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Review: Medicins really sans frontieres

Gaiman's diagnosis: 'Pseudomedical nonsense'

By Porter Anderson

Gaiman's diagnosis: 'Pseudomedical nonsense'

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'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases'

Co-edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts
Night Shade Books (hardback)
298 pages
Jeff VanderMeer
Mark Roberts
Neil Gaiman

(CNN) -- Journalists usually think they have a corner on the wry fantasy of "just making it all up." Maybe it's time we slid over and allowed a few medicos to take a seat.

"The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases" (Night Shade Books) may not be the output of bona fide medical men, but what may be "made up" is a few minds -- about whose work to read next. The book comprises entries by close to 60 fantasy writers who have their fun with physiology (and other disciplines).

Compilations like the "Pocket Guide" offer the reader a way to sample the styles and voices of many authors in a crowded field and have become popular. In that regard, this "Pocket Guide" surely can be expected to have some success. And if laughter isn't the best medicine, these fantasists offer the offbeat as therapy.

The compendium is carefully themed by co-editors Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts, their conceit being that they've been chosen to taken over publication of a journal of "discredited diseases," making them editorial proteges of the fictional Dr. Thackery Trajan Lambshead. Everyone is bylined as a doctor (writing for this thing may have been the fastest residency in medicine). Contributions are broken down into such reference-book features for each fictional ailment as country of origin, first known case, symptoms, history, cures and so on.

A few common issues seem to have struck the writers. Take loss of one's bones. In Stepan Chapman's contribution of "Bone Leprosy," we encounter one Vecchio Calamaro -- the "Old Squid." You get the spineless picture. Later in the compendium, Frederick John Kleffel's "Razornail Bone Rot" progresses with much the same unfortunate result, but is prompted by the growing of long nails "to consume heroin, cocaine and other powdered drugs."

Other entries include "Ballistic Organ Syndrome," offered by Michael Barry; "Inverted Drowning Syndrome" from Iain Rowan; and "Reverse Pinocchio Syndrome" from Steve Redwood.

Designer John Coulthart and Night Shade Books are heroes here, having lavished extensive old-clinical-textbook production on the volume. Coulthart's design is what really cinches the book's sense of Old World medical references, with their frightful depictions of early anatomical procedures.

The good Dr. Gaiman

As for the author-practitioners, the book confirms one thing: Neil Gaiman is in no danger of losing the chief surgeon's office. It's a compliment here to say that Gaiman's advantage is knowing when to use a gimmick. His contribution -- in which he mentions "pseudomedical nonsense" -- is "Diseasemaker's Croup," which progressively reveals itself as the writer's own malady:

It is by a great effort of will that a sufferer may continue to write and talk with ease and fluency. Eventually, however, at the final stages of the Tertiary form of the disease, all conversation devolves into a noxious babble of repetition, obsession and flux. ... When bleeding from leechbites continues longer than required by the system. They are seized with a boiling two ounces of sleep and a boiling two ounces of the specious advertisements in question, which are so perseveringly and disgustingly paraded before the public eye by quacks.

This is an excerpted image from an illustration,
This is an excerpted image from an illustration, "The Physician," used by designer John Coulthart in the "Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases."

The other big name among the contributors, Michael Moorcock, in the guise of a clergyman, offers a cautionary meditation on "Samoan Giant Rat Bite Fever." Not unlike Moorcock's work in his recently released novel "The Skrayling Tree," the entry digresses (if only for a few pages), then stops.

These and other contributors are talented people, and a few of the accounts of hapless victims of these fake diseases are funny. But this project unexpectedly hobbles its authors with literary anemia.

The VanderMeer factor

Contrary to what you get in a collection of short stories, narrative isn't plentiful here. Instead of tales of the sick and feverish, this "Guide" reads like a medical school's yearbook in which each member of the graduating class was asked to show off for a few pages with a reference entry.

And the biggest regret here for regular readers in fantasy may be the VanderMeer factor.

Jeff VanderMeer, a World Fantasy Award-winner, is a rising creative personality in the business. He proved it in "Veniss Underground," also published by Night Shade. The haunting grotesquerie he created for that novel, in fact, may be an aesthetic link to this "Guide."

Head drill
An excerpt from "The Head Drill," from John Coulthart's design. It illustrates the entry in the "Guide" for "Bufonidic Cephalitis" -- also called "Toad Brain," "Toad Stone" and "Warty Encephalitis."

But here, VanderMeer serves as an editor. Most of this is not his work but the writings of all these contributors. This collection has to have taken vast amounts of his time and energy, which many VanderMeer fans would love to have seen go to his own next original work.

And a technical note: We may need to add "Fantasy Collection Eye Strain" to the maladies in the book. The font Night Shade has used for the body copy seems smaller than that in most other volumes on your shelf. Don't lose track of your reading glasses.

Make no mistake, there's an audience for this type of novelty. Just in time for the holidays, it should make a great gift for those friends of yours in medicine, the ones who walk their dogs in those green intern outfits. But other readers may find themselves longing for writings that develop in an arc of story and effect, finally settling in a different emotional or intellectual place from the start.

When compared to the kind of long-form, soul-stirring, hangs-together, takes-you-somewhere material that Gaiman ("American Gods") and VanderMeer can produce, this "Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases" comes across like a mild placebo.

Would everyone please take two aspirin and get back to some real work?

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