Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
I won’t claim Young Adult speculative fiction as my main interest, though lately, it does feel like I’ve been on a YA kick. I like picking it up occasionally, but it always seems like my favorite books in the genre are the ones that can be enjoyed by all ages, the ones that don’t scream “YA!” the instant I open the book and meet its teenage protagonists. You know what I mean.
That probably has a lot to do with why I absolutely adored this book. I wanted a change from the paranormal high school romances, and the fact that The Monstrumologist is horror, told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, and takes place in late-1800s New England are all big pluses. The novel is presented as the diary of Will Henry, an orphan working as an assistant/apprentice to the odd Dr. Pellinore Warthrop who is a monstrumologist, someone who studies monsters.Still, some caveats: while this book is technically categorized as YA, I still wouldn’t recommend this lightly to any young reader. It contains plenty of content that are what I call the 3GRs: gross, gruesome, graphic. No question about it, if adapted completely faithfully, a movie based on this novel would get an R-rating…a solid hey-kid-how-the-hell-did-you-sneak-in-here-without-an-accompanying-adult resounding R-rating.
I can’t remember the last time I was this creeped out by a book. Again, here I am shocked that this is actually YA — for two reasons, really. First, the horror aspects were extremely well done, and while the book’s breakneck pace wasn’t so surprising, the quality of writing and descriptiveness is of a caliber I wouldn’t expect from a young adult novel. And second, maybe I’m just not savvy enough to the stuff going on in today’s YA fiction scene, but I was completely blindsided at how violently and vividly gory this book was.
Of course, good horror isn’t only about the blood and gore. Thankfully, the author has the other factors covered too, with plenty of suspense and atmosphere-building. It always impresses me when a book can immerse me so deeply and grab me like this, as in like, wow, I’m so glad I’m not a claustrophobe too, or those last few chapters would have been even more unsettling.
In fact, much of the book actually feels specifically crafted to enthrall and frighten, with a deliberate shock-factor involved perhaps, but I was still more than happy to go along with the ride. After all, I love this kind of stuff. My friends in my gaming circle will know how obsessed I am with a paranormal/horror-themed MMORPG called The Secret World, mostly for its spooky setting and atmosphere. I have to say The Monstrumologist sucked me in immediately as well, exactly because it was dripping with those very same vibes. I just eat this stuff up.
Anyway, in my humble opinion, it was the monsters that made the book. Rick Yancey chose to make it about Anthropophagi, which means “people eaters”…enough said. While they’re not Yancey’s original creation (mythology or literature buffs will probably recognize Anthropophagi from Shakespeare), the unique spin he adds to the creatures makes them absolutely terrifying.
For example, the book begins with a grave robber showing up at Warthrop’s house, presenting him with the corpse of girl with a dead Anthrophage wrapped around her body. She has half her face eaten off, her throat is chewed up, and then a tiny fetus of an Anthropophagus is found in her womb. Ick, ick, ick! See what I mean about disturbing imagery and description intended to give the reader chilling thoughts? If that stuff makes you uncomfortable, I would stay away.
The other factor that adds to the creepiness is the characters. I loved our main protagonist Will Henry and the narrating style the author gave him, which is believably suited to that historical period. That’s another reason why this book doesn’t read like a typical YA novel; not only has Yancey adapted the vernacular and vocabulary to the times, Will Henry also lacks the modern preteen/teen protagonist attitude that’s so common in YA fiction.
Still, as much as I adored Will Henry, compared to the rest of the cast, he was probably the most normal and boring. Dr. Pellinore Warthorp, if he were alive today, would probably have been diagnosed immediately with a personality disorder, but he was also very interesting, filled out and well-written. There are so many layers to him that I spent half the book trying to make up my mind about his character, and actually enjoyed figuring him out along with Will Henry. Then there was Kearns, who is, in a word, insane.
Anyway, bottom line? I think I’ve found a new favorite young adult author, and his name is Rick Yancey.