In a small town in New England, a grave robber unearths a strange, hideous monster along with the body of a young girl. He takes the two corpses to Doctor Warthrop, a man who is whispered about amongst the townsfolk for his dabbling in things extraordinary. He is the monstrumologist, and Wil Henry is his reluctant apprentice. Told through the memoirs of Wil Henry that he pens as an old man, this is a tale of Victorian horror; of shipwrecks and madmen; and primarily of monsters.
I've been missing something in contemporary YA books: monsters being monsters. As much as I enjoy this new generation of kissable zombies, for example, I feel disappointed that all the horror has been taken out of the genre. If R. L. Stine was writing Goosebumps today he'd probably be penning tales about the babysitter who eventually falls in love with the madman breathing down the phone. I understand that certain authors are making statements about racism and prejudice through the genre, but I've got a soft spot for monsters with a bit of grr arrrgh and a lot of munching.
I devoured (excuse the pun) The Monstrumologist. It's a thoroughly enjoyable, dark, amusing, horror tale, in which the monsters are as monstrous as they come. Despite the tackiness of the UK/Australian cover, the depiction of the beast, called an Anthropophagus, is dead on. (I found myself warming to the design as a I read, though I do like the slickness of the US cover.) The beasties in this book are seven or eight feet of corpse-like flesh, snapping shark-like mouths, razor sharp claws and the ability to leap forty feet in a single bound. I loved the graveyard scenes: dozens of monsters erupting from graves like there were in a Michael Jackson clip. Set about two decades after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there's lots of science that sits alongside the horror. The monstrumologist describes theories to Wil Henry about their evolution and origin. "Monster" often has a supernatural connotation, but in this book monsters are very much of this earth, and seen as something that is higher on the food chain than the human species. They are things to hunt and fear, but, according to the doctor, to fear as we would a lioness or crocodile.
The characters are as entertaining as the monsters themselves. The dynamic between Warthrop and Wil Henry is both amusing and poignant. Wil Henry's father was once the doctor's assistant until he and his wife were killed in a fire. Now orphaned, Wil Henry is taken in by the doctor to repay the father's years of faithful service. The relationship between them is a curious one: Wil Henry is not quite an adopted son, and not quite a servant, and the unhappy relationship the doctor had with his own father makes things all the more complicated. The friction this dynamic creates is a fascinating part of the plot.
The language Rick Yancey uses is the closest I've seen to that in actual Victorian horror novels. The prose is highly readable and entertaining, and I'm in awe of his vocabulary. I'm not often sent scurrying to the dictionary while reading a YA book, but Yancey had me stumped over such words as apogee, operose, nascent and stentorophonic. They words are easily guessed at by the context, but I enjoy discovering new words in fiction that I have to go and look up.
The Monstrumologist is highly recommended.