Episode 30: A Monster Calls - The Stories We carry With Us


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            I've started to wonder how much of who we are is based on the experiences we've had or the stories we're now able to tell. This happened as a result of a minor dispute with someone at my office when I felt compelled to apologize for something she swears up and down I didn't do. Right now, we are at an impasse. And this back and forth has led to such an intense questioning and self-reflection that there has been an undoing of this otherwise stable metaphysical cloth in my mind, leading me to not only question the events as I understood them but the lens that I use to decipher the world around me. Which is where this question came from.

            Because there is a reason I am so sure I snapped at her just that as she is so sure that I didn't. And it’s a specific episode of my life that occasionally plays back in my mind, with added frequency as of late. But that's not relevant here.

            Other stories are, though. And I've brought them up from time to time. These things that can feel both out of place to talk about and yet can feel like necessities in equal measure. Because this is supposed to be a subjective review show, even if that sounds a bit like an oxymoron. And the subjective part has to come from me. And these vague and concealed anecdotes feel like they are a part of me. Somehow. And maybe because they are.

            Maybe stories aren't just stories, especially when they happen to us. Maybe they live beyond the moment, beyond the times we tell them, and just always are.

            So I want to talk about one of them today.
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            Hi. It's M. Welcome to episode thirty.
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            Today, I want to talk about the novel A Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness from an original idea of Siobhan Dowd. It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old English boy named Conor O'Malley at a pretty dark moment in his life. His mother is dying. Not kind of, sort of, may overcome this dying. No, she's terminally ill, and nothing short of an unlikely miracle could save her.

            And it's pretty much just him and her. His father has a new family in America that could either be an excuse or genuinely be a drain on whatever emotional resources a son would normally be entitled to. Presumably, the rest of his family is out there, too. As for his mother's side, it’s just his grandmother, a woman who can come across as cold. But maybe she just isn’t handling the situation well. After all, her daughter is dying. But at the very least, her method of grieving is not compatible with Conor’s. And no one seems to realize it.

            Conor does have a monster, though, as it turns out. A being part and parcel with the large yew tree in the nearby graveyard. The monster comes at either 12:07 am or pm whenever Conor needs one of its three stories. Under the condition—that Conor never accepted by hey, a thirteen year old can’t legally enter into a contract anyway—that at the end, Conor must tell a story of his own or else the monster will eat him.

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            The point of this review is that this story has a transcendent nature to it, that it has this ability to exist well beyond its pages. But I’ll get to that.

            First, however, I want to start with the story behind the story that potentially already proves me right.

            Even on the cover of the book, the words “from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd,” are strewn across it, which I didn’t understand when I first read never mind picked up the book. Fair enough to me, I guess. Because those words can mean pretty much anything. However, for the sake of this review, I needed to dive deeper into it. And I did. So now I know and will tell you, but let me just say first, it’s not a great story but a rather tragic one.

            Siobhan Dowd was a writer, and she had the idea for this story when she herself was terminally ill with cancer. And knowing it was a story worth writing, worth existing… Well, it might have been a race against time to get it done. A race cancer has a lot of experience with and cheats at, I would guess. She died before she could start writing the story, never mind finish.


            But before then, she had discussed it and contracted it with an editor who also knew Patrick Ness. When Dowd died in 2007, the editor approached Ness to write the story.

            And it was a good choice, too. Patrick Ness has a talent for dealing with the flaws of human nature something that this story as well as the Monster’s stories are grounded in and dependent on.

            In this way, this story escaped one boundary or limitation—that of the person who first bore it and her limited lifespan. Cancer tried to make it collateral damage, but no, it lived on.

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            I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about Patrick Ness’s work and his style of writing, though that was a few years ago. You see, I found his Chaos Walking series when I was working on my senior thesis about young adult dystopia literature. Chaos Walking was my outlier that proved the underlying rule true, as it were. It breaks some of the superficial norms of the genre but stays true to the core philosophies I was presenting in my thesis.

            The fact that I could dissect a work so much without losing interest was pretty telling. And it said that I clearly had a new favorite author. Although where he was on that list exactly wasn’t clear nor was it important. I just fell deeper and deeper into his works without any concerns for such trivial matters.

            That’s how I found A Monster Calls. Through my dive into Patrick Ness’s work. I don’t think I even bother reading the premise before I bought the book. To me, that didn’t matter. It was by Patrick Ness, and I was in a Patrick Ness kick, so I read it. And well, are you expecting me to rank it against his other books or against books in general? Because I can’t. A Monster Calls bypassed all those metrics of quality and found its way straight into my heart. And I know why.

            It was a story I knew all too well. It’s a story I’ve lived. Played out again for the world to see.

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            I know I’m starting to lose track of all the things I’ve said on this show. But I know that in past episodes, I’ve mentioned my dad and that he passed away some time ago. Or died, if I feel the need to deadpan it a little harder. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone into details on how. I certainly haven’t said how it happened, and those details don’t matter. Or at the very least, it’s a story I’m not ready to tell.

