If the name Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead does not ring a bell, please don”t be concerned. And you will be most forgiven if you pass by this blog post right away or lose interest a portion of the way forward. Speaking for those Lambshedeans scattered among the GeekDad.com audience, we’ll understand. The man’s name tends to elicit either immediate hostility or outright respect.
A recent biography (of sorts) that has been released is causing quite the stir (again), and I’d much rather not fan any flames of derision or worship. The man has his supporters and his detractors, and believe me… I’m the last person to want to re-ignite previous battles over the man’s debatable legacy.
Let’s be honest here — those few of us who know of Lambshead do so because, at some point in our lives, we likely discovered the subject of Le Cabinet de Curiosité, or The Cabinet of Curiosity, an interesting obsession that is difficult to pin down in terms of its timeline. I don’t have the skill or the time to properly discuss the topic, so I’ll point you to this Wiki article that does the subject justice in my opinion.
Most of us are aware of the game Six-Degrees-of-Bacon – a silly little game of relationship recognition where you attempt to find a connection between yourself and the actor Kevin Bacon using a person that you know… and that person’s then knows… and so on. The basic idea is that you can be linked to anyone in the world with four people sandwiched in between. I tell you this only because I have a story to tell you that involves my relationship with Dr. Lambshead and it only involves one jump. One.
In 2003, I was living in Houston, Texas and was not yet aware of Dr. Lambshead. But two important things happened that year:
1. I read a newly released fiction book titled The Cabinet of Curiosities written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. (This book is part of the book series that features the FBI character of Special Agent Pendergast — if you’ve not read any of the Pendergast series, what are you waiting for? Start with Relic and get moving!)
2. Dr. Lambshead passed away.
After enjoying the fiction book and digging a little deeper into these cabinets (mainly to determine if they were real or not), I found a substantial amount of information related to the topic. And, of course, Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead’s name was peppered quite often in any research article or serious paper on the subject.
After a short period of time had elapsed, my interests were satisfied, and I moved on to other things. But late in 2003 I received a phone call from my dad in Florida. He asked me to take a photograph of one particular item (of many) that had been left to me by my grandfather (who passed when I was 5). I hunted down the item in question, a small notebook with a two metal plates that served as cover and back and a leather spine that held the pieces together over an old stack of graph paper (see photo – apologies for the resolution – my 2003 camera was horrid). He didn’t give me any reason but just asked me to do him the favor.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that the item was dropped into a cardboard box and forgotten about, requiring an hour or so of digging to locate. But I did find it. I emailed the photo to my dad with a few questions, but received no immediate response.
Jump forward about two weeks and a large package arrived in my mailbox. I opened it up and found a bound stack of papers that were photocopies of pages of text that were the obvious result of a typewriter. The cover page had a simple bit of text:
Recollections of James Francis Kelly (1917-1974)
(Collected from hand-written notes and typed by D. Kelly)
A handwritten note from my dad explained that the 124 page document was a collection of stories from my grandad (I was named after him, including middle initial). My mom had requested him to write down stories about his childhood in Canada, his move to the USA, and anything else he could share. He started this in 1970, a year after I was born, and provided my mother with an occasional handwritten stack. She kept them all, intending to provide the grandchildren (9 in all – six of them my cousins) with the stories at some later time.
I remembered reading through this stack here and there as I grew up. I had never actually read the entire thing (or I don’t recall doing so), but my dad’s note indicated that I should immediately jump to a section where he had placed a sticky-note. I jumped to it, read the text, and just about fell out of my chair.
Here is where it gets really interesting: My grandad was a tool and die maker and very skilled with metal working. On occasion he would make, by hand, some unusual item that was commissioned by the military or even very wealthy individuals. We don’t have a lot of information on these items, but in his writing he described, quite accurately, being approached by a Docteur Lamshed. The surname is obviously spelled differently but the French Docteur is typical of the Canadian spelling of the word.
