As children, we grow up with stories of mythical and folkloric creatures. Oftentimes, these monsters exist in fairytales: the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, or the tragic mermaid princess in The Little Mermaid, or the dragon that always seems to be getting into trouble for hoarding gold and/or stealing a princess and sticking her in a tower. Many more of us grow up with a list that goes beyond the standards of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen – things like the kapre and tikbalang, which populate the stories told to Filipino children (if they’re lucky enough to have a grandparent, parent, and/or nanny who is familiar with these stories and is willing to tell them). When we go to school, we learn about other creatures: the monsters of ancient Greek myth, in particular, like the hydra and the pegasus. Of course, there are television shows and movies and video games, all with their own takes and variations on the monsters children read about – and this fosters a lifelong fascination in them, whether we are aware of it or not.
Explaining why people are fascinated with mythical creatures would take an entire book (likely more), but for my part, it’s mostly to do with the fact that they could have been alive at all – a holdover, I suppose, from when I was a child and believed they were actually real. I know better, of course, and after reading quite a bit of science and being friends with scientists I know how impossible a lot of these creatures are, but that still doesn’t make them any less fascinating. I still joke that my ideal pet would be a dragon, after all – the velociraptor is second-best, and only because it’s entirely possible for scientists to eventually come up with one (I suggest taking a look at Jack Horner’s How to Build a Dinosaur for how this might happen).
Of course, there are now a lot of books out there that play with the idea of these creatures being alive in the first place, existing as if they were real all along, except invisible or hidden from most human eyes (like the creatures in the Harry Potter novels, which are deliberately kept hidden by the wizarding community from Muggles in order to protect the secrecy of the magical community). But there are not many books that play with the idea of creating these creatures and bringing them into a world where they did not exist in the first place. It plays with the question: if one could create such creatures, if one could make them real, what would it be like? What would it take to make them? And, more importantly, what are the consequences of doing such?
It is these questions that are explored in The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth. The title tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about this novel, which is split into two parts: the first is the biography of the aforementioned Dr. Spencer Black, and the second is the “lost work,” which consists of images a la 19th-century scientific illustrations of the experiments Black carries out throughout the course of the first half.
The very best part of this novel is, of course, the artwork. Since I am interested in both science and art, scientific illustration draws me in like nothing else. Indeed, it was seeing samples of Hudspeth’s artwork for the book that prompted me to acquire it in the first place. While I cannot attest to how scientifically accurate the illustrations are, I will say that they are exquisite to look at. Of course, those who aren’t comfortable with looking at bare bones and musculature may find the images discomfiting, but I, for my part, am ridiculously pleased that Hudspeth did not stop at just the skeletons. Nothing about scientific illustration, much less scientific illustration portraying the anatomy of a mythical creature, is easy, but it’s one thing to just show a skeleton, and another thing entirely to cover it in musculature in such a manner as to look somewhat-logical. The set of illustrations for the mermaid and the harpy are my favorites, partly because they are the most complete of the set, including not just the skeleton and musculature but also internal organs and “species variations,” and partly because they are probably the most elegant in their composition.
While I really like the artwork, and enjoy looking at it for the pleasure of looking, the same can’t quite be said of the biographical part of the book. The story of Dr. Spencer Black’s life begins with a great deal of promise, and follows a trajectory similar to the “mad scientist” types present in a lot of horror fiction, albeit hewing more closely to the model provided by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein than to later models. That Black hews closer to Frankenstein is a good thing: I am rather tired of the all-out crazy, completely amoral scientist types who unleash some horror upon the world “in the name of science.” That Black is driven by reasons other than just the pure pursuit of knowledge, and later comes to regret what he has done, is rather refreshing.
While the above is well and good, the novel still feels too thin: too little story for all the promise it has. The best horror writers are capable of leaving a lot of things to the reader’s imaginations, which is good because the most frightening things are those that the mind conjures up on its own. However, there is also such a thing as providing too little information – and this is where the first half of the novel kind of sinks. A little more character development and plot would have gone a long way towards making this an intriguing novel – maybe not the kind to leave me sleepless, but certainly the kind to make me contemplate the depths of depravity a person is capable of descending to, if given the right reasons.
Overall, The Resurrectionist is not a bad read, but it isn’t a totally satisfactory one, either. The reader will certainly take pleasure in Hudspeth’s beautiful illustrations, but the same might not be the case for the fictional biography of his titular character. While it’s true that the story has massive amounts of potential, resonating as it does with Frankenstein, it does not quite get there because there is far too much left unsaid. Leaving certain gaps to be filled up by the readers’ imaginations is one thing; leaving too much unexplained is another thing entirely. Had the biography been expanded just a little bit more – not very much, maybe some five to ten pages more of character development would have sufficed – then this could have been a far more complete story. As it stands, I find myself trying to understand what is really going on in Dr. Black’s head as his life spins out of control, and thinking that perhaps, there are deeper reasons for the way events play out – though I never do find them, which is rather disappointing.