Jeff VanderMeer & Mark Roberts (editors), The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (Night Shade Books, 2003)

Sometimes we get something so good that I, the Editor of this publication, remember the Green Man motto — no, not the roots and branches of art and culture, but rather the other motto — greed is good. The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (yes, the title's worth repeating) was claimed by me the very minute that it came into the Green Man mailroom. Now understand that it takes something really, really impressive to get me to remember our secondary motto. Some of the books that have done so included the Soulwave hardcover editions of James Stoddard's Evenmere novels (The High House and The False House), the Biting Dog Press hardcover of Neil Gaiman's Snow Glass Apples, and Charles de Lint's Seven Wild Sisters. Now what do these books all have in common? All of these fine publications come from small presses, something that should not surprise you at all as some of the finest works come from these presses. And this publication certainly is keeping in that fine tradition.

So what is it? Well, the Web site for it claims that it was 'First "published" in 1915, as World War I raged through Europe, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases was for thirty years disseminated to doctors around the world in the form of loose-leaf carbon copies and photocopies. In 1945, London's Chatto & Windus published the first formal edition of the Guide. Twenty editions later, the Guide was discontinued, but continued to be updated by Dr. Lambshead and his colleagues and privately printed by friends. From Freetown to Istanbul, Timbuktu to Ulan Bator, it has proven its worth under less than ideal conditions. When a doctor lost in the Congo rainforests with only a few antibiotics and feral pigmy elephants for company cannot diagnose his odd spinal condition, he reaches for his handy copy of the Guide. When a family practice doctor cannot understand why a patient of 30 years with no history of mental defect suddenly begins to mimic inanimate objects, she turns to the reliable Lambshead Pocket Guide.' The site goes on to note that 'Now that the Lambshead Pocket Guide will once again be publicly published, Dr. Lambshead, well over one hundred years of age, has decided to pass then editorship of the Guide on to the capable if rather young, in the good doctor's opinion, hands of Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts. Although Dr. Lambshead will continue to monitor the influx of documentation regarding new diseases, he will leave the day-to-day editorial duties to VanderMeer and Roberts, both able doctors in their own right.'

Right, feral pigmy elephants. I've had nightmares about such things. They were sort of pink in color.... Wait a minute — this is fiction, isn't it? Sure is, as one can tell from the illustrious list of contributors: and the diseases they, errr, discovered such as: Kage Baker (MacCreech's Dementia), Nathan Ballingrud (The Malady of Ghostly Cities), Richard Calder (Black Orgasm), Neil Gaiman (Diseasemaker's Croup), Rhys Hughes (Twentieth Century Chronoshock), China Miéville (Buscard's Murrain), and Alan Moore (Fuseli's Disease). Right.... It all sounds like one not terribly entertaining joke, but it actually works as it's played just straight enough that I'm left thinking that some of this created diseases could be real. As The San Francisco Bay Guardian noted:

Imagine that several of your favorite SF-horror-fantasy authors, like Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, and Cory Doctorow, got together and pretended to be crazy turn-of-the-century doctors. Then imagine that they got to invent some diseases and create fake histories for them, packed with bizarre faux-medical language and morbidly imagined vectors of contagion. Still no amount of imagining could prepare you for the sheer, downright weirdness of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. This anthology is so demented and funny it must be read to be believed.

That reviewer is right — how they got all these writers to take part is a tale I want to know! Take the curious case of 'Doctor' Neil Gaiman's contribution to this exquisite madness, Diseasemaker's Croup, a disorder 'afflicting those who habitually and pathologically catalogue and construct diseases.' As with all the diseases herein, there are lots of the equally weird ailments cross-referenced to this one, i.e., Fruiting Body Syndrome (think a living Carmen Miranda who you can eat if you so wished) and Internalised Tattooing Disease (no, I won't describe this one). And though the tone of this Guide is, unlike The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy which revels in being post-modern, unabashedly retro with a Victorian steampunk feel to it; it has as many science fiction elements as it does fantasy elements.This can be shown in such diseases as Download Syndrome and Twentieth Century Chronoshock. (The illusion of this being a real medical guide evens extends to biographies which is how Dr. Neil Gaiman 'wrote about medical matters between 1850 and 1871' and stopped practising medicine because of a scandal so horrific it cannot be described. Sort of like feral pigmy elephants.)

Ok, I should mention the ever-so-good printing, the tastefully weird illustrations that had each disease description (the Fruiting Body Syndrome chapter has a very nice greenman!), and the very fine job of proofing — all of which make this a first rate publication. I recommend several readings a day as it's best appreciated in small doses, sort of like Monty Python sketches. Go buy it now — you can order the very reasonably priced regular hardcover edition from Amazon, or the slightly more costly limited Edition Hardcover (only 650 copies, signed by all contributors) directly from Night Shade Books.

Now where did those feral pigmy elephants get off to this time....

[Cat Eldridge] (who thinks he may suffer from Twentieth Century Chronoshock!)