspect of the change… or more likely, he doesn’t want to admit it to himself.
These are the most important characters, but there are others, adding scope to the story, but more importantly, extra needles digging into Conor’s brain and worsening his negative emotions, while slowly draining the positivity and the energy and the joy and, frankly, the childhood, out of him. Because yes, there’s Mum’s sickness, and there’s the issues with Grandma. But there’s also the father who left them, and who never really shows up, and when he does, never for long. There’s the bullying that started not with Mum’s illness, but with the nightmare. There’s the ex-friend who indirectly led to the entire school knowing about this illness. And there’s the teachers who barely notice Conor – though of course, he simultaneously does and does not want to be noticed.
The most pressing issue with these external characters is one of the most powerful admissions the book gives us, revealed in recurrent steps over the course of the story. Mum’s diagnosis changed the whole world – but only from Conor’s perspective. He’s isolated in this change. And everyone else acts like nothing is wrong, like nothing would ever happen to them. Like time moves forward for the rest of the world, because they’re not waiting.
All of these are elements that bleed in and out of the story, affecting and worsening Conor’s emotional state – but also acting as regular hammer strikes in our minds as we read through the story. Every chapter gives us at least one thing, one interaction with a character that is really affecting, whether it be through sadness, or fear, or anger.
In the midst of all this, Mum’s illness and treatments form a permanent core to the story, always weaving back into the forefront so no matter what else goes on, this is the thing that sticks in our minds, because this is the single biggest ongoing crisis in Conor’s mind.
So we get developments like Mum coughing on the floor, calling for her mum’s help. We get small, but significant-feeling details, like the prospect of a wig, or the promise of yet more potential treatments, or Grandma’s surprise when Conor wipes the kitchen surfaces without being asked to. And we also get emotional moments, like Grandma being angry, but maybe not at Conor. Or fights between Dad and Grandma because no one is being honest enough with Conor. Or Mum’s wavering between clearly sick and frail… and unflinching optimism, promising she’ll get better despite the pain we can see behind her eyes. But maybe that optimism is even more dangerous, and only serves to get in the way of Conor realising the gravity of everything going on.
This is especially painful for us, reading the story, because we more clearly understand how hard it is going to be for Conor when things inevitably do get worse, knowing all this time he is in denial, because everyone else is maybe too optimistic about this. It constantly leads to passages in the book that feel simultaneously uplifting and painful, twisting our emotions around each other and leading to confused moments where we’re upset, but don’t know why, but also… kind of do know why.
And maybe that’s how Conor feels as well. Especially when Mum ends up back in the hospital. Now there’s no denying the seriousness of the situation. And yet… maybe it will be okay, both character and reader alike try to convince ourselves.
It's possible to write a powerful, affecting story about a tragedy like this just by telling us facts and occurrences. But what pushes affecting scenes onto that next emotional level, is the reactions of characters, the complexities of emotions, the conflict and tension of relationships, the contradictory truths that exist alongside each other.
What is Conor’s truth? What does Conor want? Or, why has a monster come calling, just to tell stories?
I’m returning to the monster now so we can talk about the three stories he wants to tell, but really, I’ve structured the essay like this because the three tales represent something else for the book. I’ve gone over the fantastical aspect with the monster, and the realistic element with the character work, so what’s left? Well, the three tales represent a bridge between those two. Here’s how.
First and foremost, it’s worth mentioning that what these three tales really are, is fables. If you haven’t read my breakdown of what makes fables underrated, I’ll have a link at the bottom of this essay. But in short, a fable is a story with a small cast of simple characters used to tell a story with a relatively clear, moral message.
‘A Monster Calls’ subverts this in a clever way by muddying the waters – the monster still shows a small cast of simple characters, and there’s still a ‘point’ at the end of each one, though admittedly it might not be the kind of moral message you’d expect, but the big difference here is that there is absolutely nothing clear about them. To use Conor’s own words, each of these tales has a ‘trick.’
The reason for this is because each time, the monster promises a story about a specific thing, then introduces a couple of characters who you think you understand, only to pull the rug out from under you, and twist the story so that its message is actually the opposite of what you expected – or possibly even more complicated than that.
