Genre: Horror fiction, art.
I finished reading the book over the weekend, and I will say right away that this is one of the best books I have read this year. It will certainly go into the list of best books I compile at the end of the year. If you like dark fantasy, if you like horror in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells (think here The Island of Dr. Moreau), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, then this book is for you. I think this is a book not to be missed.
The book is really two books in one. First, you get the fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black. Dr. Black was the son of a resurrectionist (a grave robber who dug up corpses then either used them for medical research or sold them to medical schools and researchers) in the late 19th century. After the loss of his father, his brother and he were sent to live with an uncle. Eventually, he went to medical school, and he became a brilliant doctor as well as an excellent an anatomy illustrator. He researched birth defects and mutations, and his reputation grew as a surgeon for helping people with birth defects and other anomalies. The man was a hero and hailed as a genius healer. But then, the gradual descent into seeming madness comes. During his work, Dr. Black speculates and suggests that mythological creatures once existed. Not only that, but that said creatures were our evolutionary ancestors and could even be brought back to life. From Dr. Black's biography:
"Furthermore, Black speculated that perhaps the human being is not the best result of evolution; perhaps our ancestors shared traits with some ancient animals or, more accurately, ancient mythological animals" (31).
His quest to prove his theories drives him out of the mainstream medical community and into the world of carnivals and freaks. Then one day, he just vanishes.
His biography is built in large part from Dr. Black's journals and correspondence. This biography forms the first part of Hudspeth's work. The narrative details of Dr. Black's life and descent into obsession, and it does so in the grand tradition of Gothic horror. The story is riveting, mysterious, and tragic. In addition, we have to note that the biography contains early illustrations done by Dr. Black as well as press clippings and publicity posters. These all add to the authentic feel of the biography and enhance the narrative. It is a fine tale, but there is more.
The second part of Hudspeth's book is Dr. Black's magnum opus, his Codex Extinct Animalia. The book is "anatomical reference manual" of supposedly extinct animals. Just six copies were made of the book; Dr. Black withdrew the project right before he vanished without a trace. The only known existing copy of the book is held at the Philadelphia Museum of Medical Antiquities.
In the manual, Dr. Black provides commentary and insight on the creatures, then offers a series of anatomical illustrations. The art quality here is excellent. We are looking at a Gray's Anatomy for mythical creatures, and the plates are a pleasure to behold. I will note that the plates are not in color, but that does not take away from the good quality of art here. Fans of mythology and art as well as the readers who came for the story will enjoy looking through these illustrations. And while Dr. Black may have been a madman, his theories as presented in the Codex are fascinating to read. It makes for an excellent art book.
The two elements come together to create a great reading experience. I enjoyed this book very much. To be honest, this is the kind of book I would have loved as a young boy. I think "boys and girls and children of all ages" will enjoy the book. Hudspeth has created an excellent work of dark fantasy that evokes the best of Gothic horror. Once you pick it up, you will not want to put it down until the end. You may even want to peruse it again. Overall, I am glad I was able to immerse myself in the life and work of Dr. Spencer Black. This is a book I definitely recommend.
A note for librarians: I can say that libraries, especially public libraries, will want to pick this up for their patrons.
Here is a link to the book trailer for the book for those who wish to learn more. And here is the link again for the publisher's page for the book, where you can also see a preview of the book.
Note: The book is to be released on May 21, 2013. I received a copy of the book for review purposes from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided. There, I said it, so that should keep the FCC (a.k.a. The Man) happy.