First, let me recommend that you not read all these books in the span of a few days, like I did. Even for those of us who like to be disturbed and disgusted, it is possible to overdose on a visually assaulting collection of works like these.
Below, you will find 11 gorgeously grotesque and graphic books in three categories: medical images, illustrated horror, and displays of the dead.
Wow, this book is disturbing. Not after one or two photos of dissected cadavers, but after a few hundred pages, the breath starts to catch. As I read, I had to continually negotiate the taboo of desecrating a human body with the value in medical study. The photos intend to capture the important work of medical students around the turn of the 20 century, with their cadavers serving as illustrative props. In most images, the cadavers appear shredded as layers of flesh are cut away. Stripped of 90 percent of their “person-ness,” images of medical school skeletons are far less jarring.
Gruesome Highlight: Images of human dissection made into holiday cards and postcards. One 1920 example features an illustration of an angel and Easter lily alongside a photo of a student taking a hacksaw to a cadaver. It says, “Easter Greetings to my Friend.”
For all its tumors, boils and syphilis, this book is so aesthetically gratifying. Heavy pages, appealing typography, muted and haunting colors. In addition to illustration, the book also contains a good dose of history of medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Gruesome Highlight: A whole chapter on skin diseases. I think it’s easier to view internal maladies as abstract, but surface disfigurements are too personal. That said, skin diseases make up the first chapter, and each subsequent chapter is even more disturbing.
Paging through this book, I start to feel like I’m intruding on the privacy of these dozens of ill people (long dead now). I remind myself these photographs were taken for educational — not exploitative — purposes. Still, that doesn’t justify my consumption of them as a form of grotesque amusement. The subjects’ suffering is heartrending.
Gruesome Highlight: Photographs of soldiers injured in the Civil War. Battlefield medicine during the Civil War was possibly the most difficult and traumatic in history. The late 19th century represents a valley of medical advancement where traumatic injuries could be treated, but surgical techniques and palliative care were still fairly primitive. That any soldier endured field amputations and survived to heal and be photographed is astonishing.
If you are not yet obsessed with Edward Gorey, stop everything, and go get obsessed. How can one mind create stories and images that are at once dark, frightening, adorable, and clever? His illustrations are beautiful and peculiar, but his writing is not to be discounted! Amphigorey collects 15 of his stories, including his popular works, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” “The Doubtful Guest,” and “The Curious Sofa.”
Eerie Highlight: “The Hapless Child” — a story so tragic it could have been inspired by a Russian novel. It is just as powerful read aloud as it is studied silently along with its illustrations.
Not to be read in daylight. Read late at night when you are alone and the house is just a little too quiet. The five stories in this graphic novel are old-fashioned spooky stories that leave the real horror to bloom in your imagination. In each story the haunted is afflicted by madness — and fails to escape peril.
Eerie Highlight: One page-turn in “The Nesting Place” made me gasp, but I won’t spoil it with a description. Instead I’ll share this verse from “A Lady’s Hands are Cold”: “I married my love in the springtime, but by summer he’d locked me away. He’d murdered me dead by the autumn, & by winter I was naught but decay.”
This is a graphic novel sketching out existential dread and fear of otherness. It also hints at obsessive compulsion, with ideas like “skin holds things in” and patterns keep things neat. While it is neither horror nor grotesque, the tone is dark and desperate. Reading it gave me a stomach ache!
Eerie Highlight: The panel that made me think “Oh my God…”: a totally random scatterplot from which no trend or order could be inferred. Maybe you have to be a statistician to be horrified by that.
Another graphic novel, this time containing fairy tale elements from Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Gulliver’s Travels, cloaked in a heavy layer of WTF. Kindness is mocked, selfishness rewarded. The depraved feast on death while the civilized go hungry.
Eerie Highlight: A tiny blue-haired ballerina pretends to be a baby bird and gets her throat gouged out. Yep, that’s what happened.
This book features the work of more than 20 pop surrealist artists. Images can be described as bleak and ugly, featuring a cast of grotesque creatures, exaggerated pop culture characters, pinups, and bizarrely proportioned children. The use of mixed media, text, and absurd settings are both disconcerting and beguiling.
Eerie Highlight: “Lincoln’s Head”: An image of a small girl in bed with the giant severed head of Abraham Lincoln. Thank you, pop surrealism icon Mark Ryden.
After the discovery of the Roman catacombs in the 16th century, skeletons and bones believed to belong to saints were parceled out to German churches. The remains have been dressed, bejeweled, given wax masks and gemstone eyes. Adorning the remains of Catholic saints is believed to draw their favor.
One might wonder why a saint would still care about the superficial adornment of her decaying body once she’s moved on to eternal paradise. Many of the relics are not even identifiable as belonging to a particular saint and are given generic names such as Deodatus or Hyacinthus — or otherwise labeled “Incognito.”
Bizarre Highlight: In Waldsasseu, Germany, the jeweled skeletal hand of Saint Deodatus holds a golden chalice of his own dried blood.
Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter spent his life preserving small animals and creating elaborate anthropomorphic scenes populated by his eerie woodland creatures. This book focuses not on Potter’s “freaks” — creatures with extra limbs or faces — but on his taxidermy compositions inspired by images in children’s books.
Bizarre Highlight: Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party (and other examples of preserved kittens) are startling because we have become so used to seeing kittens in their cutest state: alive and animate on YouTube or quipping in memes.
BONUS: Cabinets of Wonder
Cabinets of Wonder is a bit of all three categories — medical specimen, art, and displays of the deceased. The book is hefty and gorgeous, full of inspiration for the collector of oddities.