Written by Pádraig Kenny and illustrated by Edward Bettison (published by Macmillan Children’s Books)
She slowed down as she reached the yawning opening to her left that led down into the bowels of the house. She crept towards it, one eye on the incline that led deep into the dark. She fought the urge to whisper, ‘Piglet.’ She remembered the words Uncle Enoch and the others were so fond of using.
Piglet is dangerous.
I was immediately drawn to this book due to its gorgeous front cover, so I’m ashamed that it has sat in my ‘to-read’ pile for so long. But autumn and winter always feel like an excellent time for monsters so, with the wind howling and the rain coming down, this was the perfect choice for this month.
The Monsters of Rookhaven is centred around the Family, a collection of…unusual individuals who live together in the manor house of the village Rookhaven. For the most part, they are content there, hidden away from humans except for the doctor and the butcher from the village. When Jem and Tom stumble upon them through a hole in the Glamour though, Mirabelle – the newest member of the Family – takes pity on them and lets them stay.
But Jem and Tom are not the only thing destined to visit the Family, as something old, dark and truly malevolent draws closer and closer…
Some of the scenes could be straight out of monster media: Mirabelle feeding bones to the giant flowers, illustrations of which are reminiscent of Audrey II from the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors, or how the unusual members of the Family are somewhat reminiscent of the Addamses or the Munsters.
Just like those families, this one also bounces between blazing rows and moments of warmth, obviously caring for each other despite their disagreements. However, this is as far as any inspiration or homage goes. This group is unique, not just in their powers (called Talents), but in how they interact with each other and the world around them, and the setting is unlike any other.
Jem and Tom are siblings, on the run from an abusive home life when they discover a ‘tear’ in the world that leads them directly to the grounds of the manor house. In a twist on the classic ‘car breaks down in the woods, let’s go to the creepy house for help’, they discover themselves taken in without any nefarious intentions – if anything, most of the Family wishes they would leave, as soon as possible.
This is not to say that the Family aren’t monsters: they absolutely are, but of a civilised sort.
There are nine members in the Family, as well as the siblings and some members of the local village we’re introduced to. This may sound like a lot of characters, but each is portrayed as a full and complex individual; even when behaving poorly (as a number of them do!), you can see that it is a result of hurt, fear or desperation. And none of them is extraneous – each has their own part to play in the story, whether it’s moving the plot along or providing some insight into the world and its history.
Jem is an excellent stand-in for the audience, being new and unfamiliar to their world. It gives Kenny the opportunity to provide explanations and exposition without feeling like he’s dumping a wealth of information on the reader, while also allowing us to marvel at things along with her.
There is enough intrigue within the characters, the history, and the house that it’s almost surprising when Kenny introduces an(other?) antagonist roughly halfway through the book. Whereas so far things had been perhaps somewhat discomforting and spooky, it’s at this point that it begins to feel almost like a horror story. If the first half of the book was intriguing, the second half was absolutely gripping, and you’ll forgive me for not wanting to spoil it with too much detail.
This is likely to vary from reader to reader, but the actions and powers that the newcomer displays gave me a sense of disquiet unlike anything up to that point. It’s a monster that’s not a monster: as Kenny says in his author’s note, not all monsters are clawed, slavering beasts. Rather, some spread hatred and deceit; a power that turns others into monsters themselves.
Despite this, there is a thread of hope and defiance that runs throughout the story, from the way the Family bands together when faced with an external threat, to the courage of those who stand up for what’s right despite the odds they face – not least of all, that of Jem and Tom, and their dreadful past.
Bettison’s illustrations are perfectly fitted to the story, using lots of shadow, dots and shading. We’re treated to images of some of the rooms, and characters portrayed with their silhouettes. Most striking of all in style are the sections focused on Piglet (each chapter has a different ‘central’ character), featuring white text on a stark black background, and an unnerving swirling shape. This is such a contrast to the rest of the book, and a great way to set Piglet apart from the other characters.
(If you’d like to see more illustrations, head to his website linked at the top of the review!)
The narrative is definitely quite dark in places, so I would not recommend it for younger readers. I’ll also note that, while the drawings are fantastic, there is a character who can turn into spiders, and these are pictured at one point, so arachnophobes beware!
The story layers intrigue upon mystery upon horror, each absorbed into the next and building towards a final showdown that itself raises at least one more question. And although part of me would like to know the answers that are perhaps given in the sequel, The Shadows of Rookhaven (published September 2021), I also feel that The Monsters of Rookhaven stands perfectly well as it is. So whether you’re looking for a one-off to read, or a new series, this should definitely be on your list – just don’t leave it as long as I did!
If you like the sound of The Monsters of Rookhaven, you can grab a copy at the link below.
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Looking for more monster tales to read? If so, you can check out some of our previous monstrous reviews here.