            But I am willing to say that it happened after a long illness. Two years or so. Two years of watching him die. Two years of watching him suffer and die. Of anticipating this figurative bomb going off in my life.

            And I was thirteen when it finally happened too. I had the nightmares too. I had the family whose coping mechanisms conflicted with mine.

            In so many ways Conor’s story was mine. It was just a part of mine I had never felt comfortable talking about.

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            It’s an experience most people—blessedly—will not have. So there are parts of it I need to spell out. And in doing it this way, I can relay more of the story while avoiding clear spoilers, though perhaps you can see where the story is going, just from the premise alone.

            When a parent is sick, you—as their child—are infected with some sort of illness as well. It’s just not the one your parent has, but you too are being eaten away by some sort of an affliction. Figuratively. More literally, you are caught in a state of anxiety, anticipating the complete shake up of your world if or when your parent passes. It can happen. You hope it won’t. And you may try to influence the universe by being perfect or doing perfectly good things. You can try and barter with it for the sake of your parent’s life. But of course, none of that will work, and you’re just depleting your energy resources more and more and more.

            All the while, you are walking on eggshells not because your world isn’t safe but because that’s the way your body instinctively reacts to a perception of danger or threats. But on the other hand, your world is going to become a lot less safe with one less guardian to look out for you, anyway, and you know that.

            It starts to compound, you know? The pain grows and builds. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can hardly be. You can’t find your footing when you’re anticipating the ground coming out from underneath you. There’s no catching your breath or yourself. You’re much too young for that. You’re much too young to do anything while everything comes apart.

            And remember, we’re talking about a child. A child living a life that would run an adult ragged. Can you blame them for being tired? Can you blame them for being frustrated? Or for acting out? Can you blame them for wishing this could all be over?

            Maybe you can see where the break comes in. When they think something we want to call unthinkable. Maybe hearing it like this can help you understand or shift your perspective to something a bit more sympathetic. When you step away from the parent or from what will happen and focus instead on the pains of the moment. If you can see the suffering of the child in and of itself, then maybe you can understand when a child just has had enough and stops begging the universe for one more day. And begins the process of letting go.

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            Maybe you can understand, but all the same, it’s something we have all decided that we aren’t going to talk about or acknowledge. We want to ignore this part of human nature: this complication. That we can love and care for someone as ardently as a child does for a parent and still hit this point where we seemingly forget about that for the sake of our own survival or when the pain gets to be too much.

            In the right light, it’s understandable. Or it is when you’ve lived it. Or it is when you realize that there is something finite to human nature, that we—particularly as children—are surprisingly delicate beings with breaking points that we know instinctively to avoid.

            It’s one of the many things about ourselves we try to ignore, though. Because it’s better to pretend to be greater than what we are. To be unconquerable. This delusion is a form of assurance, I guess. That we can be safe, always because it is always in our capable and strong hands. That we can overcome all the curveballs of life. That there is truly nothing that can beat us.

            Deep down, we know that it isn’t true, but it’s a lie that’s easy to maintain with the right sacrifices. But we can’t think about the sacrifices. Because then we’d have to realize that we’re victimizing the hurt yet again.

            I was one of them. No one wanted to admit there was a breaking point that I certainly hit head on. I couldn’t bear to watch my father dying, but it was only in that state that I could have him. That’s how far gone he already was. It was inevitable wasn’t it? This thought. This nameless thought. Maybe it made sense when you considered all the pain we were both suffering. Well, I wouldn’t have agreed.

            Because despite the pain I was already in, I felt ashamed for not wanting to see my father’s final illness through to the very end. To not want every second I could get even if it meant living in that state of uncertainty or even if, well, I had to see him like that. After all, that was my dad. Every second mattered, right? Even if it was a second when we were both in unimaginable pain. Even if there was no resolution possible other than his death.

            That’s shame, right there. I wasn’t able to act in the way I thought I should and hated myself for it. Only for that to grow into hating myself, full stop. I didn’t even bring this up with my therapist right away, even though she probably knew, even though she wouldn’t have judged me. That’s how badly this shame was eating me away. Because there I was getting professional help from a great professional who had seen it all before. And still, I hesitated.

            This is the nature of shame. It has this incredibly self-perpetuating nature. It can take care of itself and look out for itself in a far more efficient way than most people can.

            I mean, all it really has to do is get you and keep you alone. Then it can say whatever it wants to you without challenge. But you could leave the corner it has you pinned in. It’s not impossible. The out is clearly there right in front you, but you don’t know if you should take it. Everyone tries to pretend the corner isn’t real, at best, and at worst, they condemn those who (quote) chose to be there. Begging the question, what will happen if you leave?

