Normally, when a person reviews a book, they aren't actually reviewing "the book" but the ideas contained therein. And normally, such a semantic quibble would be absurd, but in the case of "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases" it holds some merit. Because not only does it contain a fascinating selection of the bizarre from a remarkably talented group of authors, but it compiles their writings in a visually stunning collection that beautifully mimics the style, and rather drolly the content, of a Victorian Era monograph.
The basic premise of the Guide is that it is the long running publication of the eponymous Dr. Lambshead, who specializes in bizarre diseases. Moreover, the esteemed Dr. Lambshead is 102 years old, and his guide focuses on diseases that are, shall we say, beyond the pale of modern medicine. From Bone Leprosy to Wife Blindness there isn't an eccentric or discredited disease uncovered by such medical luminaries as Jeff Vandermeer, Paul Di Fillipo, China Mieville and K. J. Bishop (to name a few).
The book begins with two introductions, one from Lambshead and one from the editors, both of which are hilarious. The book concludes with entries from past guides, as well as remembrances from Lambshead's associates, a history of the guide and biographies of each of the contributors (in doctor manifestation, of course). However, the obvious reason to read the Guide is the meat between these two pieces of bread: the diseases. Each author spends anywhere from two to four pages detailing the history, cause and treatment of their own particular disease.
It would be impossible to consider each contribution here, and would spoil the fun of the book for other readers, but there are a few highlights worth mentioning just to offer the flavor of the Guide. First up is Michael Barry's "Ballistic Organ Syndrome" which should be self-explanatory, and which nicely sets the tone for the rest of the Guide. China Mieville's "Buscard's Murrain" is the first (and best) of several literary, or word based, diseases; it's characterized by his dry wit and excellent use of language and tone. Michael Cisco's "Clear Rice Syndrome" has an almost Lovecraft-ian feel, and is one of several contributions that could easily be fleshed out into something longer. John Coulthart's "Printer's Evil" is cleverly placed within historical context and is superbly printed (more on this later). Finally, there is "Tian Shan-Gobi Assimilation" by Jeff Vandermeer; not only is it another disease that could easily turn into something bigger, but it echoes numerous themes in his Ambergris work (without explicitly tying back to them) and will thus be a particular treat for fans of his work. These are just a few of the many great contributions to the Guide, and my failure to mention others shouldn't be treated as an indictment, but rather as an acknowledgement of the consistently high standard of writing displayed throughout the guide.
As one can discern, the writing more than justifies the purchase price of the Guide, but what clinches it is the superb quality of the presentation. Liberal use is made of different fonts to denote different periods in the Guide's history, and occasionally (as in the case of the aforementioned "Printer's Evil") to lend a period effect to a given disease. However, the superb illustrations are what set the guide apart. First, each disease is provided with an illustration, in the style of an 18th century illustrated book or newspaper (or the Wall Street Journal today). Some are grotesque, some hilariously subtle, but they all nicely capture the disease in one snapshot. Secondly, there are photographs of "old" copies of the guide and various locations and personalities, all of which are beautifully presented such that they actually look like a sixty year old book or a team of doctors working to contain a vicious outbreak of venereal disease or what have you.
Finally, the editors brought a real sense of historical weight to the Guide by creating "characters" and texts that appear repeatedly throughout the Guide. Not only does this link together what would otherwise be largely unrelated vignettes, but it also deepens the satire by creating a comprehensive sense of realism around an entirely absurd creation.
Clever in its conception and execution, contributed to by an astonishingly talented pool of authors, and beautifully produced, "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases" is an absolute joy to read and a must have for anyone who appreciates books as works of art. Its mind-bending amalgam of genres and influences is all the more intriguing for their smooth integration into one truly original work; the Guide was an enormously ambitious project that the contributors, and especially the editors, pulled off in spades.