Imagine being a neo-grunge musician and receiving a letter from Kurt Cobain that your band’s latest record is a masterpiece. Shaun Hamill is making that kind of splash in the horror and fiction literary world. On Sept. 17, his first novel, A Cosmology Of Monsters (published by Pantheon Books in New York), will hit bookstores, but before the book's widespread release, the 36-year-old Arlington native is already experiencing a flurry of success as critics, reviewers and the master of horror himself, Stephen King, are praising his first offering.
“If John Irving ever wrote a horror novel, it would be something like this. I loved it,” Stephen King has said, as quoted on the book's dust jacket.
Hamill is a self-described horror devotee. While pursuing a BA at The University of Texas at Arlington, he worked full time at the city's Barnes and Noble for nearly a decade, where he spent his time soaking up books and courting his future wife. Upon graduating in 2008, Hamill was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In 2014 he moved to Iowa with his wife to attend the graduate program and battle the frigid winters.
“It was interesting and weird," Hamill recalls of that time. "I felt a little out of place at first because everyone was so much younger than I was and came from Harvard, Yale and Brown. Winters were long and cold, and if you weren't careful they could kill you. There were also little things, like no Tex-Mex food or fried chicken, that I missed about Texas.”
While in the program, Hamill taught rhetoric, creative writing and novel writing before graduating in 2016 with his MFA.
“Iowa has a reputation for being a pressure cooker of ruthless competition and also for churning out Raymond Carver devotees who only deal in po-faced realism," the author says. "When I was accepted to the workshop, I bought into the cliché without really speaking to anyone who’d been there. Once I got settled in, however, I realized that the current workshop, under Lan Samantha Chang’s leadership, has become a place that encourages a much wider range of voices. I got the guidance I needed to become a better writer and courage to pursue my aesthetic.”
Hamill lives in Alabama with his wife, his in-laws and his dog, but it was in Iowa where he started work on what would become his bold and clean entrance to the New York literary world, landing a deal with monster publisher Pantheon Books.
A Cosmology of Monsters centers on Noah Tuner, the youngest of three siblings from the Turner family who, like his father, has a special talent for scaring people. Noah’s family dynamic is shattered early on in the story as his father battles cancer but leaves his family the seeds to a successful business in the form of a haunted attraction — and a reputation for scaring the hell out of people. Over the course of the next 25 years, and along with a few more tragedies, Noah picks up the pieces for everyone around him to find there is more to the family history than he could have possibly imagined.
“Horror has this wonderful ability to concrete-ize our deepest fears and anxieties and give us a chance to face them directly, in ways that real life can’t," Hamill says. "Mental illness and family dysfunction have played a big role in my life. I wanted to explore life in a broken household, a place where there’s no lack of love but there’s a lack of connection. Every single person feels isolated and is struggling with their own demons."
Starting in mid-September, Hamill is embarking on a 13-date national book tour, with several dates in Dallas, including an appearance Oct. 30 at The University of Texas at Arlington, Oct. 31 at Bouchercon Dallas and Nov. 3 at Interabang Books.
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The novel is a tender, coming-of-age piece about sacrifice, family and the vulnerability in stepping up to responsibility through a family business lineage, in this case, a haunted attraction known as The Wandering Dark. The reader experiences Noah growing up over the book’s pages while battling demons inherited from someone he never really knew, his own father.
“I guess what horror fiction, or at least this novel, can teach is that there are no tidy solutions for these problems," Hamill says. "Mental illness and dysfunction aren’t solvable. They are ongoing, and you grapple with them across a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean they're not worth grappling with.”
There is also a major influence of the obscure horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, as well as references to his works throughout the book, as members of the Turner family know and use this fiction with biblical authority, while navigating their own complicated lives. This sets an almost existential backdrop for the families’ personal drama.
“Lovecraft believed that humanity is an insignificant accident in a deep meaningless universe," Hamill says. "Again and again, his characters discover this fact and react to the revelation with horror. I thought it should be interesting to take this cosmic philosophy and apply it to everyday family life. So what if the universe doesn't care about you? People do. The way you handle people in your life can turn you monstrous or keep you human. Sometimes it does both.”