HOW I BECAME ONE OF DR. LAMBSHEAD'S MEDICAL ASSISTANTS FOR SEVERAL YEARS
The Sordid Story Behind The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
By Jeff VanderMeer
When people ask me "Jeff, how did you come up with the crazy idea for a fake disease guide?" I always tell them two people are to blame: Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead and, perhaps more important, Alan Ruch, creator of The Modern Word Web site.
One day, the ever-irreverent Ruch included an e-mail P.S. that read "I think I have contracted Mad Quail Disease."
Mad Quail Disease. Suddenly, the image of a book of odd fictional diseases materialized in my brain.
"No," I told myself. "That's just too weird."
A week later, the image hadn't faded–it had, if anything, gained strength and legitimacy.
Over the next few years, that initial "joke" turned into a 320-page medical monstrosity with 57 contributors, and complete with footnotes, fake history, reminiscences, and over 70 illustrations.
How did it happen?
First, my coeditor, Mark Roberts, and I created a monster in the persona of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, an octogenarian physician who had spent his life traveling the globe in search of the most exotic diseases known to humankind.
Then, most unwisely, we gave him his own medical guide, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. The Guide had a long and glorious history well before we had any diseases to populate it with.
But perhaps the worst thing my coeditor, Mark Roberts, and I did was to send out the guidelines to about a dozen writers. Maybe we shouldn't have stressed the "fun" part of the project, because we received submissions from everyone–and not only that, but the writers involved suggested other writers to invite... and invite begat invite begat invite.
"It really was an organic type of thing, a sort of e-mail-spread meme," Mark recalled when I asked him about it.
Before we knew it, we had great work in hand from Michael Moorcock, Kage Baker, Neil Gaiman, Liz Williams, Rikki Ducornet, Brian Evenson, China Mieville, Alan Moore, and many others.
Clearly, our little book had become a Big Book. And not only had it become a Big Book, it had become a Real Medical Guide–in terms of the amount of work required to edit it.
For issues of medical authenticity we turned to Tallahassee, Florida, family physician Mark Shamis. For all of the rest–standardization of references in each of the 57 contributors' entries, several layers of copyediting, and much else–Mark and I did the work ourselves. Late at night, going through the text yet one more time, I began to lament that after the project was over, I'd have put in as much work as if I'd coedited a real medical guide but still not have the credentials to edit a real one!
The finishing touch was a great pseudo-Victorian design by John Coulthart, one of the world's best book designers, his work for Savoy legendary in the United Kingdom.
Looking over the beautiful finalized layout, with titles of diseases like Motile Snarcoma, Extreme Exostosis, and Bone Leprosy, both Mark and I thought, "Oh my god--this may be the weirdest anthology ever produced in the history of English literature!"
Was it all a form of career suicide? Was it the biggest folly since the French built a palace in the shape of a huge elephant?
Luckily, that has not turned out to be the case. The hardcover edition of the book received glowing notices from such diverse sources as Publishers Weekly, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and others, while being shortlisted for the Hugo Award and many other accolades.
We've even had medical interns tell us (shudder) that the Guide is filed in their medical libraries with the real medical guides. The reaction from the medical community has been great, with many parents buying the book for their sons or daughters in medical school, and sons and daughters buying it as a present for their father or mother who is a doctor or nurse. Doctors and other medical personnel deal with stress on a daily basis, and it's nice to be able to provide them with something that takes their mind off of their stressors.
Still, the success of the project, though, has been due to, as Mark puts it, "taking it seriously. Without our totally committing to the idea of the personage of Dr. Lambshead, the funny bits wouldn't be quite as funny." For every "funny" disease in the book, there's a serious one.
Sometimes people ask me why we did this anthology. The answer, really, is because it's imaginative and it involves an advance sense of play. Because we think it will delight readers, and make them think at the same time.
Besides, Dr. Lambshead made us do it.