The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black

the resurrectionistThe Short Version: Dr. Spencer Black was a youthful prodigy – gifted at science and medicine – in the late 1800s in Philadelphia.  But as his studies furthered, he began to develop unorthodox ideas about mutation and beasts of classical antiquity: namely, that they were in fact real and present-day mutations are an attempt to revert back to those now-extinct forms.  His work was discredited and Dr. Black disappeared with little trace in 1908.

The Review: Quirk Books, a small-ish publishing house in my old hometown(ish) of Philadelphia, has quietly been developing quite a reputation when it comes to proper literature.  They started off small, distributed by Chronicle Books, and as a result they had a limited slate of offerings – many leaning towards, well, quirky texts that were as much humor as they were ‘literature’.  These are the folks, after all, who brought the world Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the rest of the Quirk Classics.  But a shift slowly started around the time of their transition to Random House as distributor and they’ve put forth some seriously excellent novels of late – led by Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & The Last Policeman (neither of which, embarrassingly, have I read – but I solemnly swear that they’re on my list and now even more prevalently so, as I work to develop a relationship with my hometown team).

The Resurrectionist is a perfect example of an effective blend between those two worlds.  On the one hand, it is a beautiful object – closer to coffee-table-size than hardcover-size, it sits in your hands and demands to be admired.  The second half of the book itself, the Codex Extinct Animalia, is the real coffee-table attraction: exquisitely rendered anatomical drawings of mythical creatures, pulled from the supposed studies of Dr. Black.  I am not a biology person, let alone an anatomy person – I barely remember from my high school bio class how the human body is constructed, let alone the rest of the animal kingdom – but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by these drawings.  To see (even fantastically) how these mythical creatures could have existed… it’s delightful.

The story itself is short – taking up less than half of the book’s printed pages – and provides only, in essence, the roughest sketch of Dr. Black’s life.  His father was a renowned doctor and used to take his boys out graverobbing – something that clearly set both his sons on their respective paths.  The simplistic, academic narration is interspersed with excerpts of journal entries, letters, and other ephemeral writings of/relating to the Blacks and the overall effect is one somewhat akin to the film The Prestige.  The novel used the same tricks to different effect but I am thinking most clearly of the way the film provided the narration of the two magicians reading each other’s journals.  That voiceover quality, specifically – that’s how these excerpts feel.  As though, while you’re reading them, the voice of Spencer Black play over a brief recording.  Another equally valid analogy would be a museum tour where, as you walk by an exhibit, an actor reading some piece of text plays softly.

Unfortunately, the impact of that early section doesn’t quite live up to the initial promise.  I’m hesitant to call this a flaw, because the book is clearly structured to be an introductory, almost-academic text – the story itself being secondary, no editorializing or sensationalizing.  Indeed, it ends on something of a cliffhanger and the way the whole story is created leads me to believe that Hudspeth may in fact have further intentions for the story of Dr. Black.  For there is so much to experiment with here – there’s a Geek Love-esque circus, the gorgeous setting of late 19th Century Philadelphia, the very real and very well documented push and pull between science and fantasy at that time… So I won’t take off any points for the fleeting pleasure of the story because I wonder if that wasn’t the point and if there won’t be more coming to sate us later.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  Even if it were just the Codex, this book is worth picking up for any fans of fantastic beasts (and where to find them!  DING!) and the sort of vaguely-eerie pseudoscience that was all the rage not even 150 years ago.  There’s something romantic about this, the sort of thing that you might expect to’ve seen as a real text in the Mutter Museum or the like – gross on the one hand and yet entirely fascinating at the same time.  Put it on your coffee table – and buy Quirk!

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