Rick Yancey’s novel comes to us from the YA shelves. Normally, I’d ask myself, “Why are you reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading something more… mature?” I don’t even think there was such a classification when I was a YA—when was that again? And what is a Young Adult anyway? Who is this target audience? It’s been defined as the group of readers between 14-21—adolescents, in other words. Teenagers. At that age I was reading Beat lit, the novelists and the poets. Back in the day, you understand. I scan the list of authors and titles generally recognized as falling within this category, and for the most part they’re titles I skipped in my youth—and I’m not really sad I did. Anne of Green Gables? Sorry, no. The exceptions were the classic Twain novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Those I relished.
Yancey’s The Monstrumologist plays itself out in the journals of Will Henry, written in 1888 and discovered many years after the incidents relayed within took place. It certainly qualifies as YA literature; the protagonist is a young boy just beginning to sense the world and its infinite possibilities rolling out before him. But Will Henry is a 12-year old orphan and an apprentice/assistant to a rather strange man, occupation: Monstrumologist. Dr. Warthrop’s field of Monstrumology, as you all surely know, is the scientific study of monsters, in this case an ancient breed called Anthropophagi. (Go ahead. Say it.) Headless and man-eating? Well, the maw is located where it shouldn’t be. It’s gotta go somewhere if there’s no head, right?
This is some monster—a whole clan of monsters, actually. I can’t imagine that 40 or 50 years ago the gory and descriptive details of these Anthropophagi’s habits would have been thought fit for readers of a tender age. Today is a different story. We—even most of us adults—just love to be scared. Monsters such as this teeter on the edge between real and imagined. They could exist, we think, but just as quickly add: not likely. The same can be said of vampires. So the appeal, bloody and frightening as it is, is in some ways safe.
In running down the backstory of the monsters, Will and the Doctor find a former ship’s captain in an insane asylum. As he lies dying, the captain relates the story of how the monsters came to the shores of New England:
Could there be irony crueler than this? How upon his rescue, the truth had brought him here , to a house for the mad, for only a madman believes what every child knows to be true: There are monsters that lie in wait under our beds.
This seems to me to be the crux of a child’s fascination, an attraction born of repulsion and fear of monsters. Who knows what lies in the dark shadows? Will Henry is both repelled and fascinated, not only by monsters but by his guardian. Torn between dislike and reverence, he’s loyal to the end. Dr. Pellinore Warthrop is a fascinating character, as is John Kearns, an “expert” he calls in to help deal with, and halt, the spread of the Anthropophagi infestation. Yancey writes characters just broad enough to be compelling without being ridiculous, with just a hint of cartoonishness. Kearns is an outrageously amoral character, but he spouts a philosophy with enough truth to catch Will’s (and our) attention.
We are a mere part of a grand whole, in no way superior, not at all the angels in mortal attire we pretend to be.
Kearns asks Warthrop,
“Do you know why our race is doomed, Pellinore? Because it has fallen in love with the pleasant fiction that we are somehow above the very rules that we have determined govern everything else.”
(He, of course, would not apply these cautions to himself. He’s a man who makes his own rules for himself first and foremost.)
If I had one minor quibble with Yancey in this wonderful tale, it would be his almost compulsive alliteration: “the beneficent balm of its bowl,” “pressed, prodded, and pummeled,” “his fragile frame propped precariously,” “the discordant chords of his recalcitrant remorse,” “statue-still he stood,” “That personage possessed no personality,” “skewered in its scorching jaws,” “the final fiery consummation.” But mainly the novel, created as the first in a series, is a lightning-fast read and highly entertaining, a ripping yarn. No matter what your age, you can’t help but be thrilled with the story and yearn for a time when you’d wait impatiently for the next edition. If you have a reader in your household of 15 or so, you should turn him or her on to this one.
Charlie Wendell is dedicated to the three R’s: Reading, Running and Rhapsodizing on the other two. He lives as close to Boston as he can reasonably afford.