I won’t spoil the specifics of each fable, but needless to say all three are surprising, not only for the reader, but especially for Conor, who is often left angered and confused by the monster’s tales, sometimes still not understanding why they went one way or the other even days later. But what’s really clever, is that the message of each story is relevant to Conor’s life, both generally, and in regards to whatever specific issue he has been facing within the previous chapter or so. It goes even further than this, with each story having a direct influence on Conor’s real life, every subsequent tale having a more prominent effect on the ‘real world,’ and also having a more affecting ‘wake up’ moment where the story becomes increasingly entwined with the monster, and the nightmare, and the fears and sadnesses bleeding into each chapter.
And what makes the three tales so affecting is the fact that they form this bridge between the monster and what he represents, as well as what Conor is struggling with in his own life. There are surface-level ways this manifests, as well as more shocking and evocative ways, but what matters is that it’s not just a narrative tie. It’s also a thematic one.
Since each of these fables give not just any message, and not even a moral one, instead offering a complicated, perhaps even contradictory piece of advice that teach Conor (and any readers going through similar issues) something about their own qualities, their own life, that needs healing, or maybe just needs explaining. And it does this in the way only stories can accomplish – by acting vicariously, offering a ‘safe’ way to experience things that would be too difficult, too confusing, or simply too traumatic to deal with in a more direct, non-fictional way.
All of which leads to the inevitable – Conor’s promised fourth tale. Where he must confront those too traumatic things face to face, now he has been gradually built up to them.
As you might expect, we’re getting towards the end of the book now, which means I can no longer hold back on spoilers. If you want to read ‘A Monster Calls’ as spoiler-free as possible, which I would recommend, then go do that now, then come back to this essay. With that said, let’s face this nightmare.
*There will be spoilers ahead*
Stories are wild, going off in directions you can’t expect. They don’t always have happy endings, for instance. Perhaps it is this realisation for which the monster has come walking. Conor may be insistent that things will work out – that the healing power of the yew tree, and the power of belief, will be enough to save Mum – but we the readers know, like Mum, Dad and Grandma must surely know, and perhaps even Conor knows deep down… No, things probably won’t work out.
It's clear by this point that the monster is directly tied to Conor’s mind. Crucially, it’s also clear that these tales, these dreams, are becoming closer to the real world. Which means at once, that we’re getting closer to acknowledging the seriousness of Mum’s illness… and we’re also getting closer to a necessary but painful revelation from Conor.
And so it’s at this point, with Mum in hospital, and Conor screaming his grief at the base of the yew tree, that the fourth story must come out.
By admission of both Conor and the monster, there are more important things than stories. What are those things? Well, the things those stories represent.
Aptly then, the fourth story is Conor’s nightmare, and the truth at the heart of it.
Earlier on, I mentioned how interesting it is that this book is about grief yet starts with fear – let’s dive into why, because I think this fear is really important.
First of all, the introduction to this fear also introduces us to one of the story’s main themes – isolation. Conor is alone, or feels alone I should say. And this fact is introduced to us in relation to his nightmare. He won’t tell Mum. He won’t tell Dad, who he doesn’t see often enough. He definitely won’t tell Grandma, and absolutely, he emphasises, no one at school.
More importantly though, grief involves a lot more than just sadness, no matter what common depictions of such things want to pretend. Fear is a huge part of the grieving process, so including that here in such prominent ways adds realism and a level of depth to the story by providing representation for an aspect of mental health that people don’t talk about enough.
Equally, it's immensely valuable the author chose to make Conor so angry in the later chapters. Because anger is another common side effect of depression, and it’s the most painful, and it’s the one that nobody wants to talk about.
On top of that contextual value, starting the book with fear makes sure the nightmare is prominent in our minds as we’re reading. So let’s finally talk about this nightmare.
The truth of the matter is that the monster didn’t call to heal Mum – it came to heal Conor. This boy knows what’s up deep down, he’s just trying desperately not to admit it to himself. That makes sense. He’s too young to have to deal with this, and frankly, no one should have to deal with such a tragedy. Even so, sooner or later Conor will have to admit what’s happening for his own sake, his own wellbeing, his own health.
