The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I was very excited to receive this as a Christmas present.  I’m a big (albeit novice) fan of Jeff, and some tasty contributors appear on the front cover (including Mieville, Mignola, Moorcock, and Moore).

Overall, I very much enjoyed it, though, as will inevitably be the case when there are so many authors involved, some bits were more enjoyable than others.  Perhaps foolishly, I decided to read it from cover to cover as though it were a novel, or even a short story collection.  If you were to pick this up (or a similar volume, such as The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases), I would recommend that you read it alongside another book, dipping into it for perhaps just a single entry per reading session.  While all of the entries (which span just a couple of pages) are individually entertaining, I found that reading impetus was hard to maintain when there was no plot to pull me along.

The volume consists of many entries describing just a small fraction of the curiosities collected by Lambshead over his long and eventful life.  Most have some story recounted by the contributors, writing here in their capacity as anthropologists, historians, and other experts of diverse stripes, pertaining to the item’s provenance or an event in which it played a prominent part.  Some entries are presented as recounted tales heard from first hand sources, while others resemble rigorous academic investigations of the object itself.  Recalling Calvino (and other scholars of the pataphysical), these entries have all of the textual and paratextual accoutrements that one would expect from academic works: arguments between conflicting authorities, citations of influential works, footnotes, and, in one case, footnotes to the footnotes (a stylistic foible that I am always delighted to encounter).  In fact, the book itself possesses the aura of the academic textbook — a sombre cover, generous dimensions, and a dust-jacket-less hardcover.

I will mention just a couple of my favourite contributions here.  Michael Moorcock (OMG!) writes about a device that can shrink people to minuscule size (bonus geek palpitations came from an accompanying illustration by Mike Mignola).  Such an invention is hardly original, but the tale of its creation and intended use is another matter.  Its creator is an enthusiastic proselytiser who fears for the eternal souls of the trillions of microscopic oranisms (amoebae and so forth) that had heretofore escaped the attention of the church.  Bible in one hand and cross in the other he shrinks himself and goes forth to convert, ecstatic at the thought of all those he will bring to heaven’s gates. All does not go according to plan…

I had never heard of Jeffrey Ford before (though apparently he’s won silly quantities of prestigious prizes), but I am now on the look out for more of his work.  Here, he tells a tale concerning a holy relic — the dismembered foot of an apocryphal saint — and those who keep it and those who covet it.  It is interspersed with surreal sub-stories told by the characters, each of which contradicts all those that have gone before; it is a masterwork in unreliable narration.

There are lots of other great objects to discover and tales to hear within the pages of the book (including an eerily effective Tim Powers pastiche by Garth Nix).  As with all the best text books, it won’t just sit on my bookshelf making me look intelligent.  No, this book is destined to become a much loved and well thumbed resource for all of those times that my traditional go-to sources of information just don’t cut it. ( I just checked — outrageously, Wikipedia doesn’t even have a stub article on Dunkelblau’s Meistergarten.)

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