Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (series, #1)
A New England town’s oldest resident dies leaving no known surviving family. His journals end up at the university where a professor loans them to a writer friend. In the first three folios, we learn of young Will Henry whose father and mother died in a terrible house fire leaving him to the care of his father’s employer–Warthrop. Warthrop is a monstrumologist. He studies monsters, and people arrive in the middle of the night for his help. One night a grave robber arrives with the body of a young girl wrapped in the horrifying embrace of an anthropophagus–a creature with no head and a mouth full of shark-like teeth in the middle of his chest. Will Henry, as the assistant apprentice monstrumologist, soon finds himself sucked into the secret horror found in his hometown.
This book was creating a lot of buzz last year, and I acquired it through the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. Clearly it took me almost a year to read it, and I’m glad I saved it up for Halloween. The chills and thrills were just right for this spooky month. I must admit, I was skeptical at first that it would live up to the hype–particularly the cover blurb praising it as Mary Shelley meets Stephen King. I am pleased to say, however, that it more than lived up to this apt comparison.
This is a combination of classic New England style horror (complete with a small town, small town values, a creepy insane asylum, cemeteries, etc…) with 19th century style lyricism present in the language.
How oft do they rescue or ruin us, through whimsy or design or a combination of both, the adults to whom we entrust our care! (page 251)
Seeing language like this in a new book being marketed as YA (a point I disagree with, but anyway) gave me chills. It was a pleasure to read for the language alone. Yancey, in particular, is quite talented at alliteration. The story itself, though, kept me guessing and was genuinely scary.
The anthropophagi are truly distressing. They are essentially land sharks who live underground and can pop up, like Mushu says in Mulan, LIKE DAISIES. You’re trotting along and all of a sudden, BAM, there’s a monster popping out of the graveyard dirt for you. Only unlike zombies there’s nothing humanoid about them, and they’re fast. The truly perfect monstrosity. It doesn’t hurt that Yancey connects them to myths and legends of the past, even quoting Shakespeare!
The characters are all well-rounded and memorable. From the way everyone calls Will Henry by only his full name to the terrified and perplexed constable to the eccentric Warthrop to the truly delightfully darkly witty Englishman who is brought in to help with the problem (“His teeth were astonishingly bright and straight for an Englishman’s. (page 266)”), everyone is lifelike. In fact I think they will probably live on in my mind forever; that is how clearly and forcefully they are drawn.
More than a delicious fright, beautiful language, and lifelike characters though, the narrator, being an older man looking back on his youth, brings to light several serious real-life questions that there aren’t any easy answers to, but it is lovely to read about within literature. You’ll be reading along, enjoying the terror and horror and wit of the main story, then stumble upon a passage like this:
Perhaps that is our doom, our human curse, to never really know one another. We erect edifices in our minds about the flimsy framework of word and deed, mere totems of the true person, who, like the gods to whom the temples were built, remains hidden. We understand our own construct; we know our own theory; we loved our own fabrication. Still…does the artifice of our affection make our love any less real? (page 362)
And you stop, and you close the book, and you think about it, and maybe you cry a little bit, then you get back into it to see how Will Henry does against the monsters, but that thought, that beauty, that fact that someone else on the planet has wondered the same thing as you (only put it quite a bit better) sticks with you afterward. And that is what takes good writing and characterization into the land of exquisite storytelling.
Frankly, I think everyone should read this book.
5 out of 5 stars