We’ve had more and more insight into Conor’s nightmare over the course of the story. Beginning with the screaming and the hands slipping. Then letting slip that it was “her” hands slipping away from him.
Now both we and Conor are forced to see the nightmare in full, so that Conor can come to terms with the truth of it.
He is scared of losing his mum.
The monster is a subversion of the figurative nature of monsters, by having the story and its characters openly stating that there’s something worse, when most stories use the monster to represent that something worse. Now, here, in the midst of Conor’s nightmare, is the worse thing – a monster of ash and flame, but with real strength, red staring eyes, sharp teeth to eat his mum alive.
The brilliance is that it is that figurative monster we’ve spoken about, the one we thought Conor’s first monster represented right back at the beginning. But because the book has already admitted in the narrative what the metaphor is, it becomes more powerful, and unique as well, especially when paired with the fact that the word ‘cancer’ has still never been used in the book – so yes, it is a monster, an unimaginably scary monster. Because in the narrative it is so as well. It’s not a disease. It’s an unnameable, unstoppable horror of a monster. And he’s scared it will take his mum, pulling her off the edge of a cliff, no matter how much he promises to hold on.
But the real truth… is more complicated. Let’s take a look at exactly what Conor and the monster say:
‘You could have held on for longer but you let her go. Why?’
‘I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go. I just want it to be over. I just want it to be finished.’
And this is the truth. A truth that Conor was willing to die rather than speak, because thoughts are contradictory, you can believe something at the same time as you do not, and grief is painful, especially when waiting for the thing you’ve already been grieving for long before it even happened.
The end of ‘A Monster Calls’ brings everything together. It acts as a powerful, painful, but cathartic final punch in the reader’s empathy. If you weren’t made sad by any of the previous pages of the book – this ‘truth’ and the things that follow it will have finished you off.
Importantly though, it isn’t just sad, it’s also an important, difficult message that is painful to even contemplate, but needs to be inserted into the conversation – and it’s that conversation that makes this story so significant. Because yes it’s an affecting story. But it’s also a powerful tool for dealing with grief, and mourning, and even depression and emotional torment of other kinds as well.
When Conor and Grandma rush to see Mum in hospital, finding their own closure, and arriving just in time, it’s not just a sad scene, because like Conor, we’ve known all along this terrible, heartbreaking thing was coming. It’s been built up to across his past, and across the book for us. Conor is scared, but he’ll do it anyway. Tell his truth. Another truth this time. One that is simpler. He doesn’t want her to go.
So, what is it about a book’s story that makes the readers care so much? Well, in ‘A Monster Calls,’ there are three main factors:
The book uses fantastical elements in unique ways to make a point about the real horrors and tragedies that people need to face in their life.
It draws from all too realistic situations that people are genuinely affected by, using characters who do the wrong thing for the wrong reason because sometimes that's the way grief manifests, and allowing the story to go off in wild directions you don't expect, surprising you with another gut punch scene.
It uses meta elements to bridge the fantastical with the realistic. It's important not only to feature the right scenes to cause emotive responses, but to structure the whole in order to build up more and more effective scenes, and this bridge approach keeps the story surprising, while also gradually building us up to confronting those really difficult moments.
There’s no real closure to the book, because his Mum doesn’t actually die here. Maybe it would happen in a few extra pages, or a few extra chapters. But we don’t see it. We don’t get a proper end. And that’s powerful too.
Grief is cruel, and painful. It’s difficult to accept things for the way they are, when the way they are is so unfair, and so upsetting. And when extraneous elements can be cruel and unfair too – like being expected to get on with normality despite it feeling like the world is ending.
Sometimes you need a monster to come walking to be able to process things as difficult as this. Sometimes you need to be told stories, so you can wrestle with your confusing and illogical process of emotions.
As great as this book’s narrative is, narrative is only one part of a great book. In my next essay, I’ll be talking about the second important element – presentation.
Link to my essay about fables for those who want it: