REVIEW SUMMARY: This amalgamation of impressions and insights take as their subject the contents of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead’s nigh-legendary Cabinet of Curiosities. The reader is regaled with not just stories and analyses of the Curiosities, but also an array of enjoyable writings and artistries that often exceed their subject and provide percipient, ambrosial figurations to ponder.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A remarkably diverse, if sometimes too sympathetic, collection of meditations upon and analyses of Dr. Lambshead’s eccentric agglomeration of artifacts and anachronatural bibelots. Images and words are employed to unravel the strangeness and opacity to rationality that characterizes the collection and illuminate the
significance of this congregation of peculiarities.
PROS: A number of fine examples from the collection are presented, some fictively deciphered, others given a semblance of form and function through visual art and written description and critique. Some create pleasant sensations and mirthful beguilement in the viewer, while others stimulate profound cogitation. The volume is suffused with wonderment and diverse in its literary appointments and flourishes. The overall level of authorial quality is to be commended.
CONS: A few entries are too subtle and gentle in their contemplation of the Cabinet’s contents; excessive gadzookery arises in others. Once or twice the reader may be compelled to scratch their head in perplexity over the intended point of an explanation or narrative interpretation.
BOTTOM LINE: An uberous approach to a complex topic, which is no less than all of the notions and effects that shape us through our relationships with objects.
This is a rare and bold compendium of critical dissections and narrativizations about a unique, eccentric individual who has had an important, if sometimes cryptic, impact on the contemporary era. Rather than producing a mere catalog, or a sheaf of dry scholarly discourses, the editors have chosen to give art a shot at understanding the infamous Cabinet of Curiosities and its contents. This anthology strives to both honor and dissect the figure of Dr. Lambshead and some of this most celebrated and bewildering possessions through fiction, visual arts, and by discussion of said items, creating a complex tapestry rather than some attempt at rationalizing, and thus normalizing, the Cabinet and its creator. Make no mistake: this is not just a book about a well-known oddfellow who collected quasi-mystical geegaws and fascinating historical artifacts: it is also about his Curiosities’ effects, about the lives and assumptions he touched and altered, and how striving to comprehend his life and the things he cultivated can be a lens for seeing the world more sharply and more weirdly.
The book begins with a framing essay by the editors that contextualizes the man and his mysteries, and also sets the tone for this collection. We become acquainted with tantalizing facets of Lambshead’s life, while also being told, a bit more subtly, that this will be a compendium not just of odd objects, but odd texts. This becomes clearer as the reader experiences the works contained within, which are organized into sections but have little progression in their order. Each section covers not an area of Lambshead’s life or collection so much as a certain approach to them. The two sections specifically about exhibits have the seeming of catalog entries but are much more, while the stories and reminiscences gathered in other sections endeavor to distill and exemplify the Lambsheadean spirit. Still other sections contain depictions and reflections that are, as the headings suggest, anomalies about anomalies.
Lambhead’s aeipathy for his curiosities and his stringent terms for loaning them constitute a challenge for the artists, and many of them rise to it. I was most wary of the section of fictions, “Honoring Doctor Lambshead: Stories Inspired by the Cabinet,” but it was here that I found one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching entries in the book, Jeffrey Ford’s “Relic” (with evocative illustration by Ivica Stevanovic) which tells of the background of the Foot of Saint Ifritia. Not only is its tone and cadence perfectly suited to its point, but the characters take on a depth of personality and soulfulness that is rare to find in any fiction. Its wonderfulness is enhanced, not diminished, by its sadness, and accomplishes the goal of giving us a glimpse into the social power of the object itself.
The other fictions in this section are for the most part quite good: Naomi Novik’s “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” and Holly Black’s “Lot 558: Shadow of my Nephew by Wells, Charlotte” both illuminate and humanize their object-subjects and their tragic and sublime effects. Tad Williams’ “A History of Dunkleblau’s Meistergarten” is also fascinating and effective, although a bit less resonant in its portrayal of the people influenced by this perplexing device. Garth Nix’s offering is more of an adventure story, enjoyable to read but not as powerful as these other tales. Carrie Vaughn’s “Threads” strives for that high level of discernment but falls a bit short, again I think because the presentation of the connection between the Curiosities and the lives of the people who encounter them is less strong in the telling of the tale.
The non-fictional entries also seek to uncover the elemental aspect of human-oddity conjunction. The diversity of approaches taken to achieve that are frequently audacious, and often accomplish their objective in astounding ways. The two entries describing “The Miéville Oddities” take different approaches to the cryptic illustrations provided by Meister Miéville, yet both capture what unsettles as well as what is profound about each. Helen Oyeyemi and Reza Negaristani structure their presentations to create not just an accumulation of information or a process of unveiling in the reader’s mind, but pass on the impossibility of their subjects and seed the imagination to produce strange growths of vision. Each is unnerving, but rewarding and provocative in unusual ways.
This is true throughout the collection; in “Further Oddities” there are four exceptional, intellect-bending pieces that demonstrate the promise of laboring to conceptualize and comprehend the Curiosities and give the reader more to ponder than the weirdness of the item being discussed. Michael Cisco and Alan Moore’s entries are extraordinarily challenging, and require careful reading and pauses to absorb. This is a high compliment, for the reader does so to fully assimilate not just the words, but the framework they conjure. This is also true of Amal El-Mohtar and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s entries, but in these cases one wishes to immerse the mind in the richness of the language, which is particularly strange to write given that Kiernan’s entry is an epistolary piece. In all four cases the authors take a distinctive approach to their Curiosity and show us with great deftness the different ways one can apprehend things that refuse to be made sense of in a conventional way, that simultaneous resist knowing, and encourage observers to fashion new ways to know them, all the while telling us that they can never be fully known, and perhaps should not be.
When faced with such a thing as this Cabinet, partiality of understanding is inevitable. The cacophony of perspectives in this volume, while sometimes inconsistent, communicate much in their clashes of perception and efforts at ratiocinative exploration of a collection of objects and meanings that defy not just convention, but sanity. There are lessons here not just about the Curiosities, but about the world that made them, the world that we dwell in as well. These brief accounts tell us not only about their subject, about some dessicated hand or aberrant machine, but about wonder, delusion, ingenuity, saudade, the asomatous things that are all about us, sometimes invested in objects, more often lodging in our minds, that we try to grasp and reveal and that sometimes require new means to uncover and share. At their best, the entries in this fabulous collection perform this task, and confront us to think more strangely and intensely about what is real, what is illusion, and the vastness that lies between them.