As an enthusiast of the odd and specific, I have always been charmed by the curiosity cabinet (both in idea and actual incarnation). A collection of items strange and wonderful, trailing murky histories like smoke, it incites dreamy examination and the desire to fabricate. Origins, uses, murderous acquisitions, and romantic mysteries all seem to wait somewhere inside each object or specimen, begging to be released.
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, a new anthology of “exhibits, oddities, images, and stories from top authors and artists” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, attempts to capture the spirit of the cabinet in book form. Drawing on a spectacular list of contributors, it reads like a collection of extremely well-written explanatory placards from the most magical, inexplicable, and often gruesome museum you could hope to stumble across. As the introduction explains, Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead died in 2003 at his house in Wimpering-on-the-Brook, England, leaving behind a cabinet of curiosities full of artifacts that prompted stories and anecdotes from the people who knew him. That these people happen to be some of the most well-respected authors and artists working in the genre of the fantastic today is a coincidence brilliantly engineered by the VanderMeers.
The book is divided into exhibits and groupings from the Lambshead collection, each accompanied by stories disguised as the description or history of a particular item. In “Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction,” Alan Moore documents a selection of oddities found on the site of an unfinished novel called Jerusalem, which is, for some reason, less a book and more an abandoned architectural project. Charles Yu offers notes on a mysterious and somehow heartbreaking record of catalogs and names in “The Book of Categories.” Lev Grossman shares the biography of “Sir Ranulph Wykeham-Rackham, GBE, a.k.a Roboticus the All-Knowing” who was grievously injured in World War I and survived only by grace of a full-body prosthetic.
There is a section of more traditionally shaped stories and these were, I have to admit, my favorites. Jeffrey Ford’s “Relic” follows the shifts in truth, faith, and devotion that concern the inhabitants of the remote Church of Saint Ifritia and its treasured relic, a miraculous severed foot. It’s pungent and wonderfully grating, rubbing you in just the wrong way so you are forced to look at it more closely instead of skimming through on quirk alone. “Lot 558: Shadow of My Nephew by Wells, Charlotte” is fairytale about a bear who was raised as a boy, and what happens when he grows up. Holly Black manages to make his story feel both familiar and off-balance, a sharp little piece that slices through the comforting padding of friendly siblings and talking animals.
The pieces tend toward the witty and grotesque, though some also manage romance or melancholy. And while it’s impossible to claim all of the pieces as favorites, every single one is obviously the work of a writer who wears their (very great) accomplishment lightly while running with the spirit of the collection. This is a book for reading at your leisure, or in odd moments. It’s for anyone who likes contraptions, false histories, cryptozoology, or Rube Goldberg machines. It’s for people who revel in the weirdness of dusty storerooms and neglected libraries, or for readers who are curious about what might happen when you ask some of the best writers working with a fantastical slant to write stories that could fit in the same room.
The book is liberally adorned with diagrams, collages, and illustrations. The roster of artists is impressive and includes such luminaries as Mike Mignola and Jan Svankmajer. The inclusion of so many disparate visual enhancements reminded me of the history textbooks I had as a kid and which I secretly loved, despite the conviction that drawings of Romans and all their accessories and photographs of broken pots were not terribly cool.