Prologue: September 2010: “Contact”
Everyone has someone.
More than three years had gone by since the director of the nursing home had handed over to me the thirteen leather-bound notebooks belonging to the deceased indigent calling himself William James Henry. The director did not know what to make of the journals, and, frankly, after reading the first three volumes, I didn’t either.
Headless humanoid killing machines running amok in late-nineteenth-century New England. The “philosopher of aberrant biology” who studies and (when necessary) hunts down such creatures. Microscopic parasites that somehow give their hosts unnaturally long lives—if they don’t “choose” to kill them instead. Midnight autopsies, madmen, human sacrifice, monsters in underground lairs, and a monster hunter who may or may not have been the most famous serial killer in history.… There was no question that Will Henry’s strange and disturbing “diary” had to be a work of fiction or the carefully executed, highly organized delusions of a man whose reason had clearly come undone.
Monsters are not real.
But the man who wrote about them certainly was real. I had spoken to the people who had known him. The paramedics who had taken him to the hospital after a jogger discovered him unconscious in a drainage ditch. The social workers and policemen who worked his case. The staff and volunteers at the assisted-living facility who had bathed and fed him, who had read to him and eased his passing at the ripe old age (according to Will Henry) of 131. And, of course, I had in my possession the journals themselves, which someone had written. The question was—has always been—one of identity, not veracity. Who was William James Henry? Where did he come from? And what unfortunate circumstance brought him to that drainage ditch, half-starved, those handwritten notebooks—besides the clothes on his back—his sole possession?
Everyone has someone, the director of the facility had told me. Someone knew the answer to those questions, and I took it upon myself to find that person, publishing the first three volumes of the journal under the title The Monstrumologist in the fall of 2009. The second set, called The Curse of the Wendigo, was published the following year. Though the subject matter was just this side of outlandish, I hoped the author had incorporated at least some of the truth about himself and his past. A reader might recognize something in the tale about a relative, a coworker, a long-lost friend, and contact me. I was convinced someone somewhere knew this poor man calling himself Will Henry.
My motivation went beyond mere curiosity. He had died alone, with nothing and no one, and had been laid to rest in a pauper’s grave with the poorest of the poor, forgotten. My heart went out to him, and I wanted, for reasons I still do not entirely understand, to bring him home.
Soon after The Monstrumologist was published, I began receiving e-mails and letters from readers. The vast majority were cranks claiming to know who Will Henry was. More than one offered to tell me—for a price. A few offered well-meaning suggestions for further research. Some, predictably, accused me of being the author. A year went by, then two, and I was no closer to the truth. My own research had resulted in no significant progress. In fact, at the end of two years, I had even more questions than when I’d begun.
Then, in late summer of last year, I received the following e-mail from a reader in upstate New York:
Dear Mr. Yancey,
I hope you don’t think I’m some kind of nut or con artist or something. My daughter was assigned your book to read for her language arts class, and she came to me last night very excited because we happen to have a relative whose name really was Will Henry. He was the husband of my father’s great-aunt. It’s probably just a crazy coincidence, but I think you might be interested, if you really didn’t just make up the stuff about finding the journals.
A few e-mails and a phone call later, I was on a flight to New York to meet Elizabeth in her hometown of Auburn. After some pleasant conversation and several cups of coffee at a local diner, she took me to Fort Hill Cemetery. My guide was a vivacious, outgoing middle-aged woman who had come to share my fascination with the mystery of Will Henry. She agreed with me—as would any reasonable person—that his story had to be more fiction than fact, but her very real family connection to a man by that name was no fabrication. It was that connection that brought me to New York and to that cemetery. She had e-mailed me a picture of the tombstone, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes.
It was a beautiful afternoon, the trees decked out in all their autumnal glory, the sky a cloudless, brilliant blue. And, three years and three months after first reading those haunting opening lines (These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed…), I was standing at the foot of a grave, before a granite marker that read:
LILLIAN BATES HENRY
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
“I never knew her,” Elizabeth said. “But my father said she was quite a character.”
I could not take my eyes off the name. Until that moment I had had nothing tangible except the diaries and a few old newspaper clippings and other questionable artifacts tucked within the yellowing pages. But here was a name etched in stone. No. More than that. Here was a person, literally right at my feet, whom Will had written about.
“Did you know him?” I asked hoarsely. “Will Henry?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know either of them. He disappeared a couple years after her death, before I was born. There was a fire.…”
“Their house. Will and Lilly’s. A total loss. The police suspected arson, and so did the family.”
