New Digital Collection; Magic, Monsters and Macabre.

When the opportunity arose to curate a collection for Manchester Digital Collections, I jumped at the chance to curate Magic, Monsters and Macabre, bringing together the more esoteric and peculiar items I’ve come across during my time at the Rylands.

Holtorp Box 9/ Folder 2/ Sheet 1 – Memento Mori

From as far back as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with horror, monsters and halloween. I remember excitedly visiting the local VHS (yes I remember that far) rental shop and standing in front of the wall of giant boxes, with melted faces, severed hands, witches and demons on their covers. Of course the constant harassment of my mother did one day pay off, and she returned from work with a copy of Nightmare on Elm Street 2. I vividly remember loading into the player, and getting about 10 minutes through before I turned the TV off and couldn’t watch any more. Cowering under the covers watching Hellraiser late on Channel 4 with the volume way down, up until that hideous, deathly scream that still gives me the willies when I watch it today. The macabre has influenced and inspired me throughout my life and my taste in art, music, cinema and books.

I’ve been a photographer at The Rylands now for going on 14 years now. The really special thing I find about the role is getting to work with items from across the entire library collections. My job has changed greatly since I first began on very specific projects, and now I have the opportunity to work with some of the most fascinating material from across the entire library. 

But of course having such vast amounts of material there’s going to be some special items that pique my interest more than others. The collections continue to fascinate me in the same way horror enthralled me from childhood, even going so far as having tattoos inspired by manuscripts in the library.

Tattoos inspire by Latin MS 8, the Beatus Super Apocalypsim

When the opportunity arose to curate a collection for Manchester Digital Collections, I jumped at the chance to curate Magic, Monsters and Macabre, bringing together the more esoteric and peculiar items I’ve come across during my time at the Rylands. 

The Library holds some 250,000 printed volumes, and well over a million manuscripts and archival items that covers the breadth of human culture and language. Scattered throughout these collections are items that stand out as being unusual, unexpected and mysterious…..

Italian MS 63 f2r, Ozario Gonzales


Italian MS 63 is a small, unassuming manuscript, from the 18th Century. It contains 54 images of what may be called ‘marvels’ or ‘monsters’. Other depictions range from people who appear to have a recognisable medical condition, such as Orazio Gonzales who famously suffered from Hypertrichosis, a condition that would lead to sufferers being dubbed ‘Wolf Man’. Other far more outlandish images include fantastic bodies merging human and animal characteristics, and monstrous animal births. 

Italian MS 63 f10r, A girl born in the countryside near Ascoli [Piceno] with the head of an elephant
German MS 63 f25r, A ‘human monster’ with two faces, each with a penis instead of a nose.


German MS 3, ‘Sammlung Alchymistischer Schriften’ a wonderfully illustrated 18th Century collection of philosophical and alchemical writings. The manuscript has some incredible hand drawn illustrations, with strange beasts, some quite bizarre looking scenes and alchemical symbology throughout.

German MS 3 f7r
German MS 3 f28r


The Genizah collection is where my journey at the Library first began. A genizah is basically is a storage area in a Jewish synagogue designated for the storage of worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics prior to proper cemetery burial. It’s a vast collection, and only a small amount of material from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Egypt. The material dates back through centuries and contains many fragments of mystical nature, including spells, incantations and amulets to ward off evil and offer protection.

Genizah Fragment A1252-1, a Scorpion Amulet


This photograph album of ‘doppelgangers and spectres’ dates from the early 1900’s. The prints show examples of Victorian photographic trickery, and are quite clever in their undertaking.  I imagine people at the time would have obviously been quite shocked and enthralled with this type of image as photography was still in its infancy. 

VPH15 page 23, a ghostly spectre frightening a victorian woman
VPH15 page 9, a victorian woman with an unusually large head.
VOB.19.1, Shrapnel & VOB 19.2, teeth clamp


As well as the many books and manuscripts, there are also lots of weird little items in the collections too. These two unassuming bits of metal could be over looked until you read the donation notes;

“Material relating to my father, who served with the West Yorkshire Regiment. He sustained shrapnel injuries and was hospitalised. Part of the shrapnel was removed (enclosed), but some was too near the brain and left. In time it shifted and affected his mental stability. He was eventually placed in a mental asylum in 1919, where he died in 1927. The clamped teeth were used on him while he was in hospital.”

I put this collection together as there wasn’t a resource that brought these incredible items together in one place. Most digital collections have a very specific academic interest, and with Magic, Monsters and Macabre, I hope to bring the collections to a new audience and inspire more people like I have been.

We are just scratching the surface of the bizarre and mysterious works that are held in the library, this collection will continue to grow, who knows what there is still left be unearthed with the library’s walls…..

Happy Halloween!💀🎃

Photographer for the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC) based in the John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.

1 comment on “New Digital Collection; Magic, Monsters and Macabre.

  1. Clive Norris

    fascinating. More of the same, please.

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