This book is, the forward would have us believe, a faithful transcription (edited only for spelling and the like) of some journals that came into Richard Yancey’s possession in 2007. It’s a classic technique, intended to make you read the books as “true.” Not fiction. These journals in particular, Yancey explains, belonged to a man claiming to be born in 1876 and were written by him some time after his youth, when the events that he relates took place. At the time of said events, our narrator, William James Henry, was but twelve years old – but he writes with an adult’s eye and an adult’s perspective. And at the time of his death, he would have been over 130 years old.
His framing device alone sets up the mystery of our narrator, William Henry, whereas the events described in the journals are a kind of horror. Said events are the outbreak of a pod of “Anthropophagi“, ostensibly folkloric creatures, primate-like, whose mouths are located in their chests. They resemble tall, strong humans without heads. And humans are precisely what they prey upon. There are a lot of them and they’re hungry. Cue spooky music.
Because the novel is written in first person, we know that Will Henry will live (perhaps a nod to the YA audience? Never fear! Our hero is safe!), though no one else is. He is a faithful observer living a horrific life amongst preoccupied and morally questionable adults, and because he more observer than participant (until the climactic end, of course), it’s rather difficult for me to say who is the main character – Will? Or his demanding guardian, Dr. Warthrop?
There is little in the way of character arc. Will is thoughtful, attentive, determined, and has found his place in the world by serving Warthrop. His only ambition is to be by the man’s side. This means that events tend to happen around and to Will Henry; he has very little bearing upon them himself. He is a responsive character, but not an active one. Warthrop is the one who makes the decisions.
There is one other way in which Yancey’s cleverness (which is impressive!) gets in his way. He has fashioned a kind of Victorian horror novel and seeks to write in that vein. As such, the narrative is rather florid (it’s one of the things many detractors of the book comment on, though I quite liked the stylistic engagement). But Will Henry presumably would have been writing this in 20s or 30s or 40s and the style, I would think, should be rather different, chronologically speaking. Then again, a difference in style would have made this an entirely different book.
I didn’t find much in the way of character development, nor did I find the characters particularly compelling – save for the psychopathic hunter that Warthrop engages, Dr. John Kearns, a marvelously dangerous character who preaches the “morality of the moment.” Kearns is an unapologetic nihilist who might not be All There. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys. But he is a bright spot against a sepia background, character-wise. He is also a nice counterpoint to the anthropophagi, which we grow to see as straightforward, predictable animals. If there is a monster – by action – in the book, it is more likely a human than a creature.
Another criticism that some readers level at the book is the gore that Yancey describes as the Anthropophagi devour their prey (i.e. victims). I won’t dispute the gore, but I didn’t find it off-putting. I’ve seen worse on prime-time television. For that matter, the adults in the book go to great lengths to discuss their philosophies toward violence and towards morality, so it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most importantly, my memory of the descriptions is of the clinical ones, when Warthrop conducts his necropsy, for example, not a glorified fight. For all that this is a gory book, Yancey addresses many of the related issues with great deliberation.
Related Review: The Curse of the Wendigo