“They thought Will Henry set it, didn’t they?”
“My family didn’t like him very much.”
She shrugged. “Dad said he was… kind of odd. But that isn’t the main reason.”
She dug into her purse. “I brought a picture of her.”
My heart quickened. “Is Will in it?”
She pulled out a faded Polaroid photograph and tipped it slightly to reduce the glare from the bright sun overhead.
“It’s the only one I could find in Dad’s things. I’m still looking, though; maybe I’ll find some more. It’s from her seventy-fifth birthday.”
I did the math quickly. “That would be in ’49—her next to last.”
“No, it was her last. She died before her next birthday.”
“Is that Will sitting on her left?” He looked to be about the right age.
“Oh, no. That’s her brother, Reggie, my great-grandfather. Will is sitting on her other side.”
The photograph was more than sixty years old and was slightly out of focus, but the man on Lilly’s right struck me as being at least twenty years younger than her. Elizabeth agreed.
“That’s the main reason the family didn’t like him, according to Dad. Lilly told everyone he was ten years younger, but he looks twice that in this picture. Everyone thought he married Aunt Lilly for her money.”
I could not tear my eyes away from the blurry image. A lean face, dark deep-set eyes, and a stiff, somewhat enigmatic smile. These are the secrets I have kept.
“Children?” I asked.
She shook her head. “They never had any. And Dad said they never met any of Will’s relatives. He was a total mystery-man. No one was even sure what he did for a living.”
“I guess you know what I’m going to ask next.”
She laughed brightly. It sounded oddly tinny in the setting.
“Did he ever talk about working for a monster hunter when he was younger? He didn’t—at least in none of the stories I’ve heard. The problem is, anyone who might have heard a story like that is dead now.”
We were silent for a moment. I had a thousand questions and couldn’t get a grip on a single one of them.
“So their house burns down and Will disappears, never to be heard from again,” I finally said. “That would be—when? Two years after she died, so 1952?”
She was nodding. “Around that time, yes.”
“And fifty-five years later he turns up again in a drainage ditch a thousand miles away.”
“Well,” she said with a smile. “I never said I had all the answers.”
I looked at the gravestone. “She was all he had,” I said. “And maybe when she died he went a little crazy and burned down the house and lived on the streets for the next five decades?”
I laughed ruefully and shook my head. “It’s weird. I’m closer to the truth now than I’ve ever been, and it feels like I’m farther away.”
“At least you know was telling the truth about her,” she tried to comfort me. “There really was a Lilly Bates who was around thirteen years old in 1888. And there really was a man named William James Henry.”
“Right. And everything else he writes about could still be a product of his imagination.”
“You sound disappointed. Do you want monsters to be real?”
“I don’t know what I want anymore,” I confessed. “What else can you tell me about Lilly? Besides Reggie, were there any other brothers or sisters?”
“Not that I know of. I know she grew up in New York. The family was pretty well off. Her father—my great-great-grandfather—was a big-time financier, right up there with the Vanderbilts.”
“Don’t tell me. After she died and the house burned down, they found her bank accounts cleaned out.”
“No. They hadn’t been touched.”
“Some gold-digger Will was. You’d think the family might have changed its mind about him.”
“It was too late,” she replied. “Aunt Lilly was dead, and Will Henry was gone.”
That was it, I thought on the plane ride back to Florida. The thing I wanted. I knew monsters were not real, and was fairly certain there had been no serious scientists called monstrumologists who chased after them. It wasn’t about the journals, though I had to admit they fascinated me; it was the why behind the what. It was Will Henry himself.
I went back to the journals. Monsters might not be real, but Lilly Bates had been. Buried in the folios were clues that might lead me to Will Henry, to the why I was so desperate to understand. Sprinkled in those pages were verifiable facts, a jigsaw puzzle of the real intermingled with the bizarre. His life—and this strange record of it—demanded an explanation, and I was more determined than ever to discover what it was.
We are hunters all. We are, all of us, monstrumologists, Will Henry writes in the transcript that follows. I can say that he’s absolutely right, at least in my case. And the monster I hunt is not unlike the creature that almost destroyed him and his master. Pellinore Warthrop had his grail—and I have mine.
Folio VII: Objet Trouvé
It is no longer possible to escape men.
Farewell to the monsters,
Farewell to the saints.
Farewell to pride.