“If I could name the nameless thing”- A Review of “The Monstrumologist”

With no small bit of surprise, I recently realized that one of my very favorite novels of Gothic horror, Rick Yancey’s utterly excellent The Monstrumologist, turned ten this September. This was unnerving because ten years can slip by awfully fast, and I really hadn’t perceived that it had been that long, but also because this book, and its three equally superlative sequels, doesn’t feel only ten years old. In recommending The Monstrumologist to people, which I do, emphatically and to anyone who even half-admits to sort of liking horror, I use Yancey’s brilliant sense of time-specific language as part of my sales pitch. It’s not a simple thing to recreate the tones of late 19th century fiction, and yet that’s exactly what Yancey does so well in these books. The effect goes beyond mere pastiche; The Monstrumologist trades on its author’s seamless feel for late Victorian mores, fears, attitudes, and weaknesses to construct a story which reads like something old and feels bracingly fresh. The Monstrumologist can claim descent from the grim offerings of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle, but at a remove of a century or so, Yancey’s free to spiral into even deeper and darker terrain than did his forerunners. It’s the most satisfying sustained horror series I’ve met. 

I think there’s a case to be made for Victorian horror pioneering the “found footage” trope, in which a story is presented as merely discovered, not fabricated. Dracula is a series of letters, diary entries, and news items, a novel certainly, but one whose impact can be attributed in part to its delivery as a relation of true events. Though they trend less toward the horrific, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are presented as factual events. We tend to see this motif a lot in contemporary horror films, the most famous example still being “The Blair Witch Project,” but it’s less common now in print. The Monstrumologist, true to its core to its Victorian ancestry, resuscitates found footage in text to wonderful effect. Yancey himself, in the book’s prologue, claims to have been given the folio journals which comprise the bulk of the series, the records being the only personal effects of an elderly man who recently died, unclaimed by any family, in a nursing home. Who this man really was remained unclear to the staff of the facility, and, indeed, Yancey isn’t much enlightened himself by the horrifying contents of the man’s journals. None of this can really have happened, right? Of course not. But the great fun of found footage, when it’s treated as a useful imaginative tool and not merely a cheap way of knocking out a couple lazy movies, is that it allows us the thrill of doubt. Of course monsters aren’t real. But if… 

The journals are those of Will Henry, orphaned in the late 1800s in the New England town of New Jerusalem. After the death of his parents, he’s left in the questionable care of Pellinore Warthrop, who treats the boy less as a foundling and more of a free assistant. Warthrop is a natural philosopher, and his specialty is monsters. Real, honest-to-God monsters. A hardened materialist, Warthrop scoffs at the supernatural; his creatures are flesh and blood, warped relics of evolution which most of humanity has been allowed, mercifully, to forget or ignore. The doctor is as passionate about his subjects as he is callous toward Will Henry, and much of the four books’ emotional fulcrum hinges on their wary, difficult attempts to provide what the other needs. As he ages into a teenager, Will hardens from a grief-stricken child desperate for the approval of the only adult left in his life into a much more worrisome creature indeed, something slightly more akin to the beasts he and Warthrop routinely pursue. It’s a theme which isn’t new- those who hunt monsters should be wary lest they become monsters themselves- but it shifts in unexpected directions; the narrative’s ultimate conclusion is murky and unsettling in the best possible way, leaving you turning back to the beginning in sudden trepidation. Another great trick of a story presented as “true”- you realize you can’t trust your narrator. 

Thematically satisfying, the novels also boast a truly memorable cast. Warthrop’s surprisingly gentle mentor Von Helrung is a more relaxed Van Helsing; the anonymous, ubiquitous, and usually hapless Victorian orphan gets a sharp remake in the vengeful Malachi; John Kearns, a mysterious acquaintance of Warthrop’s, is one of the most memorably charming psychopaths I’ve encountered in fiction. And then there are the monsters. Yancey writes very good monsters. The first book features the anthropophagi, headless, man-eating nightmares with maws in the middle of their abdomens (not many novels reference Herodotus, but really, more should). The amorphous wendigo plagues the second book, a metaphysical nightmare for Warthrop, who doesn’t hold that nature is influenced by the unseen. Mongolian death-worms, parasitic infestations, and primordially massive serpents skulk through the pages, often unseen but always felt, casting the actions of the human players in a disturbingly ambiguous light: in a world which permits human beings to be dismembered and crafted into nests for fledgling monstrosities, what sense does individual morality really hold. It’s a deliciously haunting question, one with which Victorian naturalists, confronted with the irrefutable truth of the theory of Darwinian evolution, absolutely wrestled. Yancey cranks up the intensity of that struggle by contrasting his human characters with not only the bald insensitivity of nature but with the genuinely inhuman, Nature permitting no special pleading for humanity at all. It’s a struggle further tangled by the inhumanity of many of the superficially human characters. The uncovering of evolution by natural selection forced the Victorian mind to fundamentally reconfigure itself to the impersonal reality of a universe which does not particularly care for mankind; Yancey, with both empathy and clear-eyed hindsight, depicts a cast of informed, intelligent men and women wrestling mightily with the knowledge that they are not at the summit of any teleological ladder, and it’s both unnerving (don’t we still think of ourselves at the top of the evolutionary heap?) and affecting. 

The Monstrumologist was never a huge seller, but those who do read it are passionately committed to it. I always encourage readers to give the series a shot, because to know it is to love it. Its cumulative impact is wonderfully grim and lovely, its writing densely grotesque and beautiful. The Monstrumologist looks the unnamable in its hideous face and acknowledges the very human attempt to name it. It’s a series which celebrates our determination to make sense of our world, and one which isn’t afraid to recognize that the effort is poignant, bloody, and, sometimes, very futile indeed.