If you like fictional science, Victorian fantasy, great art and a creeping sense of horror, then “The Resurrectionist” by E.B. Hudspeth is the book for you.
The book comes in two parts. The first is the fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black that takes your through Black’s early education and career as a surgeon, the development of his strange evolutionary theories, and the experiments he makes later.
So what is all this fake science? Through his early surgical work, Dr. Black comes to believe that birth defects and other abnormalities are caused by the human body trying to grow limbs that humans once had but no longer have, like wings, or a mermaid’s tail… and ergo mythical creatures were once real and also we should try to bring them back.
So armed with the obstinate belief of many a Victorian scientist with bad theories, he sets about trying to prove this in the worst possible way. First he cobbles together fakes a la the Feejee mermaid, but then he decides to take it a step further and experiment on living creatures. He starts with animals… but doesn’t stop there.
The thing I really enjoyed about this first part being presented as a biography are the questions and mysteries that arise, but due to the restraints of the genre and structure of the story, cannot be solved. He transplants wings onto a dog and then a young woman, and we are lead to believe that these wings work, but logically we also know that shouldn’t be possible, so then we wonder, maybe Dr. Black was onto something?
Additionally, when dealing with late Victorian evolutionary theory, especially when discussing disability and birth defects, you always, always run the risk of running into eugenics. To my pleasant surprise, Dr. Black is never affiliated with the eugenics movement, in fact, they denounce him and his work.
This is rather a double edge sword of an endorsement, however. Like, yay, he’s not involved with the eugenics movement, but the denouncement also serves as a moment of “the people doing really fucked up shit think the shit you’re doing is worse” and let’s not forget Dr. Black was experimenting on living human beings by the end.
Which brings me to my next point and major warning; there is a not insignificant amount of medical ableism in this book. Much of it is typical for the time period and field in which Dr. Black worked, but it’s still there and there were a small handful of things that I thought could have been done better from the perspective of the modern biographer of Dr. Black, but they weren’t enough to ruin the book for me.
Part two of the book is a “reproduction” of Dr. Black’s seminal work, “The Codex of Extinct Animalia,” where he details his “discoveries” of various mythical creatures, from mermaids to dragons to centaurs. Each section includes beautifully detailed anatomical drawings of each creature, just like what might have been found in a regular anatomical text book of the time, accompanied by blurbs written by Dr. Black and a short explanation by the biographer.
Ultimately, if you enjoy dark historical fantasy, science fiction and horror, such as Frankenstein, The Terror (tv show), or Dracula you might enjoy The Resurrectionist too.
You can watch the trailer for the book as well as find links to purchase here.