May 21, 2013

Book Review: The Resurrectionist

Every so often a book comes along that is so different, so beautiful, that it's jarring. Surprising. Baffling and confusing and exciting.

The Resurrectionist, by E.B. Hudspeth via Quirk books, releases today, and it is is one of those books.

The Resurrectionist
E. B. Hudspeth
Quirk Books
May 21, 2013
208 pages
Two-books-within-a-book, The Resurrectionist came about when Hudspeth, an artist/sculptor, began researching the question: if angels were real, how would their wings be attached? He cared about the anatomy of the question, seeking to make his sculpture as realistic as possible. He drew how they could have existed, sketching skeletons, trying to determine how their bones would be shaped by studying birds and other winged animals. He added tendons, muscles, layering each drawing with more and more possibilities.

Thus was born the story of Dr. Spencer Black, a mid-19th Century doctor who becomes obsessed with proving that physical deformations are caused not by accidental misfires of the gene pool, but by latent evolutionary changes that sometimes make reappearances in modern-day species.

In short, a person with an extra limb? Perhaps their ancestors included the harpy, a winged mythological creature.  Conjoined twins? Perhaps their ancestry evolved from chimera, a multi-headed beast.

Clearly this is a work of fiction, but the beauty of the book lays, in part, with the author and publisher's willingness to treat it as nonfiction. The book is presented as part biography (Dr. Black's life as gleaned from found letters, journal entries, etc.), and part his life's work: the Codex of Extinct Animalia.  

The biography half is an eerie, unsettling read. Where most writers get dinged for telling a story, and not showing the reader how it unfolds, in this "biographical" form, the telling works like a charm.  We see through the eyes of the "biographer" how Black grew up under the influence of his father, a grave-robbing anatomist who'd have done anything to find just one more cadaver to dissect and study. We see Black's promise as an upstart young physician crumble as his obsession with these physical deformaties grows. We see his experiments take a turn for the morbid, and dangerous. Even deadly. And then we see him dissolve into pure madness, trying to create modern-day examples of these "extinct," mythological creatures.

And where the biography is creepy and weird, the Codex of Extinct Animalia is...well, it's beautiful. And also creepy and weird. It is illustrated with Black's (Hudspeth's) drawings. I'm not a doctor, so I don't know that they're all anatomically correct (i.e. would the muscles really look like that if they were trying to hold on the chimera's heavy third head?), but honestly, I don't care. They're beautiful, in a freakishly morbid way. Stunning in their detail. Impressive in their sheer volume and raw imagination. 

I don't know what else to say about The Resurrectionist other than this: you really need to see it to believe it. To get it.  

And it's so drippingly gorgeous, oozingly's 100% worth getting.

For more on The Resurrectionist, be sure to check out the book trailer, and also this conversation with E. B. Hudspeth, talking about the creation of this incredible story.

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