The Curse of the Wendigo ~ Rick Yancey

It struck me that reading Rick Yancey‘s sequel to The Monstrumologist brought me back to a time when I discovered the joys of reading: Entertaining and transporting reading of the kind I indulged in as a pre or early teen. Transporting in the sense of immersive stories of the sort that take you out of your body to another place, another reality. The Curse of the Wendigo is a joy for many reasons, but mostly for the sense that we get visiting old friends, comfort in the familiarity, knowing that these people we have ‘seen’ before, will show the same talents, foibles and quirkiness that we have “always” known about them. I was a big “series” reader as a kid, as I think many grown up readers were as young adults, or older pre-teens.

So we meet again young Will Henry, apprentice to the driven Monstrumologist, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop. They are off on new adventures and new discoveries, but always with the scientific eye. We’ve seen the current (it comes and goes) rise of vampire literature. Yancey seems intent on separating what Warthrop does  –  the kinds of phenomena he deals with – from the fanciful and mythical creatures called Vampires. Books like Yancey’s and Justin Cronin’s The Passage are a click separated from the Vampire genre by a thin line: on one side are stories of the ‘could be true’ variety and on the other side are stories of the ‘fanciful’ sort. One is not necessarily “better” than the other (I’m as much a True Blood freak as the next guy). And though I no longer read her, I certainly went through an Anne Rice phase at one point. Both can be equally adept at dealing with social issues, or human relationships.

I read The Monstrumologist last December, and that’s awhile ago, but it seems to me that Yancey shows more of a concern for social issues here. This is especially evident in his stark descriptions of New York in general and the slums and living conditions of New York in particular, at the end of the 19th Century. Here, he describes a typical pre-dawn of the city getting ready for another day, including a fascination with poo-poo that runs throughout the novel, no doubt to the delight of younger readers!

…this was the hour of filth, when thousands upon thousands of chamber pots were emptied of their “night soil” directly onto the street from the brownstone and tenement windows, when the two million pounds of manure, produced the day before by a hundred thousand horses, lay piled in stinking four-foot-high drifts – high enough in some neighborhoods that a man might enter his second-floor walk-up without using the stairs. The hour when carts slid along ruts cut into muddy refuse, carrying the remains of the horses that had decayed enough to be broken apart and transported to the rendering house. The average horse weighed fifteen hundred pounds, too cumbersome to remove while whole, and so it would be left to rot on the street where it had died, a bloated, reeking feast for the “queen of the dung heap,” the typhoid fly, until the horses could be dismembered easily and carried away.

It was the hour of filth. The average workhorse produced twenty-four pounds of manure and several quarts of urine every day. The sheer enormity of that waste threatened the human population with extinction, as the waste bore the poisoned fruits of cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, typhus, and malaria. People literally dropped like flies – twenty thousand each year, most of them children – while the flies themselves prospered.

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 Fourty-second Street…

Does “over the Brooklyn Bridge” mean it was dumped into the river or dumped somewhere in Brooklyn? Either way, one cannot help but search the minds eye for images of present day Brooklyn as we know it, and the image drawn by Yancey.  The reference to Fourty-second Street…well, mull that over for its social connotations.

And this was a description of the Upper Class environment. He doesn’t skimp on the details of the lower classes living conditions, the tenements and slums.

The wilderness and the slum were but two faces of the same desolation. The gray land of soul-crushing nothingness in the slum was as bereft of hope as the burned-out snow-packed brule of the forest. The denizens of the slums were stalked by the same hunger, preyed upon by predators no less savage than their woodland counterparts. The immigrants lived in squalid tenements, crowded into rooms not much larger than a closet, and their lives were mean and short. Only two of five children born into the ghetto could expect to see their eighteenth year. The rest succumbed to the ravenous hunger of typhoid and cholera, the insatiable appetites of malaria and diphtheria.

So this was the beasts hunting ground, having been transported from the wilderness to the big city, he’s right in his element. And Yancey nicely parallels the “hunger” of the Wendigo affliction to the “ravenous” diseases of the day.

Yancey too, brings in real historical characters that we may not have heard of: the journalist (and photographer) of the slums Jacob Riis for example, or Algernon Blackwood, little asides about Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. These are snatches of knowledge that go down easily in this very readable and entertaining novel. This is not a let down from the earlier novel, so if you enjoyed that one, this is for you.

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