The Plot: 1888, New England. Will Henry and his guardian/employer, monstrumologist Pellinore Warthrop, are pulled into another hunt for monsters, this time, the Wendigo. The thing is — Warthrop doesn’t believe in the Wendigo. Monstrumology is a science, dedicated to the study of actual biological entities that others would call “monsters.” It is not about myth or superstition; there is nothing supernatural about monstrumology.
Problem is, one of Warthrop’s friends, John Chanler, went hunting the Wendigo in Rat Portage, Canada and disappeared. Chanler’s wife asks Warthrop to go find John. Warthrop and Will Henry go to western Canada to find Chanler. The search for the Chanler, the journey for the truth, will take them from the forests of Canada to the tenements of New York City.
The Good: What is that noise? Is it the Wendigo outside the window? Is it a vampire lurking in a basement? No, it is only the sigh of contentment (yes, contentment) that The Curse of the Wendigo is every bit as wonderful, fabulous, horrifying and thought provoking as The Monstrumologist. You hear something more? Why, that would be the sound of me turning all the lights on, of locking all the doors, of checking to make sure there are no open windows so that I can sleep tonight. Oh, I won’t sleep soundly…. but hopefully, I will sleep. As Yancey muses having read Will Henry’s journals, ”The central question, the thing that woke me up in the dead of night shivering in a cold sweat, the notion that haunted me as I fought to go back to sleep . . . Could monsters be real?”
As with The Monstrumologist, this book stands alone: a creature is hunted, there is a resolution. The bigger story — the series mystery, as it were — remains the mystery of Will Henry and his journals. Yancey’s framing device is that, in the present day, Rick Yancey discovered the journals of recently deceased man who claimed that his name was Will Henry and that he was born in 1876. In the handful of pages before and after Will Henry’s memoir of his time with the monstrumolgist, Yancey discusses his own research into trying to discover who Will Henry was and how much of his journals were fiction and how much were fact. Those mysteries remain — and I am intrigued by how long Yancey will go with this series, with whether there will ever be (or can ever be) an answer to who Will Henry was. For more on the framing device, as well as the literary style of this series, see my review of The Monstrumologist.
In The Curse of the Wendigo, questions of faith, belief, and science are woven together. Warthrop repeatedly explains just why “myths” are myths, as opposed to the cold, logical science of monsters. It is amusing, actually, to think that Warthrop defends the existence of natural monsters against supernatural creatures, while the reader of these books discounts the monsters that are oh-so-real to Warthrop. Against the backdrop of “Wendigo: real monster or mythical creature,” The Curse of the Wendigo also asks questions about love and relationships, about what makes us human, about belief. What are the bonds between Warthrop and Will Henry? Between Warthrop and Chanler and Chanler’s wife, Muriel? Is John Chanler turning into some type of creature? Or is he going insane? And is that being caused by actual infection from a real beast or from a person breaking because of isolation and loss? Along the way, there is plenty of action, gore, and a further exploration of the science of monstrumology as practiced by Warthrop.
Once again, Yancey fills his book with unexpected humor and easter egg references to things and people that are “real.” Warthrop does something that puts his whole group in danger, and someone tells him, “Warthrop, I would have liked to have been included in this decision.” A throwaway reference is made to “that damned Irishman Stokely” or some other “S” name who is pushing the society to include vampires in the creatures it studies. Ah, vampires…. By having Warthrop be skeptical of the Wendigo (as compared to other characters), Yancey can include lore and stories about the Wendigo as Warthrop and his colleagues research and debate whether it is “real”. Because of this scientific approach, the monstrumologists also bring in lore and stories of the vampire, arguing that the two are at least related, if not the same creature.
The second half of the book is set in New York City, looking at both the privileged and the tenements. (Of course Jacob Riis makes an appearance!). Here, a description of the filth: “Each morning the manure was collected and hauled to special staging areas, called “manure blocks,” to await transport over the Brooklyn Bridge. The largest manure block was located on Forty-second Street, one block away from where a hundred thousand people got their drinking water, the Croton Reservoir.” Not only is Yancey giving the reader a peak at a historical time and place, he is also foreshadowing events that happen later. In addition, the depiction of the poverty, the cruelty, the filth shows that there are many monsters, many risks, many dangers in our world — even without Wendigos or vampires.
Because I love this series; because the writing can be beautiful while describing the unthinkable; because it makes me think; because it scares me; because the description of New York City in 1888 made me never want to travel back in time; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2010.