This Docteur Lamshed, a foreigner based on my grandad’s vague description, requested that my grandfather create for him a set of 24 ingénieur journals — Engineer Journals. He was told these needed to be made of durable material to withstand high heat and much abuse. My grandfather sent him the 24 journals, took payment, and moved on.
The reason this story made its way into my grandad’s memoir was what happened next. A year later a package arrived in the post (mail) from the docteur, with a note of thanks and one of the 24 journals. My grandad wrote that when he opened the journal, he found dozens of hand sketches of a room or collection of rooms. Comments about lighting, placement of objects, hidden switches to rotate pedestals, and other unusual mechanisms were scrawled in the pages. My grandad thought it was an unusual way to say thank you and promptly filed it away somewhere.
A few weeks later, while my grandad was away, there was a break-in. He noted that his workshop (not attached to the house) had been searched but all his tools (the most valuable things in the workshop) were left alone. He doesn’t mention calling the police or being concerned, but just thankful about his tools.
Skip forward a few years and my grandfather was packing away items in his workshop for the move from Canada (1953) to the USA. He wrote that when he dug out the engineer’s journal from a box in the back of the shop and opened it up, he discovered that the pages were blank. This surprised him, obviously, and he wrote that he knew it was a completely different journal because each of the 24 had been given a slightly different surface pattern using some of his grinding tools. He reasoned that someone had broken in, stolen the original journal, replaced it with the empty one, and disappeared. He apparently never suspected the docteur (or at least he didn’t put it into words), but just dropped the journal into the moving boxes and that was the end of the story.
Included with my grandad’s memoirs and the note from my dad was a letter from a law firm in New York City. (I wish I’d kept the letter now – oh, well.) The letter described that family members of the Lambshead Estate were requesting items that had been loaned out to various museums by the deceased doctor be returned. They were also offering some sizeable cash payments for other items that were associated with Dr. Lambshead but not actually owned by the man. I won’t go into details about the offer other than to tell you I immediately called up the contact in the letter, confirmed the amount offered, and shipped the empty journal to the provided address via UPS and with plenty of insurance!
This was all back in 2003. It was sheer coincidence that I had read the fiction book and, through some research, discovered the vast collection of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead. Receiving a letter from the Lambshead Estate was surprising, and I still smile when I think about my brief but personal experience with the man. But my smile did not last long.
After the family received the journal I sent, they responded with a few photographs of his collection as a thank you, one of which showed the collection of journals sitting on a bookshelf, held upright on the left by a bottle with a skeleton of some unrecognizable animal tucked inside and on the right by a large stone cut in half, its insides some sort of purple crystal that looked priceless. I counted the journals. Twenty-four. I won’t put down the words that I’m thinking right now to describe the surviving Lambshead family. (I wish I still had that letter and photo — I might try and get the journal back, but given the Lambshead wealth, I doubt I’d be successful.)
But I’ve not let this turn of events sour my thoughts on the actual doctor. Based on what I know of the man from my reading, I simply refuse to believe that he had anything to do with the theft. I believe, and will continue to believe, that an unknown family member, suspecting the value of that journal, took and hid it away all these years. The doctor has taken much abuse from researchers over the years, and I will not add to it by making accusations I cannot back up — the man deserves better.
Which brings me to the final point of this long post (and my apologies).
While there have been many papers and books written about Dr. Lambshead, it’s only been in the last decade or so that fiction has slowly crept into the picture. Just as H.G. Wells or Edgar Allan Poe make the occasional appearance in fictional stories (in both books, TV shows, and movies), Doctor Thackery T. Lambshead is certainly not immune.
That’s why I’m torn when it comes to a new book release titled The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. The book provides a good bit of history but also mixes in a collection of fictional stories (written by some well-known authors, as well) that attempt to bring life to the doctor and explain some of the exceptional events that happened in his life. Some are so over-the-top that you’ll easily be able to distinguish them as fantasy, but others are so close to the actual documented events that made up Dr. Lambshead’s life that readers will find it difficult to separate the fiction from the real.
