Study Guide

The Monstrumologist Maggots

By Rick Yancey


Did you think that Captain Varner's nasty death-by-maggots was just for the sake of the gore? Well, you were half right—Yancey loves to make his readers nauseous—but there is an element of poetic justice to Varner's death that also reeks of symbolism. (It probably reeks of something else, too.)

When Dr. Warthrop and Will Henry finally get Captain Varner's account of the Anthropophagi's arrival, they also realize that there's something amiss at Motley Hill Sanatorium. The haphazard bleach cleanup done at the last minute and the proliferation of flies by Varner's bed lead Dr. Warthrop to investigate, and he finds that Captain Varner has been left to rot. Literally:

The bandage removed by Warthrop had covered most of Varner's right side. Beneath it was a wound roughly the size of a pie plate, oval in shape, the edges of which were jagged and enflamed, a weeping cavity bored down to his ribs, which I could see glistening a storm-cloud gray in the flickering lamplight. Bloody pus dribbled over the hole's lip and coursed down a crease formed by two rolls of belly fat toward the mildewed bottom sheet. […]

I followed his finger to the spot where they squirmed and twisted in the organic muck of Varner's violated torso: three maggots performing a sinuous ballet in the infected meat, their black heads shining like polished beads. (6.247-249)

Aside from being really gross, the maggots represent Varner's guilty conscience. His culpability has been eating away at him for twenty-three years. The irony of him actually being eaten alive isn't lost on Varner:

"I lost them all, every one," responded Varner. "And I have spent the last twenty-three years in this horrid place, the final five years confined to this bed, with only my memories and that hideous key-jingling woman for company. Fortunate indeed, Warthrop! For if life is a question, then I have my answer: There is no escaping it. There is no cheating fate. I was the captain. The Feronia belonged to me and I to her, and I betrayed her. I betrayed and abandoned her, but fate cannot be betrayed or abandoned; she can only be postponed. My doom was to be eaten, you see, and though I folded my hand twenty-three years ago, the house has called the bet, and now I must pay up." (6.235)

Instead of being eaten by the alpha Anthropophagus, Varner is eaten by maggots. We're not sure which is worse, but either way, Dr. Warthrop can see that there's a hidden meaning in Varner's death as well:

"He stood up with a rueful shake of his head and bade me rise. "Come, Will Henry. We've one final piece of business here. The theme of this affair is shaping up to be one of accounting and recompense. What of the flies indeed! The maggots that feed upon Varner's body; the worms of doubt and guilt that fed upon my father's soul. There are monsters like the Anthropophagi, and then there are the monsters of a more banal bent. What is still is, Will Henry, and will always be!" (6.281)

Importantly, the maggots here are a reminder that the Anthropophagi are only one kind of monster—the world and its occupants are far from perfect. Some monsters are just more accepted or kept better hidden.

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