Sometimes I’ll sort my Goodreads to-be-read list by oldest first (whatever I added longest ago), and order the first five books from my library, just to clear them off my never-ending list. Oftentimes these books have been on there for a while, which leads to me borrowing books that I added ages ago (November 2013 in this case), with no recollection of how I even originally heard about them. This week, my random borrowing led to one of the weirdest books I’ve read — The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black. I really wish I could remember how I even heard of this crazy thing…
“I hear them marvel at my work–my indignant science. I hear them call out in fear of what they see. And there are some gentlemen who doubt what I will tell them. They call me a liar and a charlatan or a quack. But in time the methods of science that I now employ to convince people will surely set them free–alas, this I cannot explain to the angry fools.”
The first third of this novel is a biography of the fictional Spencer Black — a (probably mad) (okay, definitely mad) scientist practicing “medicine” in the United States in the late 1800s. He starts out by doing experimental surgery to correct various birth defects in his patients. Eventually, he becomes obsessed with the idea that these deformities are actually evolutionary changes trying to manifest themselves. He links this into his theory that mythical creatures like the harpy, or the chimera, actually existed at one time as mutations of the people and animals we see now. We learn about his descent into madness, which involves a lot of sewing things to other things. The rest of the book consists of his incredibly detailed anatomical drawings of these mythical (or are they??) creatures’ skeletons, muscles, and so on. Really very impressive stuff.
The book itself is as cuckoo as the fictional doctor, but intriguing nonetheless. I really wish the biography had been longer — Hudspeth writes it like he collected the scarce information through newspaper clippings, research and the occasional letter. If he’d “discovered” a real journal or something by Dr. Black, it would have been even more impressive. Still, the detail of the drawings is worth a look on its own.