Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead: Where Did It All Start? With a Great Quail and a Fake Medical Guide


With features on the new Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (pictured above) being posted later this week, it seemed like a good time to get in the old time machine and remember how this all started…with a Great Quail, Mad Quail Disease…and a fake disease guide titled The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases.


The article “How I Became Dr. Lambshead’s Medical Assistant”, published in 2005 at SF Site, goes into the origins of the fake disease disease guide and how what was meant to be a chapbook blossomed into a unique fiction anthology first published by Night Shade Books and then picked up by Bantam Books (Juliet Ulman, editor). Since the article came out, the anthology has been reprinted in the UK, Greece, and Portugal, with more editions in the works. The original edition was a finalist for the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award, among others. It’s a great example of when something quirky goes viral. Not to mention the ways in which Dr. Lambshead took on a life of his own—something carried over to the new book, as we shall see later in the week.


Generally speaking, this was a Jorge Luis Borges-influenced anthology that took as its main conceit the idea of repurposing nonfictional forms for fiction purposes. You can find a strain of this impulse running throughout the history of books—even including some of Poe’s puckish hoaxes—and in the way the line is blurred between the real and the not-real you begin to discover where readers draw the line in receiving high doses of the imagination. We even had an obituary written and sent it around on the book’s publication, indicating that possibly the new edition had been the death of him…

first edition
(Really? Or did John Coulthart just make it up.)

Most love this sort of thing, and understand it as a highly evolved form of narrative and fictional play—that such framing can enhance a reading experience and doesn’t detract from the core fiction. Publishers Weekly wrote, “[The editors] have here created perhaps the oddest theme anthology in the history of fantasy literature. The heavily illustrated volume does exactly what its title implies, collecting short, fictional medical descriptions of such diseases as Ballistic Organ Syndrome, Delusions of Universal Grandeur and Razornail Bone Rot….an amazing book”—among over 120 reviews. Others are offended that such books even exist—how dare you mess with reality that way? (For example, the editor of one yearly best-of books list took the fake disease guide off that list, over the recommendations of best-of contributors, claiming it wasn’t really fiction.)

title spread
(John Coulthart’s original title page)

In the case of the fake disease guide, adopted with relish by medical personnel all over the globe—and still found in the medical guide sections of libraries—the book also blended “genre” and “mainstream” writers and took some writers out of their comfort zone in having to work with more metafictional forms. Readings, as the SF Site article mentions, were really hilarious events for a variety of reasons. (You can also take a look at some of John Coulthart’s awesome design for the original edition here and here.)

There were a lot of side benefits—very important ones—to working on this anthology. First, we became accustomed to working with large numbers of contributors and lots of “moving parts”. Second, it was the first time we had worked with the amazing John Coulthart, who has gone on to be such an integral part of the books we produce. Without Coulthart, many of our projects would have been much less dynamic or visually appealing. We also discovered a lot of great writers through the process of creating the anthology.

(Greek edition, posing with some awesome Angela Carter!)

Now, why put together a follow-up anthology? Good question, and one you’ll get an answer to if you return to this blog on Thursday. But for now, I’ll say it wasn’t a decision we took lightly. After the success of the fake disease guide, I got offers to edit fake movie guides, fake book guides, and even a second fake disease guide. None of that really appealed, and it wasn’t until Ann and I took a hike in 2009 that we finally hit upon a really great idea…

“Mentioned in whispers for decades; burned in Manchuria; worshipped in Peru; the only book to be listed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum twice, for emphasis; available again at last, in this definitive edition. Welcome to the Lambshead Guide. Disease-mongers, shudder.” — Dr. China Miéville

(More Coulthart magic…)

2 comments on “Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead: Where Did It All Start? With a Great Quail and a Fake Medical Guide

  1. Got my copies in the mail today. The book is BRILLIANT. The artwork really takes it to the next level, and every single story I have read so far has been a revelation. It’s even better than I had hoped, and it’s a book I’ll be reading over and over again.

    The only question more important than “Where did it all start?” is “What will the Lambshead books explore next?” I’m already itching for another Lambshead book.

    Personally, I’d like to see a collection of his personal recipes, or lists of items from his home pantry. Perhaps travel notes that showcase what strange and uncommon dishes he ate around the world during the course of his professional career?

    May I humbly suggest the next installment of the Thackery T. Lambshead series? Perhaps “The Thackery T. Lambshead Inventory of Peerless Comestibles”?

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