Every now and then, a reader stumbles across a novel that refuses to be forgotten. I was 13 the first time I happened upon a midnight-blue cover depicting a tombstone and a crow. There, at the bottom, flashed a name in boldfaced red: Rick Yancey.
Those familiar with his work are most likely know his bestselling novel “The Fifth Wave” — which received a major motion picture adaptation — and its sequels. However, it was not “The Fifth Wave” that caught my eye all those years ago; it was its older sibling, 2009’s “The Monstrumologist.”
Winner of the Michael L. Printz Honor Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist” is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Set in the fictional town of New Jerusalem in the 1800s, the novel follows the story of Will Henry, a 12-year-old boy whose parents perish in a fire. His father had served as the loyal assistant of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, and following the deaths of Henry’s parents, Henry is taken under his care. Then, the story begins.
Warthrop is by no means a doctor of everyday science. Instead, his heart beats for a stranger matter: monstrumology, the study of the peculiar, unnatural beings that lurk in the darkest crannies of society — simply put, monsters. However, monstrumologist is certainly not a common or socially acceptable occupation, as most of the residents of New Jerusalem believe Warthrop to be a kook teetering on the precipice of madness.
The story starts when a bedraggled caller named Erasmus Gray turns up on the doorstep of Warthrop’s house in the early hours of the morning with a horrifying find he dug up while looting graves. There, lying in his horse-drawn cart, are the perversely conjoined bodies of a young woman and an anthropophagus, a West-African carnivorous humanoid beast, which had choked to death on the pearl necklace the woman was buried in. Eek!
Warthrop enlists the help of Dr. John Kearns — an expert hunter that history recognizes under a different name — after discovering a full-on anthropophagi infestation in the cemetery, and drags Henry along in the process. As the story develops, Henry is forced into a series of haunting exploits no one, let alone a child, should ever have to endure.
“The Monstrumologist” is wonderfully macabre, grotesquely gory and insatiably spellbinding. With each page, the reader is made privy to narrative details that deafeningly scream in the most intense moments. I have no choice but to fly through the novel with each read, as it progressively draws me closer to hear its unspoken whisper.
Yancey’s work is rare in the young adult genre because it successfully integrates impressive vocabulary in a manner that does not come across as burdensome. Even at 13, I had little trouble navigating Yancey’s verbose word choice because the context he provides for his captivating vocabulary renders the novel simultaneously intelligent and accessible.
Most importantly, much of his writing is beautiful: “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.”
On the subject of context, the historical setting “The Monstrumologist” occupies is another delectable aspect of the book. The mysterious New Jerusalem, which the novel acknowledges as not existing in the present day, immediately raises questions in the reader. Although the 1800s is my least favorite century of history, “The Monstrumologist” manages to reinvigorate the time period, as the story is not overladen with trivial nuances that reek of a history textbook.
One of the most unique facets of the novel is its genre classification, which falls along the lines of young adult horror with historical fantasy elements. Whatever it is, siblings in this category are not populous. Further complicating classification is the book’s nature as a frame story in the form of a three-folio diary found in the wake of Henry’s death.
The narrative flow of “The Monstrumologist” is particularly gripping. It ebbs and flows like a heartbeat, spelling out intermittent calms before startling storms. Everything is realistic and gritty, bearing a surreal gravitas that is, at times, overwhelming. While it may be a work of fiction, the scares it presents are undeniably real.
If this is not enough to convince you to give it a read, the incredible character dynamics might tip you in Yancey’s favor. Characters like the young Henry and the amoral Kearns are polar opposites of each other, as each represents innocence and perversion, respectfully. Warthrop is the most complicated individual, sometimes flirting with callousness and care. At his worst, Warthrop’s mountain range of flaws looms ominously, but at his best he endears hearts and draws sympathy from the reader with a simple “You are indispensable to me.”
Fans of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft are liable to find themselves attracted to the work, as Yancey’s mythos shows undeniable marks of Lovecraftian influence. The monsters presented in the series terrify for reasons beyond sharp claws and jagged teeth; they invade and devour sanity as well as flesh.
The book portrays a variety of juxtaposing themes, such as man versus nature, compassion versus fear and family versus isolation, giving the story a warring, unmixed flavor that heightens the drama. Some say that comfort exists only in the mind, and “The Monstrumologist” certainly plays on that idea.
The work can be considered a blend of different done right, and although it may not be for everyone, readers looking to expand their literary tastes into the macabre need look no further than “The Monstrumologist.”
An interesting note is that in 2014 Warner Bros. bought the rights to the series. News of an adaptation then went silent for years until Yancey tweeted in March 2018 that the rights had been sold for a television adaptation. Until more news breaks, Yancey’s fans will have to cross their fingers and hope for further development of the beloved universe.