Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Writers: Kelly Barnhill, Holly Black, Greg Broadmore, S.J. Chambers, Stepan Chapman, Ted Chiang, Michael Cisco, Gio Clairvail, Rikki Ducornet, Amal El-Mohtar, Brian Evenson, Minister Faust, Jeffrey Ford, Lev Grossman, Will Hindmarch, N.K. Jemisin, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Mur Lafferty, Jay Lake, China Miéville, Mike Mignola, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Reza Negarestani, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, James A. Owen, Helen Oyeyemi, J.K. Potter, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia, Jan Svankmajer, Rachel Swirsky, Carrie Vaughn, Jake von Slatt, Tad Williams, Charles Yu
Artists: Aeron Alfrey, Kristen Alvanson, Greg Broadmore, John Coulthart, Scott Eagle, Vladimir Gvozdariki, Yishan Li, Mike Mignola, Garth Nix, Eric Orchard, James A. Owen, Ron Pippin, J.K. Potter, Eric Schaller, Ivica Stevanovic, Jan Svankmajer, Sam Van Olffen, Myrtle von Damitz III, Jake von Slatt
Harper Voyager, 2011
I have been, in a way, aware of Thackery T. Lambshead for years and years. It’s the sort of name that sticks to the mind. But until recently I remained horribly ignorant of his achievements and especially his collection. Me, who defines himself and his purpose in life by collecting stuff. (Just ask my partner.)
However, as far as collecting goes, doctor Lambshead defines a category all of his own. The very top category. There are several museums which pale in comparison or perhaps it would be truer to say that there are only a few museums whose collections exceed that of doctor Lambshead’s. But even them only in number. In quality, none come close, and even those that almost do are likely to have some items either donated by or loaned to by doctor Lambshead. He had so many things that according to himself he spent a good part of his life just getting rid of things.
All of this became apparent to me when I read a book titled Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. As the good doctor is no longer with us, having passed away in 2003 and having lived just a tad over a century, it befell on scholars, researchers, artists and storysmiths to convey to us a glimpse at the grandness that was the Cabinet. Many people who either knew doctor Lambshead personally or were in some way influenced by his life came together under the editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and made this book possible.
After reading the book and having had my curiosity more than sparked I immediately embarked on a journey of discovery. I wanted to know more about this man as a person, more about his vast collection of various oddities from all over the world and also of his professional life as a practicing medical wonder man. Pretty much the first thing I learned of was a book written by him, Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. There he lists all sorts of rare and unlikely diseases that he has come across over his years. Published annually for decades it has become a legend among medical libraries across the world. Imagine then my disappointment when I learned that the University of Turku did not have one.
The library database did list it but it was not on the shelves. When I asked a librarian working there about it she shrugged and said it had perhaps been stolen. But she seemed a little apprehensive. When I questioned her further she referred me to a clerk in the dean’s office and walked briskly away. I had already been content that I just had rotten luck but her behaviour suggested some form of foul play and I decided to follow the tip she had given.
At first the dean’s office denied any knowledge of the book but to prove the clerk wrong all I had to do was point at the library records. He then lowered his voice as if in confidence and told me that ten years ago there had been some departmental infighting and after that the book had vanished. All attempts to obtain a new copy since doctor Lambshead died had proven futile. He assumed there was some form of dispute over the publishing rights but could not say for sure. Before I even suggested it, he also told me that the copies from the Swedish university, Åbo Akademi, and the public library were missing. This is alarming. I implore any reader to check their local public or university libraries for this book.
Next I tried the best second hand bookshop in town, Uusi katakombi (The New Catacomb). The staff there is knowledgeable but at times a little terse, all being avid book collectors themselves. I have come to associate any bad mood with the owners’ mishaps in the antiquarian world, most likely missing a chance to obtain a rarity, so I don’t let it bother me. Every one of them seemed to be acutely aware of who Thackery T. Lambshead was but declined to discuss him any further, perhaps fearing they might divulge some priceless fact to their colleagues so far unknown to them. The world of book collecting is very cutthroaty and competitive as I well know, books being my own specialty as well.
However, at one point when an opportunity presented itself one of the owners approached me inconspicuously and murmured to me a brief and sad tale. Apparently the VanderMeer collection was not the first attempt to catalogue some of doctor Lambshead’s oddities. In the 60’s there had been a small press fanzine whose sole topic was doctor’s Cabinet. He had owned copies of all six issues but apparently there was a defect in the last one. The main topic had been a few 18th century inventions having to do with early attempts at fusion energy. Somehow it had made the paper self-combustable which in turn had destroyed most of earlier issues in existence as well. Likely also the publisher of the fanzine. I gathered that he was too embarrassed to let his colleagues know that he had lost such prized prints, but at the same time felt compelled to confess to someone who could understand the pain.
Having exhausted my local means of obtaining more reading material I turned to my friends. Most of them had not either even heard of the man or had disregarded him as some eccentric geezer not worth their time. However my co-worker seemed to recognize the name but said ”it was not yet the time to have this conversation”. When I asked what he meant all he talked about was ”artistic purity” and ”experimenting with influence”. I cannot know for certain what he meant but I know he has a band and they have practiced weekly for years now. Very few people have ever heard them play (I haven’t) and I know they plan never to release an album. Instead they will only play live gigs. Perhaps I will know what he meant whenever they perform for the first time publicly.
I have now come to a conclusion that it is way harder than I had thought to come by reliable information about doctor Lambshead. While alive he forbid museums to take photographs of the items he had loaned them and now an unfortunate fire has ravaged most of what was his gigantic collection. Only two books have been published about him, the Cabinet of Curiosities and the Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. There are some scientific journals that have to do with his research or researching him, but none were available at our local universities. The only place in Finland where one can attend Lambsheadian Studies is in the far north, University of Rovaniemi, and they only admit new students twice in a decade.
Of course there is the Internet, but it is easier to find rational discussion about the HAARP than conspiracy free sites about doctor Lambshead. Most seem to recycle topics brought up by Caitlín R. Kiernan and others who propose all kinds of theories, everyone more fantastic than the last. Kiernan believes that doctor’s wife Helen Aquilus faked her own death in the early 60’s and afterwards communicated with her husband in code, using for example sunspots and earthquakes to convey complex messages.
Most of it all is of course ludicrous tinfoil hat worthy nonsense, but I admit having taken part in some discussion threads and offering my own thoughts on some matters. I quickly learned my lessons.
For example, I find it hard to believe that doctor Lambshead would have left his collection so exposed to an accidental fire that most of it would be destroyed in hours. I offered two ideas. One is that there is actually a second underground chamber under the known one where the actually important items were placed. What was destroyed was just an overflow of more mundane artefacts from there. The second notion that I presented was that if the underground hall indeed contained the most priceless items of the collection, then those items were bound to have some very unique abilities. I find it possible that some possessed the ability to move in time and space on their own, thus escaping the inferno that swallowed their ilk. They may even have rescued some other items along the way. The only way to prove these theories is to both excavate the area around Lambshead’s house in Whimpering-on-the-Brink or locate an item presumed to have perished in the fire.
I was mocked so thoroughly even by other conspiracy theorists for my ideas that I do not think I will be taking part in any of their discussions in a good while. I advice others against it as well. The common discussion board about all things Lambsheadian is only a stinking cesspool filled with smallminded people. Best stick with the academics.
On the other hand, all of this only makes this book, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, that much more important and unique. It is the only unbiased look at doctor Lambshead and his collection. VanderMeers have also allowed many critics to voice their opinion about Thackery T. Lambshead and paint a vivid picture of a great humanitarian who also had his darker side, much like his Cabinet of Curiosities itself. If you want to know more about this remarkable man or the many artefacts that passed through his collection, this is definitely the book you need.