Every neighborhood is haunted. Just ask its youngest residents. The window wells are goblin pockets. Demons perch on power lines. Hedges conceal toothy horrors. These monsters usually dissolve upon further inspection. But not in Cowslip Grove.
Evil has descended on the quiet little town. An invisible force is snatching kids in the night, erasing them not only from their beds but from memory, so not even their loved ones remember they ever existed. Levi, a shy boy who struggles with change, and Kat, a boastful conspiracy theorist, must root out the evil before every last kid in their town is harvested.
“No Place for Monsters” is an eerily inventive adventure. Kory Merritt’s language is arresting in its simplicity and will certainly give readers a chill. A waning moon is a toenail. A drainage pipe yawns “like a monster leech.” Nothingness strobes and blisters.
And the dialogue is crisp. When Levi wants to tell the adults about the lurking horrors, Kat responds, “One, they won’t believe you, and you’ll be taken away by Men in White Coats, or two, they will believe you, and you’ll be taken away by the Men in Black Suits.”
Merritt’s imagination is a haunted garden, overgrown with fantastic ideas. Bogeys undergo performance reviews as they work their way up the monster corporate ladder. An abandoned car is transformed into a cryptid research center. The Boojum, horrifically beautiful on the page, asks Kat to be its new shepherd. Toss in a truly unsettling climactic reveal and a sort of reverse “Coraline” where Levi becomes unfamiliar to his own mother, and you’ve got the quintessential Halloween buffet.
In fact, this story might have too many good ideas. I found myself wishing Merritt had tended to the more intriguing ones, allowing them to flourish so the reader could feel the full impact of his brilliance.
Events occasionally feel squished together. To get to the next haunting moment, solutions are often dropped in Kat’s and Levi’s laps. Some of their escapes feel a little too lucky. One monster doesn’t see the sport in hunting in tight spaces, so it lets the kids go. Willow, a sweet chupacabra who could easily win the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest (and is this reviewer’s favorite), wilts the tension by rescuing them from multiple situations.
Elsewhere in the story, Levi’s older sister behaves cruelly toward him and Kat succumbs to the Boojum’s taunting, alluding to themes of bullying that might be a touch darker than the actual monsters on display. Connecting these separate events and bringing them into focus could have lent some real-world resonance to the book’s otherwise delightful horrors.
Merritt’s art seizes your attention and does not let go. Nearly every page is crawling with Gris Grimly-inspired scraggles and coils, and is inhabited by Burtonesque characters with messy hair and haunted eyes. One creature’s peepers are independent, skittering insects. Parents might appreciate the handful of horror Easter eggs (or should I say spider’s eggs).
Like a fine pumpkin stew, “No Place for Monsters” is spicy and comforting and perfectly autumnal, but perhaps could have used a few more hours in the caldron to let the flavors blend and open. Trick-or-treating might have been declared a severe health hazard this season, but Merritt’s unsettling world is open for some safe spookery.