While I was sick this weekend, I read Adam Nevill’s The House of Small Shadows, a super creepy horror novel set in the former residence of a long-dead, malevolent puppeteer and taxidermist—and Dan Kraus’ favorite recent book about haunted houses.
What a joy it was to read a novel of Victorian taxidermy! Ever since I first stepped foot in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, North America’s High Church of 200-year-old dead animals, I’ve been nursing a serious fascination with these not-quite-lifelike specimens. They’re eerie. They’re ghastly. And, if I’m being honest, I also find them whimsical and cute. The day I got to touch a bunch of them remains one of the best days of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, read Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, and seriously contemplated bidding on several squirrel mounts. I never managed to get to Cornwall before Walter Potter’s collection was sold off, but if I get my act together, I’ll be able to see it soon.
As Nevill’s novel underscores, Victorian taxidermy goes hand-in-hand with dioramas, books about which represent the other half of the titles pictured above. Like every native Chicagoan who spent her childhood at the Field Museum, I’ve got a special place in my heart for freakishly detailed miniatures, scientifically accurate and otherwise. (You can watch a documentary about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death on YouTube, but be forewarned: although John Waters’ narration is wonderful, most of it consists of scientists ranting about how much they hate CSI.)
I’ve included two books that, although not about dioramas or taxidermy, feel like a good fit. Anna Skladmann photographed the children of Russian oligarchs inside their insanely ornate homes; they’re miniature capitalist thugs living in fairy castles! And Taryn Simon’s work is preoccupied with documenting the minutiae of uncomfortable, sometimes horrible subjects, a measure that both puts them at a slight remove from awful reality and makes their implications more subtly affecting.
P.S. I’m not a total creep.
Titles pictured (clockwise from left):
Winter Stories, by Paolo Ventura
Little Adults, by Anna Skladmann
An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, by Taryn Simon
The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Wes Anderson
The Queen’s Dolls’ House, by Lucinda Lambton
Walter Potters’ Curious World of Taxidermy, by Pat Morris and Joanna Ebenstein