Every once in a while, a character appears that’s every bit as disagreeable as they are enigmatic. We experience an abundance of contradictory emotions as we fail in our desire to resist the allure of their mystery. To be honest, the resistance is not so great; it is, however, largely influenced by several characteristics mixed in a most imperfect cocktail that makes the protagonist, characters, or even the murmuring background of society bristle against this character’s ill social graces, arrogance, or a certain type of cruelty. Sometimes this character is the protagonist; sometimes the protagonist has to put up with this character. They are not always easy to like. They are not always easy to dislike.
In Curse of the Wendigo, Rick Yancey brings readers back to his monster infested Industrial America. He reintroduces us to the courageous Will Henry and to his formidable, exacting, and sometimes very frightening master, Dr. Pellinore Warthrope—one of the most famous Monstrumologists in the world. He is by no means an easy man to work with, let alone live with.
To say Warthrope is a difficult man is an understatement. He’s a student of a noble and sometimes contested science (Monstrumology: the study of monsters) that moves beyond academia to the more tactile and necessarily unpleasant examination of specimens caught in the field—sometimes dead, sometimes alive and running in his direction. One cannot say whether his profession shaped his unpleasant rigidities, or whether it merely enhanced and sharpened what was already there. Quite strangely, he also quotes Romantic poetry to his assistant, Will, with frequent regularity. In this grotesquely elegant sequel to The Monstrumologist: The Terror Beneath (which quickly became one of my favorite books), the character of this most inscrutable scientist takes further shape between Yancey’s eloquent prose that waxes between the horrifying, the gruesome, and the heart-wrenching.
Normally, as a reader, I shy away from what I can only describe as graphic books. I do the same with movies. I’m squeamish and have an imagination that can go for miles beyond the reality and gets me so carried away I can’t stop thinking about whatever it is that really wasn’t all that bad, but I wouldn’t know because at this point, I’ve set the book down or covered my eyes in absolute refusal to subject my poor sensibilities to further torture. In this case, the gore is bizarrely attractive. I can’t stay away. In fact, there is one particular scene that involves (in vivid description) the sinking of teeth into a beating heart. Good readers, I could feel that heart beating in my mouth. I could taste that warm blood gushing into my mouth and had to put down the book and gasp at my reaction. And then I picked the book up and went for more.
I usually also don’t do well reading stories told from the first person perspective. It’s a limiting perspective that, if not done in such a certain way, utterly fails to move beyond a grasping self-importance too intent to take itself seriously rather than work to convince me there is anything to be taken seriously at all. Aside from the prologue and epilogue, this book is told completely in the first person. And I loved it. I think this is because there is far less “I” in the story and much more subtle exposition through dialogue. Yancey also exposes the reader to what other characters are doing through Will Henry’s acute and sometimes ignorant observations, tempered by the journalistic voice of an older Will woven so subtly into the narrative that I often times forgot this older voice existed. This makes for some brilliant passages filled with the inexplicable emotions of a child and the artful descriptions of his adult self.
Despite the story being from Will’s perspective, Warthrope (or “the Doctor” as Will refers to him as) often times becomes the story. In his literalist attempts to dampen Will’s curiosity or keep as much of his past out of their present endeavors, he actually encourages the opposite. What better way to incite the curiosity of a twelve-year old boy than by denying indulgence? Upon receiving a letter that warns of a future attempt by fellow Monstrumologist and former teacher, Abram von Helrung, to change the canon and thus, the credibility, of Monstrumology, Warthrope is alarmed. He is absolutely convinced of his duty to preserve the integrity of the field (already quite full of ridicule and dubious speculation by more widely respected fields of study). But he receives another letter, one delivered to his doorstep by a beautiful woman who seems to have a shocking familiarity with the Doctor. Forget for the moment that she is warm and caring, a stark contrast to the eccentric and distracted Warthrope. Will Henry cannot believe a woman would possibly want anything to do with a man who has run his fingers through his hair without any thought to the visceral remains clinging to his skin from his latest autopsy or field examination on several occasions.
