Shaun Hamill’s debut novel, “A Cosmology of Monsters,” is perfect for reading in the run-up to Halloween. A smart, layered story of a family and the monsters that haunt their lives, the book is explicitly steeped in the Lovecraftian traditions of the horror novel even as it rejects H.P. Lovecraft’s tendency to undervalue the human experience. A 2016 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hamill answered questions about his book via email.
Q: What led you to tell this particular story?
A: I’d always wanted to write a novel about a family running a business. I originally saw it as one of those sprawling multigenerational epics like “Middlesex” or “The Hotel New Hampshire.” It was an idea I always kept in my back pocket, something I planned to write “someday.” When I entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2014, I wrote and turned in a story about a couple breaking up while touring a haunted house. The story didn’t work at all, and my instructor Ethan Canin encouraged me to think about my characters a little more warmly and sympathetically. While I was trying to figure out the best way to rewrite the story, the idea sort of collided with my family business idea, and I knew I’d found the hook for my family business novel. Everything else grew out of that initial collision.
Q: In your thesis, you describe the novel: “Intended as both a paean to and an examination of the horror genre, the novel is meant to appeal to both casual readers and longtime fans.” What do you mean by that?
A: I hadn’t finished a first draft of the novel when I wrote that abstract, so I’m not sure that mission statement holds completely true for the published version. Originally, “Cosmology” was meant to be a naturalistic family novel that would discuss horror at length (think “Ready Player One” but with monsters instead of Spielberg).
I guess those elements are still present, especially early in the novel before the supernatural elements are made explicit. Harry and Margaret have long talks about H.P. Lovecraft. The family discusses what haunted houses should and shouldn’t do, and so on ...
But I guess if the novel is truly examining the horror genre, it’s exploring the cathartic experience that good horror gives the audience — the ability to face the absolute dark and walk away unscathed and more alive than before — as well as monstrousness or otherness.
Q: How would you describe your experience as a writer of horror fiction in the program? Also, tell me a little about your thoughts on horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft and how he and his work became touchstones for “A Cosmology of Monsters.”
A: From the outside the Writers’ Workshop can seem like a monolithic institution, but its current incarnation is run by a diverse group of artists with varying tastes and philosophies. For example, I don’t think (Writers’ Workshop faculty member) Ethan (Canin) would approve of “Cosmology” since it’s a genre novel at heart, but (faculty members) Sam Chang and Paul Harding were open to the idea. They seemed interested in helping me write the best version of the book I’d set out to write, and that gave me enough confidence to pursue the project as my thesis, despite knowing some instructors might dislike it.
I hadn’t really considered it before, but (Canin and Lovecraft) really do represent the two spiritual poles of “Cosmology.” What’s always drawn me to Ethan’s work is the warmth and humanity in his characters, whereas my attraction to Lovecraft — aside from his incredible imagery and cultural influence — has to do with his cosmic nihilism, that feeling that humankind is insignificant in the face of a vast, uncaring cosmos. What interested me with “Cosmology” was setting a warm, humane story against that horrific backdrop. Basically I took Lovecraft’s typical endpoint — nothing means anything — and used it as a starting point.
OK, so there’s no inherent meaning in the universe. So what? How do we live? How should we treat each other? How do we define ourselves, give our lives meaning?
Q: What makes Noah the best choice as storyteller?
A: Noah’s voice was the first piece of the novel to come to me. Even before I knew I would be writing about monsters and haunted houses, I knew I would be writing a family novel from the perspective of the youngest child. That choice ended up being a fortuitous one, because as you say, this book wrestles with the questions of monstrousness, of being “the outsider.” Noah is an outsider in his own family, not present for some of the major events that shape his life, and deliberately left out of the family business when he’s young. In a way, Noah is a voyeur spying on the people who should be nurturing him, and this sets the tone for a novel about a family haunted by outsiders.
Q: Are you at work on something new?
A: I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say too much about it yet except that I’m still aiming for that literary/genre sweet spot, and that it’s a bit more ambitious in (point of view) and scope than “Cosmology.”
• What: Shaun Hamill will read from “A Cosmology of Monsters”
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free