‘Monstrumologist’ author peeks through his fingers
In last year’s The Monstrumologist, Rick Yancey introduced readers to a terrifying world much like our own, where monsters are not only real but also the subject of scientific study. Now the adventures of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop and his young ward, Will Henry, continue in The Curse of the Wendigo. Readers who couldn’t put down The Monstrumologist—or who couldn’t sleep after finishing it—will not be disappointed in Yancey’s follow-up, which serves up at least as much blood and guts as its predecessor.
After tracking him for days across a frozen wasteland, following a trail of destruction, entrails and eyeballs, BookPage caught up with Rick Yancey long enough to ask him a few questions about the appeal of horror, the line between fact and fiction—and what really scares him.
What inspired you to mix real science and history with myth and legend in this series? More than once I had to stop and separate fact from fiction, then doubted my own memory as to what was “real.”
The tension between fact and fiction is wholly intentional and meant to create a sense of unease in the reader. This harkens back to our childhood: What is that noise under my bed? What was that shadow in the closet? The sound and sight were real phenomena—and our overactive imaginations fill in the cause. The Monstrumologist is history with a single element altered: that monsters are indeed real biological organisms with a singular defining characteristic: They want to eat us. So I must be “true” to history while also staying true to that one conceit. It is lovely to hear I was successful, at least with one reader.
You indicated that a lot of research and fact-checking went into this book. How important was it to have so much “reality” in what is (hopefully) a work of fiction?
It’s a work of fiction. I swear. Please believe me. It is fiction. Sleep well tonight.
In The Curse of the Wendigo, I was relieved to see Dr. Warthrop begin to think more kindly of Will. Then I was relieved of that relief when he went right back to screaming at him. Will that push and pull in their relationship continue to evolve over time?
It would be pretty boring if it didn’t! Life depends on evolution and I certainly don’t intend to have their relationship rotting away like a corpse. Nothing is more boring than a book or series with static relationships; it’s like watching paint dry. Now I understand there are some books that actually play to this and writers who make a lot of money by “creating” cookie-cutter plots and stock characters, and even publishers who support their businesses with the equivalent of fast food: bland, generic and utterly predictable. Let’s face it, when you order your Quarter Pounder, you know it’s going to taste exactly the same as your Quarter Pounder from last week.
It’s interesting that “Rick Yancey” is kind of the über-narrator of this whole story. Why did you choose to enter the narrative?
The first reason has to do with the blurring of fact and fiction. The second probably has to do with my ego, which is about the size of the solar system (including Pluto).
Do you have a planned endpoint for the series? And will there come a point when you’ve run out of places to stick an eyeball for maximum gross-out? Seriously, though, how do you keep the gore fresh?
I would be happy to continue the series as long as the publisher would be happy to have me continue. After all, Will Henry lived to the ripe old age of 131, so the potential is there for dozens of stories. As for the gore . . . this isn’t butterfly collecting—this is hunting down horrifying, nightmarish creatures that depend upon our meat for their survival. I think you have to show what this means. As a reader, I would feel cheated if that basic premise was not explored to its fullest.
On that note, some of the scenes in this book were not just incredibly gross, but shocking, too. You already have a terrific mystery and very scary story—what prompted you to top those off with such terrifying tableaux?
Why do we cover our eyes in scary movies only to peek through our fingers? That’s what I’m doing as a writer—peeking through my fingers.
Why do we still love to be “safely” scared by books or movies?
Boy, I don’t know. I saw Paranormal Activity and didn’t sleep well for days. I kept waking up expecting to see my wife hovering over me with a death-stare. I really don’t care much for horror films, though I admire films like The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs, but I admire them for elements other than the scary parts—acting, writing, direction. I went through a Stephen King phase in my 20s but haven’t picked up a book of his since. Never read Lovecraft, which is funny, since a lot of readers compared The Monstrumologist to his work.
Do you think that love of horror is, on some level, a “guy thing”? Who do you consider the audience for these books to be?
I don’t think the horror genre is a guy thing. Fear is a human thing. It’s practically the first emotion we have. It’s merciful, in a sense, that we cannot remember the utter horror of being ejected from our mothers’ wombs into a cold, brutally bright world so alien to anything we’ve experienced. The series is marketed to young adults, but based on feedback I’ve received, as many adults as teens have read the books. When I write, I don’t consider the age of my audience, beyond assuming they are old enough to read. I try to be true to the characters and, since I write in the first person, to a particular character’s voice. I purposefully don’t “dumb it down” in consideration of how the publisher has chosen to market the books.
What scared the living daylights out of you when you were the age of your readers? Did it influence the ways you build suspense and set scenes in this series?
My biggest fear (then and now): social situations. In my teens, I worked part-time at a cattle ranch, and working with farm animals often plunges you elbow-deep into some pretty disgusting things. I became acquainted with the stench of decay early. When people ask this question, I always think back to when I was 10 or 11 and had a terrible nightmare in which some huge, hulking, faceless shadow was chasing me . . . it couldn’t find me, but I knew in my dream it was only a matter of time until it did and then I could be assured it was going to rip me limb from limb. That dream stayed with me and is probably the germ for The Monstrumologist.
What makes this a “teen” novel? Stephen King is shelved in adult fiction, but these books are both scarier and grosser than many of his. (Wait, did I answer my own question?)
The line between YA and “adult” grows more blurry by the day. What is it that separates them? A young protagonist? Content? The “message?” I don’t really know, and maybe you have answered your own question. Thanks for the comparison to King, though, which I will take as a compliment.