When I started reading Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill, I definitely expected a lighthearted, childlike story; a town terrorized by Rayburn, a monster with chicken legs, a pig butt and a vulture’s neck, and told from the monster’s point of view.
I was expecting something like Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles—where a socially nonconforming dragon’s perspective is followed instead of a princess’s—but Monster on the Hill really didn’t compare.
There were no women at all, only a bunch of white men and male-coded nonhumans. The jokes were a little cutesy; a young boy tells a misty monster that he can’t handle that kind of disillusionment if the monster started crying, but otherwise the jokes fell pretty flat.
The monster was suffering from depression, but not the clinical kind that’s a real struggle. He just had to exercise, spend time with friends, and stop the kettle corn and Hot Pockets-only diet.
As for the depression and the giant monster’s internalized villain, the Murk, neither plot was really deep or complex. The pacing was much too rushed, so both plots and how they related to each other ended up feeling shallow.
Rayburn’s depression definitely had a real chance at being an interesting, important portrayal of depression—something I was really hoping for as a firm supporter of mental health education for kids. After hearing Rayburn’s symptoms, an anachronistically bespectacled doctor suggests drilling a hole in Rayburn’s skull to “let the demons out,” which I think could really speak to some people, but that was the closest Harrell got to touching on depression.
The Murk character was like a monster’s monster, made of grave dirt and hair, who eats fear. He was by no means scary or interesting. Was he a metaphor for depression? He could have been, but it’s too hard to tell.
I recognize that the book’s target audience is kids, but by that logic Steven Universe and Gravity Falls’ villains shouldn’t be horrifying and terrible either. And if the Murk even was a metaphor for depression, he’s defeated by a short series of cliches—something that could have been funny if it wasn’t so short and rushed.
The art was what really sunk Monster on the Hill for me. The art itself was cute and what caught my attention in the first place—a little bit fairy tale and a little bit surrealist—but the action within and between panels was too cramped and redundant. Dr. Wilkie, who suggested a good hole-drilling, had excerpts from his journal to explain his thoughts and actions, but the narrator kept shoving their nose in and explaining what was plain on the page to begin with.
I am frustrated that the story was so plot driven and disorganized, and with such low stakes. It could easily be summed up as a couple of white guys stumbling around some rural hills with monsters devoid of personality. It’s cute, and it’s a nice read that gave me a few laughs. The art was pretty worth it just to look at, but it didn’t really grab me or hold me for the duration.