Philadelphia, the late 1870s. A city of gas lamps, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages—and home to the controversial surgeon Dr. Spencer Black. The son of a grave robber, young Dr. Black studies at Philadelphia’s esteemed Academy of Medicine, where he develops an unconventional hypothesis: What if the world’s most celebrated mythological beasts—mermaids, minotaurs, and satyrs—were in fact the evolutionary ancestors of humankind?
The Resurrectionist offers two extraordinary books in one. The first is a fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black, from a childhood spent exhuming corpses through his medical training, his travels with carnivals, and the mysterious disappearance at the end of his life. The second book is Black’s magnum opus: The Codex Extinct Animalia, a Gray’s Anatomy for mythological beasts—dragons, centaurs, Pegasus, Cerberus—all rendered in meticulously detailed anatomical illustrations. You need only look at these images to realize they are the work of a madman. The Resurrectionist tells his story. (from Goodreads)
I love fake histories, and I ESPECIALLY love fake fantasy histories. The Resurrectionist is both those things, and it’s an art book as well! The first half is the fake history part: a biography of Dr. Spencer Black, a surgeon who specialized in unusual diseases/deformities. This led him to eventually become interested in cryptozoology– which eventually led to deception, murder, and a lot of unsolved mysteries.
The biography reads like an actual biography. It’s a little dry and dusty, and if it were a TV show it’d probably be on the History Channel with a lot of ridiculously dramatic background music. If this were any other kind of book, I’d be glued to my seat reading about all the crazy and amazing things Dr. Black did during his lifetime. Because the fake bio is so dry, though, there’s a huge wall between me and Dr. Black and his story. It’s an interesting story, but it’s like I’m reading a plaque on a museum wall. I think that was the intention, though, so in that respect the book succeeded marvelously.
The second half of the book is dedicated to Dr. Black’s studies of mythological creatures– supposedly a reproduction of one of his published books that disappeared almost before it was printed. It’s anatomical drawings of things like mermaids, sirens, and centaurs! It’s really neat, especially since I could tell that a lot of care had gone into making each creature as realistic as possible. I don’t know much about anatomy, but looking at those drawings convinced me that a thing like a mermaid could actually work in real life.1
Like the biography, though, the drawings are dry and dusty. They’re presented with a small paragraph regarding how, say, a mermaid could breath underwater, and then there’s ten pages of mermaid drawings. I couldn’t help but wish that there was more to it; like, personal recollections from Dr. Black, or more info about the creature besides a paragraph or two. I think I wanted more of an encyclopedia/memoir sort of thing, when really this is just a pseudo-scientific presentation of some monsters. I like pretty pictures, but I like them better when they’re surrounded by a good story.
So, basically, I spent most of my time wishing The Resurrectionist was something it wasn’t. Though I enjoyed it, I wanted something meatier, something less dry and more exciting.
For what it aimed to be– a fake history/biography of a man who studied monsters– it succeeded. If you like pseudo-scientific analyses of mythological creatures, or if you like fantasy histories and so on, you’d probably like The Resurrectionist. Just don’t expect it to be like a darker version of A Natural History of Dragons (like I did).
Read: May 11, 2013
I really like the book trailer! Check it out: