2019 was Jeff VanderMeer’s year. One of the originators of the New Weird fiction movement, his work has crossed over and gone mainstream. The novel Dead Astronauts has been ranked one of the top books to read in 2020, while his novel Annihilation was adapted into a feature film that, while it wasn’t commercially successful, has garnered impressive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. Although it was written in 2014, Annihilation’s environmental and psychological themes are particularly relevant now. In fact, a line from the book is featured right now as part of a mural at Miami International Airport.
I am a huge fan of his work, and was excited to go back a bit into his roots for my book review this issue. The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases is not a novel, nor exactly an anthology. In this book, VanderMeer and co-editor Mark Roberts have curated a guide to curious diseases as described by some of the best contemporary authors. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Cory Doctorow, and others, have contributed to create a guide to fictional diseases. Each disease, with the symptoms, origins, and treatment methods, becomes something like a short story.
Example diseases include:
Ebermarcelasolerrochi Giglic, described as “a thematically archaic but dynamically modern affliction that causes a man to rapidly lapse into the doleful condition of trying too hard to impress a woman he has never met.”
Poetic Lassitude, which eventually progresses to “the tertiary stage of Poetic Lassitude, [in which] the sufferer becomes completely useless as a human being, a drain on his friends’ and his family’s resources, and a cause of bankruptcy to his publishers. Unable to feed himself, he is at last only capable of dressing, arranging his hair, and perhaps applying a modicum of eye makeup.”
Inverted Drowning Syndrome, in which “both medical science and the exciting branch of literature that specializes in the last words of eminent men (please see my anthology Either That Wallpaper Goes Or I Do, available in all quality booksellers) profited when Inverted Drowning Syndrome struck down the English neurosurgeon Dr. Thorpe Hall.”
The diseases are bizarre, frequently dark, and often funny. Woven with references to people, places, books, and events that may or may not have occurred, the diseases, taken all together, create an alternate history of the world, an alternate physiology of the body, and a strange, indirect portrait of Lambshead himself as reflected in his writings and the reminiscences of other characters about him.
The book as a whole is a sort of collage or montage of places and people, a story told in scrapbook-style. It’s an approach VanderMeer would later use to incredible effect in his novel City of Saints and Madmen.
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases isn’t the kind of book you pick up and read all at once, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But for people who love speculative fiction, medical oddities, and offbeat anthologies, it’s an incredible experience.
Questions or comments about this review? Ideas for what I should read next? Contact me at email@example.com