Monday, 16 September 2013

The Resurrectionist by E.B. Hudspeth, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Resurrectionist by E.B. Hudspeth (Quirk Books, hb, 192pp; review copy supplied) is a very curious book. Billing itself as “The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black”, it combines sixty pages of stories about his life with over a hundred pages of anatomical illustrations of eleven mythical creatures: sphinx, siren, satyr, minotaur, elephant-headed boy, chimera, cerberus, pegasus, Chinese dragon, centaur and harpy. Before reading the book, one assumes that these will be specimens of cryptids Dr Spencer Black had discovered, acquired and dissected, but one finds out, unexpectedly, that he was in the business of creating the creatures himself, that these are all guesses, deliberate fakes, used to illustrate his theories and show what might have been had the evolutionary process been a little more forgiving. We hear how he began by stitching parts of human and animal corpses together, before trying his hand, with some ghastly success, at operating upon living beings, first animals, and then humans, including his own son. As one might guess, this does great harm to his family life and medical reputation.

This is an intriguing project, but while one appreciates the careful work and thought that went into it, it isn’t, unfortunately, very interesting to read. A quote on the back cover that mentions Jorge Luis Borges can be accounted for only by his having written about fictional works of reference; this isn’t a book that plays intellectual games. It’s awfully dry, the fiction unpredictable only in so far as it’s about a mad scientist with a passion for fashioning freaks, rather than the discovery of fantastical creatures (though Black claims that at least some specimens are real). The fiction does the job it is asked to do, putting the diagrams in context, but it is very much by-the-numbers and has little to say that you wouldn’t have guessed at from a flick through the book. It’s like the functional, got-a-job-to-do text used in art books like The Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania or The Diary of a Spaceperson to thread disparate images together, and one wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the two elements of the book were at one point intended to be intertwined.

But although I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a good story, it would make a quirky (double meaning intended) present. The cleverness here is in the detail of the drawings, not the writing that introduces them, though for most people seven pages of skeletal and muscular diagrams of a three-headed dog will be six pages too many. One group of people might really appreciate this book: fantasy writers. Because when your centaur gets an arrow in the butt you can look him up in this book and then cleverly discuss the damage to his semimembranosus. A fully-fledged book of this kind, ditching the fictional trappings, but covering a more expansive range of creatures, might well see Hudspeth as ubiquitous on fantasy writers’ shelves as Oxford or Fowler. As it is, it’s an unusual reference book to which few people will ever need to refer.


  1. Don't know the context of course, but the Borges reference could have been made with this in mind:-

    First book I ever read by JLB, over forty years ago when I found it in the school library. I remember it as playful, inventive.

  2. That makes sense! I haven't read that one.