This is the first time that while online shopping I’ve had an experience akin to shopping in a bookstore. Usually I only purchase books I’m already familiar with online but this time, I picked up something new. Something I’ve never heard of. I didn’t even like the cover. It was the title that caught my attention. After reading the synopsis, I decided to get it. How far would Yancey go in his exploration of monsters, I wondered. Would he go so deep as to show humanity in monsters and monstrosity in humans?
The story that makes up The Monstrumologist is relayed in the diaries of Will Henry. They were found after he died (sometime in 2007) and given to Rick Yancey. In this book, the first volume of his diaries, it’s 1888 and Will is the 12-year-old orphaned apprentice to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a monstrumologist, a scientist who studies organisms generally considered monsters and, in some cases, hunts them.
One night, Dr. Warthrop and Will receive a visitor with an unusual package — a monster that died while eating a young woman. The doctor informs Will that the monster is an anthropophagus, a headless predator that resembles humans in stature except its mouth is in its chest. They also receive another surprise — a baby anthropophagus within the body of the young woman. The doctor concludes that anthropophagi are in the area and makes preparations to uncover how they appeared on American soil and why in New England within the vicinity of a monstrumologist.
Their quest for answers and eventually to root out and kill the anthropophagi takes Dr. Warthrop and Will on quite an adventure on which Will learns that monsters come in many forms and sometimes fear helps as much as it hinders us.
This was one of the best books I read in 2015. I love how the story is narrated and written and I was hooked on it from the beginning all the way to the end. Actually, I enjoyed it so much that I went ahead and bought all the other books in the series, which is something I usually don’t do. I prefer to get the books one at a time as I go along to make sure that I’m still interested in the story.
Disclaimer: My thoughts on this story are so jumbled that I find it hard to organize them for this post so I’ll do this using bullets. Also, this reflection will be long as hell so…yea. Jump to the Overall section if you’d rather skip the crazy thoughts. There will be minor spoilers. Read at your own risk.
“But monsters, I now know, come in all shapes and sizes, and only their appetite for human flesh defines them.”
What I liked:
- The prose
I love how this book this is written. It’s very descriptive and even poetic in some spots. Yancey seems to have a thing for alliteration, which is used often throughout the story. So much so that I’ve read a few lines aloud just to hear the sound the words make together.
I love highly descriptive prose and though I believe it was used well in this story, some readers might think it bogs down the pace of the plot. Maybe that’s true but I was so caught up in the words that I hardly noticed. I think the descriptiveness was well employed. I think the readers need to get a sense of the atmosphere of the settings and the descriptions brought them to life. Sights, sounds, scents, touch: Yancey gives us every bit of sensory detail so we can easily reproduce the scene he describes in our mind. Often, it was as if I’m one step away, simply behind a thin border, from actually experiencing what is described. I love that!
To get a sense of Yancey’s writing style in this book, you don’t have to look far. The first sentence of the story, which is in the prologue, shows how descriptive Yancey tends to get. But, it’s the first sentence of chapter one that hints at the suspense he keeps running through the story making the reader want to know more and more. The story is not fast paced. It takes its time slowly unfolding as we learn more about the central characters — Dr. Warthrop and Will Henry. I also think that the descriptions are used to build the suspense by slowing the pace of a scene in which we are close to uncovering an essential clue but Yancey, for some reason, wants to keep us on tenterhooks a moment longer. That can be frustrating for some readers but I think it’s worth it.
Another thing I like about how this story is written is that it calls out to other texts. I love it when stories do that though I think I miss more than I notice. Yancey alludes to the Bible, Shakespeare’s writings, myths, and even moments in history and scientific theories like evolution and eugenics. Again, one doesn’t have to go far to see early evidence of this since the story is preceded by a page that lists passages from literature, ranging from Herodotus’s The Histories of Herodotus to Shakespeare’s Othello, that mentions anthropophagi and cannibals.
- The narration
This is a frame tale. It’s Yancey reading Will Henry’s diary, which is about Will Henry’s early years. I believe the only time we read from Yancey’s perspective is in the prologue and epilogue; otherwise it’s all Will Henry. I like the effect that the diary has on the narration. It’s told in first-person from the older Will Henry’s perspective but we get the younger Will Henry’s thoughts and reactions to the events discussed as well.
Most of the time, we are in the younger Will Henry’s head and it’s his naiveté and innocence and honesty that pulls at our heartstrings and makes us emotionally invested in the story. But the older Will Henry is a couple years removed from the events and can analyze them with some detachment. Since this is a young-adult novel, I believe the older Will Henry helps to provide some necessary explanations for readers when needed, especially when he makes a mistake, which I like. The narrator doesn’t talk down to readers, neither does Yancey dumb down the text or hold back on the gore he describes or the moral quandaries that arise in this story about monsters and fear and so much more.
- The characters
Speaking of the narration, I like little Will Henry, or maybe I feel so sorry for him that I like him. He is quite brave and seems to have a strong mental will since he’s not broken by all he has endured in his 12 years. He tries to be responsible and in his relationship with the Doctor, Will seems to be the caretaker for both himself and the Doctor. Many times, roles seem to be reversed and it’s as if Will is the adult in their relationship.
I also like the older Will Henry, though I don’t think we readers know him well. I guess I more like how he functions in the story than the attributes of his character. I like that he is somewhat detached from the events of his younger years so he can analyze them but is still emotionally connected to them.
