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Biology of mythology
on 24 February 2014
They say not to judge a book by its cover. But with the cover of "The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black," what you see is what you get.
And to be honest, the picture of a winged-humanoid skeleton, with every bone carefully catalogued, was enough to reel me into checking out this book. It's a pseudo-biography of a fictional man who devoted himself to the scientific study of ancient mythical creatures -- and while E.B. Hudspeth spins a fine fictional biography, the illustrations are what really took my breath away.
The book tells the story of Spencer Black, a 19th-century physician whose father was a grave-robbing professor of anatomy. That fascination with anatomy carried over into Black's career -- first he became fascinated by transformation in the insect world, and then by the workings of the human body. But when he encounters the corpse of a "fawn-child," his research took an unexpected turn.
After that, Dr. Black came up with a shocking, controversial theory: that mythical creatures were not only real, but were ancestors of humanity. According to him, birth defects were just those ancient genetic traits trying to resurface. So he tried to create his own "mythical" creatures by grafting together body parts from different animals -- which, unsurprisingly, the scientific community was unimpressed by.
The late 19th century is a perfect era for the fictional Dr. Black -- it was a time of massive technological advances and strange new pseudosciences. Just think of the Fiji Mermaid. So while "The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black" is an entirely fictional work, EB Hudspeth manages to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality -- you can almost believe it is a biography of a real person.
He also does an excellent job writing a pseudo-biography, exploring the events in Black's life (failed surgery, death of his children) that fueled his obsessions. Hudspeth even writes letters to/from Black, as well as a journal entry from his brother Bernard about his first, horrifying "graft."
But the most fascinating part of the book is not the fictional biography, but the "The Codex Extinct Animalia." In this, we can see beautifully detailed drawings of sphinxes, harpies, fluttering multi-finned mermaids, dragons (serpentine and regular), pegasi, and countless other mythical creatures. Not only are these the most realistic depictions of mythical creatures I have ever seen, but they are the most scientifically plausible.
Hudspeth achieves this by examining these creatures down the muscles, organs and bones, which are catalogued in painstaking detail. He even catalogues them by different orders and fictional families -- for instance, the Siren Oceanus is a member of the family Sirenidae and the genus Siren, with internal lungs covered in gills.
"The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black" is an exquisite piece of work -- a solid, sometimes horrifying pseudo-biography, followed by exquisitely realistic depictions of mythic creatures. If nothing else, read this for Hudspeth's beautiful illustrations.