Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Fancy for Yancey

It's Halloween time, and at the tail of September, Book Phantom searches for a little something in the horror realm to make the season spooky.  I'm not usually into horror films and books - I don't relish watching or reading about the torture, maiming, and murder of my fellow man, especially when it is by another human.  But I'm not bothered by the strange and supernatural like ghosts, bogeymen, and monsters because I've never actually seen any of them under my bed (though I've had a few monsters in my bed - but that's another story).

Last Halloween, I was perusing scary books via Amazon, and I came across The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey.  It was a Young Adult book that didn't much seem like a Young Adult book, besides the fact that it had a child narrator and some trendy leanings toward the paranormal.  What got my attention was that it was set in Victorian New England.  It had that American Gothic creepiness of Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe combined with the angst of Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein.  The novel's historical element was a clue that this might be so much more than typical YA fare.  What sealed the deal for me, however, was this review:

I'm a grandmother, somewhere between menopause and death, and my usual selection of books would never include a monster book (except for the Twilight series maybe), but this was a free book for Kindle, so I downloaded it. Late one night, I finished "The Help" (excellent) and just opened this to prove to myself that I didn't like it, and I could delete it from my Kindle. I read a couple of pages, then a couple more, and before you know it, my husband is going to bed and I'm sitting up, scared to death and can't stop reading. Oh, it's gross, it will make your skin crawl at times, it's totally creepy. It's definitely not the kind of book you should read sitting up alone at night with hubby already gone to bed, but I loved it. I'll probably have nightmares for a long time over this, with the cold mist of the fog over cobblestone streets and unthinkable things that go bump in the night.

The surprise was the writing style. I didn't expect eloguent language, talented writing, page-flipping suspense, but it delivered all of that. So don't rule this one because you don't think this would be your cup of tea. It just may be.

Well, if Granny could stomach it, nay, enjoy it, I decided I should put on my big-girl pants and give this skin-crawler a try (even if it meant I might soil said big-girl pants).  I was not disappointed.

I opened the book, and was immediately drawn in by the front matter.  Any author that finds his antagonistic force via Herodotus and Pliny the Elder has already captured my heart.  (I write historical fiction and often find inspiration from Classical sources - a kindred spirit!).  This book has everything a reader could want: deep characterization, profound themes about humanity and the nature of evil, and poetic prose.  Yancey's voice almost approaches grandiloquent, but never is overly so because it fits the story; it suits the time and place and characters, reminding me of Herman Melville at his best (and, yes, Melville could turn a phrase when he wasn't boring us with whale biology).  This is the highest compliment I can give Yancey: he actually sounds like a 19th century New England author, lending his novel authenticity.

I won't give a synopsis of the book, but I will say that the story is told by the Monstrumologist's apprentice, Will Henry.  The relationship between the eleven-year old and his master, Dr. Warthrop, is complex and twisted.  It is riddled with guilt, anger, fear, awe, desperation, coldness, and co-dependence.  In spite of the the macabre and dangerous nature of the work, coupled with the abuse Will Henry takes at the hands of Warthrop ("Snap to, Will Henry!  Snap to!"), the boy remains loyal to the doctor.  And although the doctor is loathe to compliment the boy, he readily claims to his peers that Will is indispensable to his work. 

The eerie moodiness of the scenes puts you in the Monstrumologist's world, and the storytelling is as tight as young Will Henry's precious hat.  The monsters and gore are horrific, but these are never gratuitious and are almost secondary to (or merely symbolic of?) the story's deeper themes.  To slather the proverbial icing on the cake, Yancey throws in bits of humor, cameos from famous Victorians, and poignant scenes between Will Henry and Warthrop.  I devoured the book like a ravenous Anthropophagus, but after I read the last page, the story kept crawling back from the grave.  I was left chewing on the deeper meaning, picking the meat of it from my teeth, and "gnawing on its bones" for weeks after.
Anthropophagus from the Nuremburg Chronicles

This Halloween season, I have already read Yancey's second book in The Monstrumologist series, The Curse of the Wendigo.  It was so good, I finished it in a few days and promptly ordered the third installment, The Isle of Blood, newly released in September.  I'm halfway through, and as I read, I find myself behaving like Dr. Pellinore Warthrop examining a specimen in his lab: picking it apart, scrutinizing every detail, and periodically exclaiming aloud to myself, "Magnificent!".

Although The Monstrumologist won the Printz Award for Excellence inYoung Adult Literature, and The Curse of The Wendigo was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, I think the series has not had the commercial success it truly deserves.  Part of this may be due to mis-marketing it under the Young Adult flag.  Simon & Schuster was about to drop the series, but fans protested, and the publisher brought it back.  And just so all of you know, Yancey seems a decent guy who doesn't take his fans for granted.  I tweeted something about how I thought the books were under-appreciated, and Yancey actually responded to little ol' me!  Now I love his books, and I have a literary crush. *blush* 

The best news?  I have a rendez-vous planned with Will Henry in 2013 when the next Monstrumologist book will be released.  Guess I'll be wearing my brown pants for that date!

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