Curiouser and curiouser

All aboard: "We're chroniclers of steampunk, not so much steampunks ourselves," says The Steampunk Bible author Jeff VanderMeer who, with wife Ann, just published The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

There are a number of cases in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images & Stories from Top Authors & Artists (Harper Votager, 2011) in which the dead don't remain dead. Or aren't really dead. Or never actually died to begin with. There's Lambshead's wife, Helen Aquilus, who "died in an auto accident on a lone country road in 1960," though there was speculation that "she staged her own death to join a secret society devoted to radical progressive change in the world." There's Nikola Tesla whose electrical neurheographiton, or brain-wave writer, was purchased by Lambshead; in 1943 he "claimed to have died, although reports were conflicting." And there's Sir Ranulph Wykeham-Rackham (to whose full-body prosthetic Lambshead contributed) who, thanks to science and robotics, could not die.

The subject of the book, by authors/spouses Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is dead. Fictitious Dr. Lambshead passed away in 2003 (having lived more than a century) just prior to the publication of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (by Jeff and Mark Roberts).

"Some of our projects come out of the strangest or most absurd circumstances," says Jeff. It was a friend’s tongue-in-cheek claim of "mad quail disease" that inspired Jeff to write the book of fake diseases. Because "we're very much in love with writers who use non-fictional forms for fictional purposes," he came up with the idea of the eccentric English Dr. Lambshead as the compiler for the book of diseases. Novelist Neil Gaiman loved the idea so much that he sent a contribution.

"When it came time to do a sequel, we didn't want to do a second disease guide," says Jeff. (Although he does point out, with a laugh, that the niche-y Diseases has actually found its way into medical libraries.) On a hike with Ann, the two struck on the idea of a cabinet of curiosities belonging to Lambshead, around which a collection of stories could be written. "Objects, everything in our lives, have emotional resonance," says Jeff.

So, Cabinet is organized around the fictitious estate of Lambshead. More to the point, each object is represented by a piece of art and accompanying prose. Some sections are catalogued like a museum ("Holy Devices and Infernal Duds: The Broadmore Exhibits," in which Tesla's brain-wave machine can be found); other sections are arranged like a written history ("Honoring Lambshead: Stories Inspired by the Cabinet," including the tale of Lord Dunsany's Teapot ,which seems to provide protection to its owner). Each fantastical object — an anthropic creature in a wax-sealed jar, a bronze skeleton key gripped by a mummified hand, a single shoe — is the jumping-off point for 30 writers to wax creative. Comic book artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy), young adult author Molly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and novelist Lev Grossman (The Magicians) are among the contributors.

As for how the items in Lambshead's cabinet came to be: "We came up with the artists and the artists came up with the objects," says Ann. "There were cases in which a writer wanted to work with a specific artist. In other cases where we had a really cool piece of art that we sent to a writer and said, 'What do you think of this?'"

One such piece, the mecha-rhino by Russian artist Vladimir Gvozdev, shows up not only in Cabinet but in Jeff's The Steampunk Bible (written with S.J. Chambers; published this past May). Jeff (also a prolific fiction author who has, with Ann, completed nine other works) says that there was some "overlap of aesthetic" between Steampunk and Cabinet. Jake von Slatt (who mans was at work on two projects for Cabinet while Jeff was involved with Steampunk. So, "we actually have a photograph of a half-completed artifact for the Lambshead book in The Steampunk Bible," says Jeff.

Though the VanderMeers are certainly authorities on steampunk (a sci-fi sub-genre that takes inspiration from Victorian-era literature, art and thought around steam power and technology), the couple doesn't necessarily act the part. "We're chroniclers of steampunk, not so much steampunks ourselves," says Jeff. "Even the most ardent steampunk doesn't live it 24/7." It's an escape, as sci-fi and fantasy are meant to be.

But for one group of sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, there is an opportunity to be immersed in that world for two full weeks: The VanderMeers will be teaching at Wofford College's Shared Worlds, a teen fantasy writing camp. That takes place in late July; part of the reason for their Malaprop's date this week.

"You can think of it more as a teen think tank," says Ann. "They learn how to collaborate with each other, how to negotiate and how to build their own world." Lectures include psychology, mapmaking, geology and religion. The VanderMeers bring in guest writers (like Black, a connection from Cabinet). "The Lambshead book is a good example of how you extrapolate certain fantasy concepts," says Jeff.

"We've had quite a few adults ask us why we don't have a camp like that for adults," says Ann.

Perhaps they will offer such a thing in the future. For now, fans will have to make do with the VanderMeer's reading events — which promise to be entertaining. "We tend, when we do this, to focus on the humorous stuff. We have really funny back stories about the creation of some of this material, both in the Lambshead book and The Steampunk Bible," says Jeff. "We're going to tell all the secret back stories."

"Maybe not all of them," says Ann. "But most of them."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

who: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
what: Authors of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
where: Malaprop’s
when: Sunday, July 24 (3 p.m., free.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Curiouser and curiouser

  1. Uber Kio

    Great article and fantastic pictures! Just so everyone knows, those wonderful white wings worn by one of the lovely steampunks are made by UberKio who can be found on Etsy or Facebook and loves custom orders :D

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.