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Fun With Diseases

Neo-Victorian spoof a macabre joy

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Have you been feeling ill? Out of sorts? Have your internal organs begun erupting noisily from any of your orifices? Have jagged spurs of bone begun to sprout rapidly from your body, eventually reaching several feet in length? Do you fear you may be fatally infested with Mongolian Death Worms?No?

Despite your good physical health, you may be mentally aberrant enough to get a kick out of the macabrely entertaining Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. Purportedly a medical text, the Guide is a handy-dandy medical reference book cataloguing sundry little-known and incredibly bizarre illnesses, all collected and annually updated by Thackery Trajan Lambshead, a sort of Indiana Jones of the medical profession. According to the editors, the good Dr. Lambshead was born in 1900 and is still alive, well, and continuing his medical research from a "hermetically sealed" lab in Wimpering On the Brink, Durkham County, England.

The Lambshead Guide is, of course, a clever, complex, and even challenging fiction that only masquerades as medicine. At times gruesome but only rarely grim, this charming and fantastical compendium (co-edited by fantasy novelist Jeff Vandermeer and SF writer Mark Roberts) contains dozens of disease-descriptions, all of which are illustrated by John Coulthart, a British fantasy artist whom Tate Gallery Curator Simon Wilson once called "the perfect illustrator for Naked Lunch." Coulthart's drawings (a few of which are meant neither for children nor for the squeamish) add further dark charm to a well-designed, illustration-packed book with an amusing Victorian motif.

A look at the various authors of the assorted descriptions reveals a cross-section of the brightest lights in modern fantasy and weird fiction, including novelist Michael Moorcock, comics creator Alan Moore, dark-fantasy wunderkind China Mieville and recent Novello Festival speaker Neil Gaiman. This leads me to diagnose the Lambshead Guide as not only a strange and entertaining literary goof, but also as a fantasy anthology of sorts in which various talented wordsmiths play like so many mad scientists with the physicality of human existence, flirting with death and disease from safe distances.

They clearly had a grand old time while doing so. One author (very obviously on a gleeful roll) contributed no less than four descriptions, while another mocks medical jargon with hilarious strings of impressive nonsense ("slocotomize and displace the tabuclomen by a succession of deepening incisions").

If you've a taste for complex and eccentric fictions, the Lambshead Guide offers you the literary equivalent of a vaguely sinister yet strangely appetizing plate of petit-fours: Queer to the palate, oddly addictive, and made for occasional idle munching rather than a sit-down, straight-through meal.

The book is marbled throughout with not only overt strangeness and a ghoulish ingenuity in generating afflictions, but a welcome playfulness and humor. Readers will find here both descriptions of and cures for such ailments as Delusions of Universal Grandeur and Poetic Lassitude (unable to feed himself, [the victim] is at last only capable of dressing, arranging his hair, and applying a modicum of eye makeup), and learn that those suffering from Fruiting Body Syndrome may see their blood turn to a liquid "most resembling Summer Fruit-Juice (with bits)."

So, gentle readers, should the cleft of your buttocks suddenly begin to bountifully sprout clusters of grapes, or should one nostril dilate alarmingly as the other shrinks to the point of disappearance, or should you suddenly be overcome with an obsessive fantasy involving stuffing your pockets with small change and then climbing to the top of a telephone pole in a thunderstorm, never fear! Open your copy of the Lambshead Guide with trembling hands to find your cure, or, failing that, to learn the circumstances of your colorful and utterly freakish eventual demise.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases has a website at http://www.lambshead guide.com/.

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