Book review: “The Monsters’ Room” by Hope Campbell (Scholastic, 1976)

"The Monsters’ Room" by Hope Campbell

Illustrations by Lilian Obligado

1976 Scholastic Books

This past weekend, my wife and I — on our way back from a short (two nights) vacation in Maine — stopped in Dover, NH, a small town where we’d lived for two years when we’d first gotten together, and got married there as well. We were looking for lunch, and as it happened, there was a bookstore ("Baldface Books") right across the street from the lunch place ("Cafe on the Corner").

We both love bookstores, so minutes after eating we were poring over the selection in Baldface Books, a well-chosen mix of new and used books. Jeannine loved the poetry section, and liked the adjacent childrens’ book section almost as much. While browsing in the latter, my eye was caught by the title on the spine of a slim paperback– "The Monsters’ Room". I pulled it off the shelf and immediately I was snagged again, this time by the cover illustration — an image of a young boy cautiously (and fearfully?) opening a door, behind which lurked various monsters.

The art had a lively feel to it, done with what looked like to me in a combination of watercolor and pencil, and I looked in the book to see if the cover artist was credited. There was no specific cover art credit, but I noticed a line reading "illustrated by Lilian Obligado" on the title page. Thumbing through the book, I saw that there were about ten black and white illustrations, all drawn in a style similar to the cover, so I think it is safe to assume that Lilian Obligado drew the cover as well, and quite possibly colored it.

I was quite taken by the quality of the black and white interior illustrations — they appeared to be done in pencil, and the draftsmanship was excellent.

I really like the vigorous strokes balanced by subtle shading.

It was these drawings which prompted me to buy the book (that, and the fact that it was only $1.50). And as someone who appreciates a good monster story, I thought that any book with a title of "The Monsters’ Room" and with some cool illustrations in which monsters fetter prominently had a pretty decent chance of falling into that category.
Maybe I should have paid more attention to the fact that in small print on the cover, right under the large letters of the title, was this:

"original title: Peter’s Angel"

Perhaps if I had thought about that a little more — how do you go from a title like "Peter’s Angel" to "The Monsters’ Room", after all? — I might have had some foresight into the questionable quality of the story.

It was a strange read.

The basic story has to do with a boy named Peter living in New York City, who, along with his two best friends, Obie (another boy) and Sal (a girl), is part of a "monster club". The club’s "headquarters" is Peter’s room, filled to the brim with monster paraphernalia — toys, comics, posters, and so forth. But Peter is starting to get tired of the whole monster thing, because the monsters are now appearing to him (and him alone) and driving him crazy. They won’t leave him alone, and he needs to figure out a way to rid himself of them.
Inspired by a recent trip with his friends Obie and Sal to one of New York City’s cathedrals, where he saw a large and imposing statue of an angel, Peter decides he must build his own angel to combat the monsters which plague him. So he gets to work, trying to transform a barrel into an angel.

Yes, you ready that right — he has a barrel, a wooden barrel with slats and everything, and with wires and cords, an old mop head, gold wrapping paper, and plastic umbrellas (for the wings), he makes his "angel".

Helping him out are Obie and Sal, and it is Sal who — for reasons I am still not terribly clear about — makes a "brain" for the angel, because she is into making brains. She makes them out of clay, and she makes the angel’s brain out of the same material. Unfortunately, at the crucial moment of joint the angel’s brain to its body, the brain is dropped, and it shatters. But all is not lost, because — quick thinker that she is — Sal realizes that an angel’s brain COULD be like a balloon, and she has one of those, which she blows up and uses as the angel’s brain.

(Are you starting to get a sense of the slightly — maybe more than slightly — hallucinatory nature of this tale??

Now, parallel to this story of Peter and his friends and the monitors, is another story — that of two anthropomorphic mice, Mr. and Mrs. Starbuck, who live in Peter’s house and are friends of his. Or at least, he gives them crumbs of food. These mice — who speak in English to each other, if not to Peter — want to assist him in his quest to rid himself of the monsters, so they set out to find a "real" angel that will help him. This part of the book seemed weirdly shoehorned in, as if the author had had another idea for a different book, one which featured talking mice, and for some reason decided to mash the two stories together.

(Oh.. I guess I forgot to mention that these mice are the only ones in the story, other than Peter, who can see the monsters.)

Now, I appreciate a bit of whimsy, and I am not opposed to using elements of fantasy in a story — in fact, I like that kind of thing.

When it is done well, that is.

This book… I finished reading it last night, and I am still trying to process HOW it ever made it to publication. It is SO bizarre, almost like a fever dream of a story. It is not technically badly-written. The illustrations are very competently drawn. But the story as a whole is simply… odd. I can only imagine what this book might have seemed like to the youngsters at whom it was aimed. — PL


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