Dweller introduces us to Toby, an 8 year old with an active imagination and difficulty making friends. Though he’s been told by his parents not to, Toby enjoys playing in the woods that border the backyard of his house. Lost in fantasy while playing one summer day, Toby comes to find himself deep in the woods… much deeper, in fact, than he’s ever been. Scared of the trouble he’ll be in when he gets home late, Toby desperately tries to find his way out of the woods, but what he finds instead will change his life forever.
Toby, you see, finds a monster. An honest-to-goodness, hairy, yellow-eyed, razor-clawed, fanged beast. Of course Toby does what any 8 year old would do under the circumstances… runs away! Once safely back at home he’s chastised by his parents for his misadventure, and as the summer passes Toby convinces himself he didn’t really see a monster in the woods. He couldn’t have, right? Monsters don’t exist.
Flash forward seven years to a Toby who has made the woods his place of refuge from the bullies at school and tedious evenings with his family. While exploring one day after school Toby discovers a cave, which he proceeds to investigate with the notion that it may be his ticket to getting some friends, maybe even a girlfriend, if he has a cool cave-fort he can bring them to.
Instead, Toby comes face to face with the same monster that he had convinced himself years ago didn’t exist. The now older, (slightly) bolder Toby doesn’t run away this time, but instead offers the monster food, tries to communicate with it and, ultimately, becomes friends with and names it Owen. What unfolds from there over the course of the story is a wonderful exploration of the strange, but genuine friendship that develops between Toby and Owen, one that lasts for over fifty years.
Strand does a magnificent job using brief ‘glimpses’ chapters to jump the story ahead over blocks of time, stopping for a more in-depth look at various milestone moments along the way in Toby’s life – college, first job, marriage, children, divorce, addiction, retirement – and how each affects his friendship with Owen.
On the surface just a ‘monster story’, Dweller also operates on a much deeper level. Strand has, in deceptively simple fashion, written a beautiful story which explores the complicated nature of relationships, loyalties, and how one decides who the most important person in their life is. The implications of the final, heart-breaking scene will stay with you long after you’ve finished. What Strand has accomplished with Dweller is nothing short of amazing, and you owe it to yourself to experience it.