This second letter is cryptic, but well understood by Warthrope. His best friend, John Chanler, has gone missing in search of a creature that by all accounts should not exist. According to the rigid tenements of Monstrumology, it is a monster not recognized as a monster because it does not exist. It belongs, as Warthrope must convey, to the same category as vampires, werewolves, and zombies: creations of fear invented by man to explain some of our cruelest abilities. In short, it belongs to the same farcical scapegoats von Helrung is determined to legitimize and admit into the Monstrumological lexicon. The Wendigo, Pellinore Warthrope insists, does not exist. He cannot understand why Chanler has pursued that which he doesn’t believe in either. For Warthrope to accept what the letter tells him, is to accept the undoing of the institution he’s devoted his life to and the certain loss of a friend he must believe is alive. For if the Wendigo is real, John Chanler is not just missing. He is already dead.
Caught up in all of this is his ward, Will Henry. And caught up is really one of the best ways to put it. His relationship with the Doctor, already established in The Monstrumologist: The Terror Beneath, comes through painfully clear in this book. It is a difficult relationship, a very difficult relationship, born out of necessity and a tangled, messy, inarticulate caring. Rick Yancey teases out the exquisite balance between having to care for Will Henry and wanting to. Warthrope is frustrated, that much is obvious. Whether he is intentionally cruel, or whether he is merely unaccustomed to expressing such moving emotions such as love, especially to a child (one whom he treats as an entity devoid of age distinction: his “assistant”), is explored in heart-wrenching clarity here.
Aside from the ups and downs of this unusual family, readers finally get to see Will interact with another person his own age—Miss Lillian Trumbul Bates. Her morbid curiosity for the darker side of Monstrumology unnerves Will, but the brilliance of this particular passage reminds us that he shouldn’t be surprised, not really:
”She had the heart of a monstromologist, that was certain; it just so happened that that heart belonged to a girl.” (p. 367)
Will Henry is learning that the world of monstromology (and by extension, the world itself) is infinitely more complex than he realized. Women want to be monstrumologists (although in an aside we are to understand the first is not admitted to the society until 1907), Warthrope is a multidimensional and multifacted man, capable of having real emotions (and cracking a joke or two), and that those who profess to be on the good side can be every bit as wicked and inhumane as the monsters his master studies.
Rick Yancey has outdone himself. His writing is beautifully complex and subtle with wondrously apt descriptions pulled from an impressive repertoire. His humor is understated (usually at the expense of Warthrope), but never dull. There was so much to enjoy about this novel that I think I’ve barely scratched the surface. If I’ve gone on too long about Warthrope, it’s only because he reminds me of another brilliantly complex character: Sherlock Holmes—the key difference being that Warthrope knows he is a problematic person to be around; Sherlock does not appear to have this self-awareness. He is, however, seen through the eyes of someone who, in comparison, seems quite ordinary. I’m pleased that such an enigmatic and intelligent character is featured so prominently in a YA book.
I’m also rather pleased that the ending is left entirely up to the reader. The explanation is either one of two things: believe in Pellinore Warthrope’s certainty (which makes this no less of a monster book), or believe in something he believes is unsustained by truth. Both pose very interesting conclusions for our esteemed doctor. He is either a man of infinitely unwavering convictions, or he is tragically flawed.
I recommend this series whole-heartedly, with one reservation: if you are easily offended or disagreeable toward graphic descriptions, cursing, or certain types of violence (there is a very rough interrogation scene), proceed with caution. Otherwise, simply remember to read the books in order. The development of Will and Warthrope’s relationship benefits best from the slow burn progression experienced through reading each book in chronological order. Having been extremely impressed and pleased with the series so far, I cannot wait for the third (The Isle of Blood) to be released this fall.
Release Date: October 1, 2010 in the UK; October 12, 2010 in the US
Reviewed Format: Tradepaperback provided by Simon & Schuster UK