            Shame has its opinions on that subject. And it’s the only voice that you can hear. It’s the only companion you think you could ever have. Or the only one I had.

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            That is… Until I read A Monster Calls and found Conor. I found the same thing I had gone through outside of myself. And no one ran Patrick Ness out of the figurative town with figurative pitch forks. So for once I felt safe with this. I didn’t feel so ashamed.

            That is the power of truly great literature right there. It doesn’t just stay on the page but instead reaches out. It can reach towards the future like Shakespeare or the like or it can reach to you, to a place in your heart that you keep sequestered off out of a perceived necessity.

            Because while my dad’s death doesn’t define who I am, I’m not going to pretend I’m not carrying the weight of my pain or that it didn’t fundamentally shape my understanding of the world. Because both of those things are true.

            But it’s not something people want to talk about nor is it something I’m good at talking about. Lucky for me, with books, you don’t need to talk. You don’t need to assemble coherent sentences to communicate a larger than life concept or a pain you can’t really conquer like you could, say, the weather. With books, the language here is more fluid. You can communicate sentiments indirectly and with more tools you have at your disposal. It’s like symbolism but not quite so formal.

            In fact, it was like a normal conversation. One with the all-important words, “You too?”

            “Yes,” it whispered back. “Many in fact.”

            “I thought I was the only one.”

            “No,” it seemed to say.

            It broke through my sense of loneliness, which freed me from the corner shame kept me in. Slowly at first. It really just gave me something akin to permission to leave. The rest could come later.

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            And I do think it’s a type of transcendence for a story to not just hit the human soul but to hit a specific part of it. Namely, our weak points, those things that we do not have the words necessary to conquer. But in a specific way, in a giving way. These stories can offer words for us to borrow or hide behind until we are strong enough to stand on our own two feet.

            That’s a more concrete version of the thoughts I had when I went to see the movie with my mother, shortly after it first came out.

            The film adaptation had a limited release in late December of 2016, and lucky for me, a theatre nearby was one of the few to snag it. Because if I had had to wait until the January release date, I would have been long gone. I was visiting her, you see, something that isn’t so common anymore. But there I was. It was one of the last times I would undertake a visit if I remember correctly. Like I said, Arizona just wasn’t my mine. But the consequence of my being so far away is time shared between was incredibly limited. More so now, but we’ve learned to manage it.

            When it came time to see this movie, I’m surprised I didn’t have to persuade her. Surprised but relieved because my mother and movies aren’t the best combination, and I don’t even know in hindsight what argument I could have come up with for her to go. Then again, it was time we could spend together, which was not happening as often as it used to. So even though she didn’t like movies, even though she especially didn’t like sad movies, and even though she had so much to do, she agreed. And we went together.


            This review isn’t supposed to be about the movie, though I will say that it was a really good adaptation and the visuals are absolutely stunning. But considering at this point in my life I wasn’t loaning my books out to anyone anymore and the local bookstores were chain bookstores that specialize in disappointment, this was as close as we were going to get for a while.

            While I knew she probably wouldn’t like the full movie, I was okay with that. It was the fourth smaller story that I worried about. The one that isn’t the Monster’s but Conor’s and mine. I feared her reaction. I feared her reaction to this decade old confession I wasn’t ready to make just yet. All the other failings of human nature that come up in the story could wait. At least, because they weren’t sins I had committed just yet.

            The movie might have been engrossing, but I was still present in the seat in the theatre, beside her, waiting for her reaction. Just waiting for her judgment. For a judgment by proxy, if you will. I mean her condemnation was still going to sting proxy or not, but at least I wouldn’t have worry about our relationship being permanently damaged just yet.

            Because, yeah, she took his death hard. And our grieving wasn’t exactly compatible. We got through it once. Barely. I didn’t like the odds of us getting through it again.

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            There was a lot my mother wanted to say when we were walking to the car after the film. Largely about the monster. She recognized Liam Neeson even in the Monster’s mannerism. It was all done through voice and motion capture, you know, and the relevant team did a great job with it. But the fourth story? My story? She said nothing. Like it was just a fact of life.

            That’s anticlimactic I know. But it’s the truth. There was no great showdown, no accusations, no arguing, and no criticism. It just was what it was. A story. A part of life. An emotion that sometimes strikes you when things get unfairly hard.

            And I loved her for it. It truly was the one thing I needed from her. I didn’t need her to like the movie or to become a big of a fan of Patrick Ness like I was. I just needed it all to be what it was. Nothing to fight, just to see. If anything, what I needed was nothing: the absence of a reaction, a sign that there was nothing to react to.

            And that’s probably another reason why I loved this story so much. That’s what it’s all about. Airing out the parts of our nature that we don’t want to see but don’t need a grand reaction if we do see them. Pearl clutching isn’t going to help. Especially when things get hard. Moving forward will. And recognition truly is a part of that.

            So it’s a good thing we have an avenue for it.

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