You only wish your day job was as exciting as that of London musician and illustrative artist Alex CF. In addition to being the vocals of Light Bearer, he is the caretaker of the Merrylin House, a museum that sounds as if it were out of the world of Harry Potter, or even H.P. Lovecraft, only a bit less believable. For over a century, the Merrylin House has boasted a collection of cryptids that would make the British Museum and the American Museum of Natural History froth with envy – over 5,000 species which he has helped to classify, creatures existing before the dawn of humanity, and creatures only known in legends, all acquired in Dr. Thomas Merrylin’s 160-year lifespan.
As you enter, you breathe the dust of ancient mummies and forgotten empires. Wander further, and at first you think the light is playing tricks, revealing countless skeletons in strange and grotesque shapes, yet all their labels tell the truth. Alex’s collection, among other attractions, boasts a taxidermied lycanthrope, dwarves, dryads, and elves, even an infant reptilian creature he named “Draco Alatus.” I recently had the chance to speak with Alex about how his day job as a museum curator has had such an impact on his work – giving him the ability to create such lifelike illustrations of creatures no one has ever seen.
So, being the current caretaker of the Merrylin House must be quite a privilege. How did you come into possession of this great collection?
I was contacted in 2007 to help collate Thomas Merrylin’s diaries. There are thousands of individual texts written throughout his life, and a great deal of information can be gleaned from them. I began to oversee more and more of the collection as we connected the individual specimens to specific species, and began to construct a sense of their biology, their natural history and Merrylin’s interest in them. Merrylin was enigmatic. It wasn’t just biological species that piqued his interest. His knowledge of theoretical physics, of quantum mechanics was anachronistic. He knew more than he should, considering when these diaries were being penned. How does a man spend the majority of his life, a life that appears to have lasted longer than anyone on this planet – obsessing over species and artifacts that cannot be verified, or backed up by evidence outside of the collection? It is my job to find that elusive reason.
What was your initial reaction to starting the cataloguing? Were you surprised by what you found?
I imagine most people would look at this collection and be in awe of it, or they might completely dismiss it, but my path to becoming the curator was a little more obscure. I met Ahmad Kassat, a gentleman whose interest in the collection predates its discovery, at an antiques fair in Winchester, England, haggling over the same item. We soon became friends and after I gained his trust, he recounted the rather unbelievable tale of the archive’s existence. He is a collector of antiquated books and manuscripts, some of which were left in his house for weeks before he read them. Amidst the pile was a book unknown to him – one of Merrylin’s diaries. Within this diary were reams and reams of mathematics, none of which Ahmad could understand. His friend Tony Flander however, could. Ahmad began reading the book, with full intention to call Tony later that day. The diary breaks into actual notes and entries detailing Merrylin’s movements, really erratic and jumbled explanations of locations, people, and most importantly dates. Somewhere within all of this is mention of CERN physicist Anthony Flander. A man and institution that did not exist at the time the diary was written. Ahmad rang Tony and asked him to verify the math, and offer an explanation. It turned out that Tony had flown in from Geneva, and was flying to Mexico the next day, to work for six months. When he saw the book, he apparently accepted its authenticity based on the math alone. His actual response was “If I dismiss this book, then I am dismissing the chance that my research is correct.” The book needed to land in the hands of someone who could comprehend the magnitude of its existence. Ahmad became a trustee of the collection. His role and Tony’s, in all of this goes much further than the mere mention of a man born in 1967 in a 140-year-old diary. Those who oversee the collection all have vested interest in its continued research. Their need for someone who would not only see the significance of these specimens, but share a passion in comprehending them was of the utmost importance. I guess he saw that in me.
What would you say is the most treasured item in your collection – the one that attracts the most patrons?
Everything is treasured, and for those who own pieces from the collection, I imagine they cherish each piece for different reasons. My personal favourites are always those which speak of something far more than a hunk of inanimate organic matter. Once you have seen one dead Lycanthrope, you’ve seen them all. The work of his peers and Merrylin himself helped to identify the key pathogens in the blood of symbiotic hominids like Homo Vampyrus. Merrylin grounded mythology in science. He took fairytales and gave them digestive systems, nerves and lungs, gave them a physicality.
Is there any part of the acquisitions that you’re particularly anxious to uncover? That you feel shouldn’t be touched?
There is one item, the crux of the entire collection. It’s called the Alabast. It is an item I am yet to find within the crates. It may not even be here. This is the item that Thomas’ father sought out to cure him of his heart disease. It is an ancient artifact which was eventually found in a Helventine Monestary of Tarabestant in North Africa. From what I can glean it not only holds the key to his father’s death and subsequent disappearance of his body. It also accounts for Merrylin’s longevity. It is described as being “shaped rather like a broken ram’s horn, yet clear, apparently filled with liquid, and emits sounds like that of a human voice.” To find this item would give an entirely new perspective to our work.
You mention something about Merrylin’s collection being poorly received on a tour to America in the 1800s because of people having an aversion to these creatures. Have you met with similar attitudes towards the collection today?
As it happens, yes. Our few forays into the public, in the form of exhibitions, have garnered disgust, some people leaving in anger, one man considered it “evil”. But on a whole, the collection provides people with a view of a world unseen, or ignored. My favorite reaction is always from children. I remember on one occasion an aunt and her nephews came to see the collection, spent over an hour discussing each and every piece. It was that awe that I wish to inspire in people. I am not sure Merrylin ever considered other people’s feelings on the matter. The exhibition tour in the 1800s appears to have been for entirely different reasons. In his diaries he speaks of “baiting certain individuals to come out of the wood work.” Merrylin was always looking for something. From this I gather he was seeking to gain attention from those who could help him in his quest.
What are your methods when identifying and cataloging a piece?
Most of the species are easily identifiable and if not, we have Merrylin’s diaries to turn to. They are broken down into groups – either those which are considered subspecies of known mammals. For instance, Homo Lupus and Homo Vampyrus are offshoots of Australopithecus. They share a common ancestor with us. It is believed that early humans encountered some symbiotic virus, which not only adapted the host to suit its own ends, but also produced an entirely new line of hominid. We have animal specimens that do not fit within any classification, and so this is where our geneticists will analyze samples and establish that which we cannot. You have to look at these things with a rational eye, or you are lost in the mythology. The superstition that surrounds the more culturally significant species is often completely false.
What would you say the greatest revelations have been in your research?
The revelations come so often it’s hard to not be consumed by it. My average day will find me engrossed in the trappings of forgotten scientists, research gathered from the furthest corners and darkest acres of the earth, discovering species we wished were just the product of fevered imagination. For every desiccated dragon cadaver, every murky glass jar, hiding tentacled spawn of some hideous unnamed nightmare, my real passion lies in what came after his pursuit of fringe zoology. Where did he go? Why the interest in causality, in the multiverse? How did he live so long? Our research is not focused on what the collection can offer the world. I imagine the trustees all feel very similar in this regards, they share Thomas Merrylin’s desire to know, for the sake of knowing. In that regard our work is entirely selfish. People will dismiss, and this collection is not for them. As I often say, if you drop it on your foot and it hurts, then it is real. We live in a world where seven billion humans believe in religious ideology that requires not an ounce of physical evidence or rational thought to believe. Trust me, I’ve dropped a few cryptids on my feet, and they do indeed hurt.
For more of Alex CF’s work, check out www.alexcf.com