Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

In 2003 there was The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, in which a group of roughly fifty authors described bizarre, humorous, or downright disturbing illness the mainstream medical community refused to acknowledge. That anthology built on the work of the brilliant, eccentric, and entirely fictional Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead. Now it transpires that the doctor, who died in 2003 at the age of 103, was also a great collector of artifacts, inventions, found objects, and miscellaneous junk, and an even larger group of authors and artists has undertaken to describe the highlights of his collection. The result is a quirky blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that ranges from the comical to the creepy and back again.

After an introduction that elaborates the fiction of Dr. Lambshead, perhaps excessively so, the first of several themed sections is "Holy Devices and Infernal Duds: The Broadmore Exhibits," which features four unusual pieces of steampunk tech, from "The Electrical Neurheographiton," an unusual electroshock device invented by Nikola Tesla and described by Minister Faust, to "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," the ultimate in high-tech child-reading as explained by Ted Chiang. An excerpt from the former will suggest the particular note of weirdness much of the book strikes:
On January 12, 1943, Mr. Tesla was claimed to have died, although reports were conflicting. Many in Hollywood conjectured immediately that assassins in the pay of Big Cinema had done in the Serbian genius for selling them "exclusive" rights to a device whose blueprints contained, in tiny print, the phrase "I have omitted an explanation only for the motive unit which makes the entire machine work, in fear that the alchemists of celluloid might enthrall their nation and the world with ludicrous tales of vacuous lives." Others believed that Mr. Tesla's madness finally claimed him, infecting him with a Jovian "brain burst" that produced not Minerva but rather a puddle of bloodied grey matter upon Tesla's hotel room floor. Among the modern-day Fraternal Society of Teslic Scientific Investigators, there remains the belief that Tesla's "corpse" was an electrophantasmic discharge that had merged with organic materials in the hotel room to produce a permanent simulacrum of Tesla, while the "real" man departed from this world to explore the Universe, unhindered by the constraints of mortals.
Next up is "Honoring Lambshead: Stories Inspired by the Cabinet," six fictions based on artifacts from the cabinet. From Garth Nix's "Ambrose and the Ancient Spirits of East and West," about a British government operative with a gift for magic, to Holly Black's "Lot 8: Shadow of My Nephew by Wells, Charlotte," about the fate of a bear raised as a human, all the stories are good, but several lack the peculiar charm of the rest of the cabinet. Only "Relic" by Jeffrey Ford, with its lonely church and surreal parishioners, is as disarmingly funny, strange, and sad as the catalog entries. Tad Williams' "A Short History of Dunkelblau's Meistergarten" is also great, but it's not really a story, and but for a superficial similarity to Chiang's piece, it would be more at home among "The Broadmore Exhibits."

The next two sections are built around artists: four pieces illustrated by Mike Mignola ("The Mignola Exhibits") and two by China Miéville ("The Miéville Anomalies"). As it happens, one of the Mignola illustrations is for Miéville's "Pulvadmonitor: The Dust's Warning," one of the eerier entries. Although it's found, whimsically enough, in the attic of British Dental Association Museum, the Pulvadmonitor is no joke, but an unsettling reflection of the human search for meaning. Lev Grossman's "Sir Ranulph Wykeham Rackham, GBE, a.k.a. Roboticus the All-Knowing" is funnier, but its account of a British nobleman whose fame in artistic circles is enhanced rather than diminished by his prosthetic lower body and head has an edge of pessimistic melancholy that runs throughout the Cabinet of Curiosities, making it more than an extended steampunk gag. Another example: the second Miéville Anomaly, "The Gallows-horse," is at once a satire on contemporary philosophy and academic theory and a series of unpleasantly pessimistic variations on a memorable image.

The final section of exhibits is simply titled "Further Oddities," and lives up to that title. There's "The Thing in the Jar," in which Michael Cisco recounts Dr. Lambshead's seven attempts to explain the origins of "an anthropic creature" that might be an aborted minotaur, an Olmec carving come to life, or the offspring of a man and a volcano. And Caitlín R. Kiernan's "A Key to the Castleblakeney Key," an epistolary horror story about an impossible bog artifact and the terrible dreams it brings, suffused with its author's gift for balancing historical and archaeological erudition and portrayals of the fraying human mind. And Alan Moore's "Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction," which uses elements from his unfinished novel Jerusalem, envisioned as an enormous but unfinished building:
Making a considerable contribution to the already unsettling ambiance is the anomalous (and even dangerous) approach to architecture that is evident in the unfinished work: the lowest floor, responsible for bearing the immense load of the weightier passages and chambers overhead, seems to be built entirely of distressed red brick and grey slate roofing tiles with much of it already derelict or in a state of imminent collapse. Resting on this, the massive second tier would seem to be constructed mostly out of wood and has been brightly decorated with painted motifs that would appear to be more suited to a nursery or school environment, contrasted with the bleak and even brutal social realism that's suggested by the weathered brickwork and decrepit terraces immediately below.
Following these oddities are personal accounts of visits to the collection, dating from 1929, when N. K. Jemisin studies Dr. Lambshead's supply of kitchen implements to acquire the awesome power of "The Singular Taffy Puller," to 2003, when, as recounted to Gio Clairval, Dr. Lambshead's housekeeper sealed the collection's fate by trying against orders to clean "The Pea." That might seem an ideal conclusion for the book, but there's one more thing for those who just can't get enough of Lambshead's collection: "A Brief Catalog of Other Items," paragraph-long descriptions of such curiosities as the Bear Gun (it fires bears), the box of Reversed Commas, and St. Blaise's Toad (a miraculous relic).

With a contributor list featuring some of the biggest names in several varieties of imaginative fiction and art (in addition to those mentioned above, there's Aeron Alfrey, J. K. Potter, Michael Moorcock, Holly Black, Brian Evenson... I could go on), The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is a treasure trove of the weird. The playful metafictional conceit and some of the more tongue-in-cheek items may lead some readers to expect a wearyingly cutesy volume, but there's more than that going on here, and the total effect of the varied items is all the more powerful precisely because they don't adhere to one easily-described style. Beautifully designed and laid out, this is one curio that any reader of non-mimetic fiction should at least flip through, and many will want to own.

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