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Friday, October 23, 2009

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Title: The Monstrumologist: The Terror Beneath (Book One is a series)
Author: Rick Yancey
Reviewed Format: UK paperback
Release Date: October 1, 2009
Pages: 434

Before I go any further, let me warn you: this book is peppered with gory descriptions not for the faint of heart; in some instances, brimming is the more appropriate word. In this case, the gore is seething and crawling with a life of its own, not the tasteless in-your-face type of blood explosions seen in pop horror movies; Yancey’s gore is every bit ambiance as it is instrumental in understanding the horrors hidden in The Monstrumologist.

William Henry is apprentice to Pellinore Warthrope, a self-declared doctor, educated in the finer art of monstrumology, the study and/or hunting of monsters. Warthrope’s is a profession as much feared as it is misunderstood. The 1888 New England town where he lives turns a blind eye to his work and in the same movement holds its breath in apprehension with the hopes that the Doctor’s services will never be needed. This quiet tension infuses the mystery surrounding the death of William’s parents, in particular his father, whom was Warthrope’s assistant before his son. Now the ward of a man with an obsessive passion for his work and a devotion to science (at the expense of food and sleep at times), William finds himself opening the door in the middle of the night to a strange, desperate man with a horse and cart hauling cargo unknown and dreaded all the same.

The Monstrumologist is categorized as YA. The only explanation I can gather for that is the fact that Henry is twelve. Although told from his perspective, this is a frame story; we are reading through the journals of a much older William looking back on his youth and apprenticeship with Warthrope. The language is sophisticated, elevated, and at times, poetic and dramatic. While Henry is relating a story from his youth, there’s an odd contrast between his twelve-year old naivete and his adult hindsight. The mix makes for a marvelous perspective in time and maturity, nuanced by the wonderful Victorian language Yancey uses.

Juxtaposed against the beauty of the writing is the gruesomely satisfying viscera of William’s reality where the act of washing blood and cranial matter from one’s hair and body can lead to philosophical ruminations rising far above the mundane task of cleansing. This multilayered approach to themes like family, monsters, places of the beyond and unknown, life and death, are what help The Monstrumologist to be so rich, so articulate, so charmingly dark. Pellinore’s name, for example, given to him by his father after the Arthurian legend who chases the uncatchable beast, is both nostalgic and alarming in foresight, “...the passing on of a hereditary malady, the familial curse” (p. 426).

Relationships are particularly important in this book, but most importantly are those between fathers and sons, not necessarily literal titles. Yancey’s efforts are most noted between the self-absorbed doctor and young Will. The story is driven by their relationship as much as it is driven by the gut-churning Anthropophagi, grotesque humanoid monsters with mouths for torsos and eyes for shoulders. I could feel Will’s frustration and feelings of abandonment and obligation, “[r]unning away would have been tacit acknowledgment that [his] father had died in vain” (p. 191), a tangled mess of emotions that war with the futility of his alternative: an orphanage. Though difficult to read (emotionally, not technically), I thought the dynamic between the two was beautifully executed, a tenderness hammered out through their nightmare ordeal.

I was very impressed with Yancey’s ability to write the most incongruous scenes--a beautiful, green and sunny Spring day, the backdrop for a grisly murder scene; the macrabre found its counterpart easily with Yancey’s skill. For as much visual contrast as there was in this book, it made other areas that much more arresting in our inability to draw clear distinctions, and that much more alluring in the challenge. To alleviate my attempt to continue describing how amazing Yancey’s writing is, I found a sample sentence (really, there are so many to choose from) in the hopes that, if you haven’t already felt the urge to read this book, this may prompt you to do so:

”I could hear him muttering variations of the argument couched in the coach, like a composer struggling with a difficult bridge seeking to impose melodic balance to the discordant chords of his recalcitrant remorse.”

p.250


The length of this novel can’t be explained by the amount of things that happen, but to the language that lends itself to go past a surface reading and explore such interesting--albeit not necessarily good--characters. Kearns, for instance, likes his job a little too much for my liking, but in his fanatical devotion to the “morality of the moment” teases out the Doctor’s contrary nature, which in turn reflects upon Will.

There are so many things to enjoy about this novel: the writing, the story, the monsters. Again, I’ll stress that this is marketed as YA, but with words like stentorophoric, meritorious, calumny, and sapor, can (and should) be enjoyed by adults, too. I never like to underestimate the reading ability of children or teens; The Monstrumologist has a little bit of everything for readers of different levels or different literary inclinations. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of gore. I did not know there was so much of it before reading. In fact, reading parts of this book made me pretty queasy, but it was worth every nauseous second. There’s illustrations throughout the UK edition of all sorts of medical supplies, tools, and pieces of anatomy. Punctuated every now and then, in addition to sprawling across the beginning of each folio (there are three), the illustrations are unsettling as clinical diagrams, but make the book that much creepier and real, as if William’s journal were torn from the pages of a medical journal not entirely erased of academia. The Monstrumologist was the perfect book to read before Halloween (a coincidence I’m very glad for), but is a must read for fans of Gothic, horror, or fantastical suspense. What’s even better is it’s the first in a series. I’m already waiting for book two.

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