The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

I have a bad habit of selecting books based on their cover art, which consistently results in anger and disappointment. In spite of the proven futility of this method, I again fell into the trap when I purchased E.B Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist. In my defense, though, look at this cover – this is right up my alley; I really had no choice in the matter:
This novel had a lot of things going against it: I liked the cover art, it seemed to be a Gothic novel, and it apparently drew on classics such as Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau. These should all be good qualities, but have inevitably let me down in the past. Both mentioned books are personal favorites, so when I detect their influence in contemporary novels, my hackles go up and I prepare to defend their honor. Their honor, for once, did not need defended.
Hudspeth’s novel is essentially two separate entities: the first is a biography of the title character, Dr. Black, and the second is Black’s life’s work, The Codex of Extinct Animalia. Black, a celebrated doctor in 1870s Philadelphia, focusses on the study and repair of birth defects. As his passion evolves into obsession, he begins to hypothesize that humans would not be able to generate such “defects” if the body had not previously had some need for these alleged deformities. Taking it a step further, Black postulates that we are actually the evolutionary descendants of creatures that were previously assumed to be mythological. Black’s relentless pursuit of this theory leaves him shunned by the medical community. Determined to share his ideas and in need of work, Black assembles a cabinet of curiosities and begins traveling with a carnival. Scholarly papers and drawings, however, are not enough to convince the public, so Black turns to a more sinister means of bringing his ideas to life.
Black’s The Codex of Extinct Animalia depicts his findings. Written as encyclopedic entries and painstakingly illustrated, the codex reveals a general commentary and anatomical illustrations on creatures ranging from mermaids to minotaurs.
Hudspeth presents an innovative concept for a novel and executes it almost flawlessly. While he draws on the work of Shelley and Wells, he does so in a manner that builds onto their legacy instead of merely existing as cheap imitation. For instance, one of the most startling attributes of Frankenstein (and Moreau, to a degree) is the fact that the truly terrifying details are left unsaid. Readers do not know the precise circumstances surrounding the creature’s birth, or the secret behind Moreau’s vivisection techniques; we know that the truth has been deemed too much for us to handle as an audience. This enables the mind to run wild to the possibilities. The unknown is always more disturbing than what is merely set out in front of us. Hudspeth learned from these authors and applies the same cleverness to his own novel. Black works in solitude in his own laboratory of sorts. We see creations, but their inception and “birth” remain veiled in secrecy. We are cast as the audience at the carnival, seeing something distressing before us and yet not knowing if and how it could possibly be real.
After the completely enthralling biography, I was anticipating that the Codex would be the real driving force of the novel. Sadly, it’s underwhelming. It reads like a textbook, and although the illustrations are impressive, they are not the same frustrated, edgy drawings that accompany the biographical information. That is my only complaint. At a slim 192 pages, I devoured The Resurrectionist in one sitting and thought about it for days. I remain haunted by the exceptionally tragic image of Darwin’s Beagle…read the book and I guarantee you will be, too. I rarely lose myself in books anymore, and this is the first time I have since Defending Jacob. Hudspeth pays homage to the great Gothic writers while still crafting an innovative novel that completely stands on its own.

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