The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, Ed. Jeff Vandermeer & Mark Roberts

Bantam, 2005, 297 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38339-6

Humour is a subjective thing, and medical humour even more so. My encounters with the health care system have so far been mercifully brief, but I still find myself a hard sell when it comes to humour in a medical… vein. Pain, diseases, death: not funny!

So imagine the uphill battle when it comes to reading and appreciating The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. As the title suggests, it’s a book of weird medical conditions. What the title doesn’t tell you, however, is that it’s a humorous anthology of fake diseases imagined by a bunch of science-fiction and fantasy writers.

So don’t be surprised if you happen to read about a disease in which bones migrate outside the body (eventually leaving the invertebrate patient quivering like an old squid) or one where the sufferer’s organs slowly transforms themselves into fruits. Despite the hair-raising farther reaches of real medicine, the contributor to the Guide manage to invent an impressive number of even more extreme conditions.

Take, for instance, Steve Aylett’s “Download Syndrome”, in which people rely so much on electronic devices for memory that they become empty vessels. Or Brian Stableford’s “Ferrobacterial Accretion Syndrome”, describing how some individuals form metal sculptures within their bodies. (Not to be confused with Jeffrey Thomas’ “Internalized Tattooing Disease”.) Not to mention Jeff Topham’s “Logopetria”, a condition where patients’ words are, um, literally spat out. And who can forget Michael Bishop’s “Biblioartifexism”; the delusion that one has re-composed a classic work of literature?

Not all entries are so amusing. A number of them aim for horror rather than humour, and if the results can be effective (I’m unaccountably fond of Jeffrey Thomas’ “Extreme Exostosis”, for instance), many of the others simply fall flat. What may seem amusing to a writer may end up looking lame to readers, and so a fair chunk of Thackery lands with a gross thud. But as with any other anthology, you learn to remember the best and forget the rest.

Some of the book’s most effective moments come as it starts playing subtle tricks on the reader. Pay particular attention to the diseases flagged as “contagious”, as those often indicate a writer in the full grip of the condition he’s describing. I was completely charmed by Rhys Hughes’s “Ebercitas”, but then again who could resist the beauty, even unseen, of Eber M. Soler? (Example!) In a grimmer but no-less hilarious fashion, China Mieville’s “Wormword” does a lot of mileage out of a simple memetic concept. David Langford turn in one of the shortest entries with “Logrolling Ephesus”, but as Langford fans know, the man can do miracles in less than a thousand “words”.

Thackery also earns top marks for its sumptuous design, consciously modelled on Victorian-era medical textbooks and often implemented hand-in-hand with the content. John Coulthart’s “Paper Pox” and Brian Evenson’s “Worsley’s Supplement” visually demonstrate their afflictions (chilling and amusing readers in the process), whereas the last third of the book does wonders in re-creating snippets of the Guide‘s “previous editions.”

Maybe a third of the book is not dedicated to the actual description of fake diseases, and that part of the Guide isn’t as successful as the rest. The character of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead may not be as hilarious as the editors may think he is, and his adventures across the world during the twentieth century are sometimes more tedious than amusing. The “secret history” of the twentieth century as influenced by the Guide is a good concept, but the execution is hit-and-miss.

But, as I said, humour is subjective, let alone medical humour. The Guide has received lavish praise from critics and readers; who am I to spoil the fun? At the very least, I should acknowledge the considerable amount of effort that went in putting together the guide (the visual design alone is worth a peek in the bookstore), even if the ultimate impact is mixed.

Wait… perpetual hunger for better books, lack of satisfaction regarding most things, irresistible compulsion to chronicle inner disappointments on “the web”. What if I have a condition?

Is Dr. Lambshead taking submissions for a second edition?

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