Book Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore the internet, before television, before jets and superhighways shrank the world to a manageable size and science gave us the tools to understand it, men of substance and education created wunderkammer. These rooms showcased curiosities, genuine artifacts and forgeries, from around the world. Their creators did not distinguish between plant and animal, ancient artifact or modern painting, classical relic from down the road or clever device brought from half a world away. The beauty of the wunderkammer is in the juxtaposition of strangeness that drives the human mind to find patterns in an assemblage of the bizarre.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is an attempt to capture the same feeling in a book. At times tongue-in-cheek, the Cabinet of Curiosities brings together authors, styles, and illustrations, all arranged to keep the reader off-balance and wondering.

The book itself is a lovely artifact. I knew that I had to have it the moment I picked it up. Hardbound, without a dust cover, the Cabinet of Curiosities feels deceptively light for how much material it contains. It is filled with black and white illustrations. Most are fake etchings, but there are some photographs and some paintings. I’ve dragged my copy halfway across the country, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it.

The introduction to the Cabinet warns the reader not to try to read the book all in one sitting. Believing that I knew better, I ignored this warning, to my dismay. The Cabinet holds more things than it ought to, given its size. I now agree with the VanderMeers — readers should not expose themselves to all of the Cabinet’s weirdness at one time.

Readers who are familiar with Thackery T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases will already understand the underlying premise of the Cabinet. The book assumes that there was (or, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe, still is) a doctor, scholar, and collector named Thackery Lambshead who lived (or lives) in our world and interacted with various historical figures. The authors, too, make appearances in the book, both in the editorial notes and in a few of the stories.

The book is divided into themed sections. There is no reason not to skip around — the sections are only loosely related to one another, and often seem to describe very different Cabinets and Doctors Lambshead. Some sections deal with items in the Cabinet, their origins, histories, and uses (if known). Others describe visits by such luminaries as our own Mur Lafferty to Dr. Lambshead’s house and his Cabinet. China Mieville, Mike Mignola, and Greg Broadmore each curate their own sections. Other contributors include Michael Moorcock, Amal El Mohtar, N. K. Jemisin, and more.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is weird, and disturbing, and probably not most people’s idea of a good time. Those readers who enjoy a dose of old-timey macabre should pick this book up. Readers who really want to mess with their heads should read it all at once, the way I did. By the end, you may find something composed of incongruous parts and loose bits of prose lurking in a dusty corner of your brain. Try not to worry — after all, it was a very good book.