Supernatural Book Review: The Monstrumologist and Two Sarah Waters’ Novels

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The Monstrumologist

I’ve been on something of a supernatural reading kick lately.  It started with The Curse of the Wendigo, the second book in Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist Series, progressed to the second book in the All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night, and then proceeded into Sarah Waters’ novels, The Little Stranger and Affinity.  So in the last month I’ve been living with ghosts, spiritual mediums, vampires, witches, wendigos, anthropomagi, and the father of all monsters–the magnificum.

The Monstrumologist

I’ve never read Rick Yancey before, but I’m so happy to have stumbled upon these three young adult novels, if a little surprised to find them described as young adult novels.  There’s nothing torrid in the way of sex, but a lot of very gruesome, gory, scary and insanely well-written scenes of human and monster violence.  The novels follow Pellinore Warthrop, the world’s premier monstrumologist, and his assistant, William James Henry, on a series of adventures finding and fighting real-life monsters.  The stories are set in Victorian America and then eventually, London and Egypt, and Warthrop and his assistant encounter such famous historical figures as Jack the Ripper, Conan Doyle, and Arthur Rimbaud, just to name a few.  In the world of these novels, monstrumology is a natural philosophy, with its own society, journal and headquarters, complete with a basement collection of monster specimens–the Monstrumarium.

What really drives these novels is the relationship between William James Henry and the monstrumologist–Dr. Warthrop.  The narrative frame asks us to believe that the author Rick Yancey was given the journals of William James Henry and that he is publishing them in order to discover more about the life of this mysterious man who lived to the age of 131 due to being infected with a parasitic worm that either kills you or greatly extends your life.  Are William James Henry’s stories real?  Did the monstrumologist actually ever exist?

I like my supernatural stories served up as a thin veil for larger questions about the nature of life and humanity.  So, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about adolescence, high school and eventually, college life–there just happen to be vampires.  The Last Werewolf raised some great questions about the connections between our various appetites–for food, for sex, for violence.  The Reapers Are the Angels explores the relationship between individual and community and Raising Stony Mayhall asks questions about the nature of bodies.

In a similar vein, Yancey’s monstrumologist series is really about the dark underside of love and ambition and loneliness.  Dr. Warthrop and William James Henry hunt monsters, but the more pressing question is whether they will be saved from becoming monsters themselves.  It seems as if there’s at least one more book in the offering, so I’ll be anxiously waiting to see how it all turns out.

The Little Stranger and Affinity

The two novels I’ve read by Sarah Waters dance along the edge of the supernatural, and as with Yancey’s novel, use the supernatural to tell some very human stories.  In The Little Stranger, the main character’s class resentment may or may not have transformed itself into a poltergeist which destroys an already decaying grand house and the grand family that goes with it.  The novel is set in post World War II England, a time when grand houses were falling into decline, along with the class system that supported them.  It’s subject matter is similar to Downton Abbey, only long after the peak of that way of life and much, much more sinister.

The Little Stranger

In Affinity, Victorian sexual mores and gender norms are the basis for a twisted tale of prison, spiritualism and unrequited love.  I didn’t enjoy Affinity as much as I did The Little Stranger, but it was interesting to think about the pressures experienced by a Victorian lady, especially one with same-sex desires.  There’s also another nice social class twist at the end of this novel, and I’m interested to see if these are themes that pop up in Waters’ fiction repeatedly.

What’s interesting and heartening about all this supernatural reading is the great variety of territory that is covered in these stories.  In the course of a conversation about a different kind of vampire story, my husband declared that there’s nothing new to be written about vampires.  Of course, I disagree.  I’m not certain exactly why supernatural fiction is so very popular these days.  I wonder if it’s a sign of a kind of loss of magic in the world.  Of course, many of us see scientific explanations as the most sensible way of understanding the world.  But that doesn’t mean that those explanations are actually satisfying to us emotionally or psychologically or spiritually.  Perhaps our supernatural turn is an expression of that craving for magic, for things that exist beyond the reach of science.

At any rate, all this supernatural reading I’ve been doing is comforting to me in that it proves that there is always another story out there to tell that illuminates for us some aspect of what it means to be human, even if the characters aren’t exactly human themselves.

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