Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
Published : Simon & Schuster, 2009
Series :  Book 1 of the Monstrumologist Series
Awards Won : Michael L. Printz Award

The Book :

” ‘These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for nearly ninety years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me.’

So starts the diary of Will Henry, orphan and assistant to a doctor with a most unusual specialty: monster hunting. In the short time he has lived with the doctor, Will has grown accustomed to his late night callers and dangerous business. But when one visitor comes with the body of a young girl and the monster that was feeding on her, Will's world is about to change forever.

The doctor has discovered a baby Anthropophagi—a headless monster that feeds through the mouthfuls of teeth in its chest—and it signals a growing number of Anthropophagi. Now, Will and the doctor must face the horror threatening to overtake and consume our world before it is too late.”

This was the March selection for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park Book Club for 2012.  I fully intend to keep up with this book club, but I’d already read (and reviewed) the January and February selections, Redemptionin Indigo and How to Live Safely in aScience Fictional Universe.  The Monstrumologist, as a young adult horror novel, is a little out of the ordinary for me. While this is marketed as a Young Adult novel, I want to point out that it is extremely graphically gory, more so than I could easily handle reading.  I would recommend parental discretion.  This novel clearly kicks off a series, but I think that it also stands alone well as a complete story.

My Thoughts :

The main part of The Monstrumologist was set within a framing story that was present only in the very beginning and very end of the novel.  The idea was that someone external to the story had come into possession of a set of journals written by the main character, Will Henry.  This reader was unclear as to whether the story set within was true or merely a fiction dreamed up by a madman.  It was an interesting idea, but it didn’t really work for me.  Since very little happened in the framing story, I felt like it didn’t add much beyond a depressing glimpse into Will Henry’s future.  To me, the text also didn’t feel convincing as a journal.  The narrative voice seemed like an adult Will Henry recounting the experiences of his childhood.  However, the journal contained, in perfect detail, exact conversations, very precise physical descriptions, and explorations of Will Henry’s state of mind from moment to moment.  As far as I know, Will Henry is not meant to have perfect memory, so it was difficult to suspend my disbelief and accept the novel as a ‘journal’.

The style of writing in the fictional journals that make up The Monstrumologist marked the narrator as an adult Will Henry, rather than Will Henry at his age in the story.  The style of the novel, in addition to its small town New England setting, seems kind of reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft (which is interesting, since I read in an interview that Yancey hasn’t actually read any Lovecraft).  Personally, I found the style to be charming and occasionally amusing, though it did feel like a little bit like an affectation.  I think that the novel might be useful in building vocabulary for some teenagers, though I could see where some might find it a little too dry or overblown.  Here are a few examples of the writing style:

“Above me the stars seared the obsidian canopy of the sky…” (p. 35) 

“The morning light, streaming with glorious spring abundance through the open windows, flooded down the narrow stairway, yet it seemed as if the darkness at the bottom pushed back or acted as a seawall whereupon the light crashed and broke impotently against its unyielding edifice.” (p.70)

Despite its ornamented prose, The Monstrumologist was very much a monster novel.  By this, I mean that there were man-killing monsters of animal intelligence that needed to be exterminated by our courageous heroes, and this endeavor made up the majority of the plot.  As a result, the story was extremely gory.  I am not a usual reader of horror fiction, so it ended up being a little too much for me.  I wouldn’t say I found it terribly scary, but the descriptions definitely gave me a lasting queasy feeling.  In general, keep in mind that there will be many exquisitely detailed descriptions of men, women, and children being dismembered and eaten, and some detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by parasites.  I believe I would say the gore level is higher than R.L. Stine, which is the only other young adult horror author I can think of for comparison. 

While the story was very focused on the monstrous Anthropophagi, the characters also became quite interesting through the course of the story. The main characters were Dr. Warthrop (a professor of Monstrumology) and his orphaned assistant, adolescent Will Henry.  They initially appeared to have a peculiarly cold, professional relationship, in which Will Henry was horribly neglected.   Their relationship develops quietly through the novel, and I was surprised to find it quite touching by the end.  Another interesting main character is John Kearns, an amoral monster hunter.   His vivid, devilish personality really brought his parts of the story to life. Overall, I can see that this story has a lot of room to expand, and there are interesting ways the characters’ relationships might develop over multiple novels.  Honestly, though, I can’t take the gore, so I probably won’t be continuing this series.  

My Rating : 3/5

The Monstrumologist is a particularly gory, slightly Lovecraftian monster novel, featuring Dr. Warthrop, of Monstrumology, and his often-neglected orphan assistant, young Will Henry. I didn’t really care for the novel’s framing device, or the conceit that the story was told from found journals.  However, I was charmed by the carefully crafted, deliberately over-ornamented prose.  It took me a while to warm up to most of the characters, but I was really interested in Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop by the end.   In my opinion, John Kearns, a cheerfully conscienceless monster hunter, was the most fascinating character.  In the end, though, I think the graphic goriness of the novel was just too much for me, so I probably won’t be reading the subsequent novels.  I think that The Monstrumologist would probably be most appreciated by teenage fans of creative monsters and extensive gore. 

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