A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
This is a monster that wants to help humans, even if it sometimes does so in a really weird way. For this guy, it's always opposite day in storytelling land, and his fables' morals often throw our poor Conor for a loop.
Take, for example, the first story. After the monster tells Conor that it chose to save the queeny witch (or is it witchy queen?), Conor is straight up flabbergasted. When he asks the monster how it could save a murderer, the monster says, "I never said she killed the farmer's daughter. I only said that the prince said it was so" (9.8). And get this: the monster also lets the prince, who's the real murderer in this scenario, go on ruling his kingdom.
What's up with all this nonsense? What happened to the black hats getting their just desserts, and the white knights riding off into the sunset?
Making Sense of Monster Madness
As much as the monster wants to help others, it also wants them to learn from their mistakes. It's all about justice, but only when it comes with understanding. It doesn't go easy on people—in fact, it's the only character who doesn't go easy on Conor. Basically, this creature will do whatever it takes to get Conor to face the truth.
And before you go thinking that this monster should mind its own beeswax, remember that when it comes down to it, it's a pretty selfless creature. It's not after its own agenda; it just wants what's best for Conor: "It is not what I want from you, Conor. It is what you want from me" (5.23).
For crying out loud, buddy, could you be any more cryptic? Ah, but even the monster's riddles are kind at heart. See, Conor needs to figure all this out for himself. The monster's just here to give him a good nudge every now and then. But if the monster looked Conor square in the eye and said, "your mother is going to die, and you should let her go," something tells us that the message wouldn't quite hit home. The monster hopes Conor will learn what he needs to learn by figuring it out for himself.
But is the monster just here to help Conor on his journey? Could it be possible for it to make a journey of its own? Since the monster remains a big mystery for much of the book, it's hard to make the call on this one. But we do think it's worth noting that while the monster let the prince and the farm girl sleep beneath its branches, it makes a nest to hold Conor. Maybe the monster, too, is growing a little, learning to care. At the very least, it's clear he's got a soft spot for our main man.
Which is why, when it makes a nest for Conor, we're torn between saying, "Awww," and bawling our eyes out. And when it shows up in his mom's hospital room unannounced, just to guide the kid it once threatened to eat through the process of saying goodbye, forget it—it's full-on waterworks.
So Is He Real, or What?
Is there really a monster, or is it all in Conor's head? Obviously the nightmare's just a nightmare, even though it's a horrible one—Conor always wakes up. He knows it's a dream. But the yew tree monster is something else altogether, and Ness leaves it up to the reader to work out exactly what that something is.
Let's take a look at the evidence for realness, namely the bits and pieces the monster leaves behind. One thing's for sure: this monster really needs to learn to clean up after itself. We've got the leaves, which Conor sweeps into the trash: "He put another bite of cereal in his mouth, definitely not looking at the rubbish bin, where he had stuffed the plastic bag full of leaves he'd swept up this morning first thing" (2.15). And then there are the berries, and the tree growing out of the hole in the floor. If it leaves behind physical objects, the monster must be real, right?
Not so fast. When Conor wrecks his grandma's place and beats up Harry, he thinks the monster's with him: "And he felt the monster's voice again, like it was in his own head" (23.43). Note the words, "like it was," not "because it was." Then, after the beatdown, when Conor's in the headmistress' office, she says, "I'm not even sure how one boy could have caused so much damage by himself" (24.8). The plot thickens: nobody else can see this monster, and if it had actually been in the cafeteria, it seems like a pretty safe bet that someone would have mentioned it. After all, monsters don't just come along and mess with your tater tots every day.
But Ness doesn't let us off with a simple, "there are monsters inside all of us" metaphor. That would be way too easy, and it wouldn't fit with the monster's intricate tales of folks who are simultaneously good and evil. Instead, what we've got here is classical magical realism: we think the monster is really Conor, and vice versa, but Ness throws in some leaves and berries just to make us wonder. In short, it's complicated.