As for Dr. Warthrop, I thought him comical at first. He’s like a mad scientist at times purely fueled by his passion for the subject he studies and his appreciation for science. His antics and eccentricities reminded me of Prof. Lidenbrock in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the World, though I think Warthrop is more callous toward his dependent than Lidenbrock. Now that I think of it, the two stories are similar in many ways. Will Henry and Prof. Lidenbrock’s nephew share some similarities and the adventure in both stories are similar in that the venture is to prove something that is impossible. Even the preparation for the quest and certain plot points are similar: The visit to the sanitarium in The Monstrumologist reminds me of the brief stay in Iceland in Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I digress.
At first, I wondered if the Doctor would be a flat character. He seemed to be wrapped in nothing but his callousness and coldness toward everyone and thing but the more I learned about him, the more I began to pity him. He’s hurt and rejected and lashes out at anyone who tries to know and care for him. In a way, he has become what he studies.
- The monsters
One of the reasons why I got this book is because when I saw it, it made me think of my favorite quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” I wondered if what said in that quote would be explored in this story and I’m glad to have discovered that the book explores that concept and more.
The most obvious monsters in this story is the anthropophagi. They are wild beasts that prey on humans and are impossible to tame. They are monstrous both in body as well as in nature and are the sort of monsters the intended audience would dream about in their nightmares. But I like that Yancey flips this concept of monsters and makes one (or maybe just me) question whether the anthropophagi are indeed monsters.
In the later pages, we get a detailed account of anthropophagi and learn that they are not born craving human flesh nor are they born hunters. These characteristics are something they learn. Also, like humans, they care for their young and are protective of them. The account doesn’t describe monsters, it describes animals. Animals like us. Though the discovery of the monster eating the young lady at the beginning of the story is gruesome, the anthropophagus didn’t kill her because it’s a murderous beast, it did so to procreate. Actually, it seems that all the monstrous things the anthropophagus did were for survival, which, though gruesome, doesn’t make them monsters. I love this about the story that what is deemed a monster is shown to have some humanness(?).
“We populate our nightmares with the wrong carnivores. Consider it: The lowly maggot consumes more raw flesh than lions, tigers, and wolves combined.”
But there are many other monsters in this story, some we wouldn’t even recognize as monsters. There’s Kearns, who is obviously a monster in that he has characteristics that typifies monsters and is obviously a psychopath. There is also the monstrumologist himself, Dr. Warthrop, who, in a way, is a monster, or simply monstrous, in how he treats Will Henry. He seems so cold at times that I kept thinking he is a monster, or is it that he’s afraid to care too much? (Plus, he hardly sleeps or eats and I kept thinking he’s a vampire the entire time I read.) Then there’s Doctor Starr, the psychologist, who I consider a monster because of how he treats his patients. How did he ever become a psychologist? Did he ever once care for the people in his charge? He reminds me of the monstrumologist. And there’re the maggots, which I’ve never considered to be monsters until I read this book.
“There are times when fear is not our enemy. There are times when fear is our truest, sometimes only, friend.”
Sometimes fear makes monsters from our mind. The fear of the unknown sometimes creates monsters from the dark. Fear both propels and hinders us and such is the case with Dr. Warthrop who doesn’t notice he’s succumbed to his fears as he chides Will Henry not to do the same. I like how fear is used in this story. There are moments when it’s so debilitating that a person can’t move, like when Will Henry was alone in a dark tunnel, while at other times it propels characters to fight for their life or to protect their loved ones (I’m thinking of Malachi’s mother who refused to let her baby go). Sometimes it morphs into something else, distractions or other emotions, and stalls us, prevents us from doing what must be done or believing what we know to be true.
Okay. I’m done now. I’ve ran out of steam on this book though not out of thoughts. This reflection is long as hell and I’ve been sitting on my ass for so long that it’s numb (you probably didn’t need to know that). But I’m done. There are a few things I didn’t like about the story but they are minor things. One is that Kearns talks too much sometimes and I wish he would shout up. There isn’t much dialogue in the story but where there is, it was sometimes too much, like at the baker’s shop. Also, the hint that Kearns was Jack the Ripper wasn’t as jolting as it should be. Was it supposed to surprise me? Probably not. Well, I didn’t care for it either way.
A well-written, engrossing story that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. I recommend it to all readers, young adult and above.
Quotes from the book:
“So often the monsters that crowd our minds are nothing more than the strange and thoroughly alien progeny of our own fearful fantasies.”
“And then, like some nightmarish leviathan rising from the deep, the broad shoulders broke the undulating earth, those terrible unblinking black eyes glittering in the glancing glow of the torch, the yawning maw stuffed with three-inch fangs in the middle of the creature’s triangular torso snapping as a shark’s when excited by the scent of blood in the water.”
“Will Henry, ‘possibility’ is not ‘probability.’ It is possible the sun will rise in the west on the morrow, but hardly probable.”
“Self-pity is egotism undiluted, after all — self-centeredness in its purest form.”
“Memories can bring comfort to the old and infirm, but memories can also be implacable foes, a malicious army of temporal ghosts forever pillaging the long-sought-after peace of our twilight years.”
Other thoughts, an interview, and more from Rick Yancey
- Exclusive: Rick Yancey Talks The Monstrumologist, The Curse of the Wendigo, and More (dreadcentral.com)
- Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (thesassygeek.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (scifiandscary.wordpress.com)
- Series Spotlight: “The Monstrumologist” by Richard Yancey (slclteens.wordpress.com)
- Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (wakingbraincells.com)