Followers of Lambshead (and I count myself among that group) will certainly appreciate the book — the light amount of fiction tossed in for entertainment purposes is easily outweighed by the sheer volume of photos, commentary, and the much-appreciated (but obviously abridged) list and descriptions of some of the more interesting items in the doctor’s own cabinet. (The price of the book alone is totally worth that 12-page list and the two-page panoramic photo that was taken with a hidden camera and can be found on pages 306-307. Best of luck to the photographer once the Lambshead family finds out.)
The book is well documented — it is a valuable addition to the limited number of journals and research papers that exist on the man. It is well known that the doctor did not allow photographs of the items he loaned out, so even the hand-sketches from various witnesses are just as priceless as the few photographs that have been taken over the years.
There is a general consensus among Lambsheadeans that too much attention to the man is unwanted. (Many forum discussions on a few hard-to-find websites will support my claim.) We don’t want to see a movie about the man, let alone a TV mini-series or biopic. We don’t want to see him show up as a character in Warehouse 13 to be used as a simple plot device and then thrown to the wind for 40 minutes worth of storytelling. DC and Marvel — please, no comic book series that turns the doctor into some sort of hero or villain for the masses to cheer or revile.
Doctor Thackery T. Lambshead is gone. Let’s leave him be. If the occasional book (like this one) should be released that provides a little bit more detail about the man, I’ll certainly take it. Even with some of the more fantastical and (obviously) supernatural stories thrown in, I’ll take it.
I didn’t know the man, but I certainly wish I had. I’ll have to do with the simple knowledge that for one brief period of time, one of the items from his Cabinet of Curiosity was in my hands, even if my grandad never found out who stole the other one. But I know the truth.
I was fortunate enough to be able to submit some questions to the editors of the book, and I thank them for their generous responses provided below:
GeekDad: Given the unusual history of Dr. Lambshead, why did you choose now to release more information on his particular collection? Seeing that the negative backlash has continued to decline over time, why did you feel that now is the time to reintroduce the doctor and his cabinet?
Jeff and Ann Vandermeer: We were waiting for the positive backlash to die down, actually. But that might just be something to do with electricity.
GD: Has the Lambshead Estate given either of you (or any of the book’s guest writers) any difficulty or put up any resistance in the publishing of this material? (I admit to being a bit concerned about my own welfare simply by attaching myself to the new book and introducing it to the substantially-sized audience of this blog.)
JAV: We actually published this book in defiance of the Lambshead Estate, which has its own skeletons and thus its own reasons for not interfering further. As for your own welfare, we can only say that if you experience an odd tingling in your palms, a sudden weakness in your ankles, or a ringing in the ears it might just be the effects of life…or you might want to warn those around you that you are about to spontaneously combust. We all have to spontaneously combust some day, though, right?
GD: The book’s mix of fiction writers and more serious researchers is a unique approach — do you think readers will have a difficult time separating the facts from fiction?
JAV: When we helped facilitate the publication of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases in 2003, many passersby scoffed at ideas like motile snarcoma or ballistic organ syndrome. But when further studies from the Institute for Further Studies found that persons with ballistic organ syndrome assisted in the defense of Byzantium back in the day, well, who was laughing out of the other side of their mouths?…Although that was discovered to be motile mouth disease. Eventually. So the short answer is: there are more miracles on this green earth than can be grokked by the likes of humans etc et al.
GD: Given Dr. Lambshead’s dubious reputation in certain circles, I would have thought it would be difficult for many folks to attach their names to a book like this. It’s obvious that some contributors such as Michael Mignola (Hellboy) and Cherie Priest (Boneshaker) would gravitate to a person like Dr. Lambshead, but how did you manage to convince the other 45+ contributors to provide their research notes and/or stories?
JAV: We’re less concerned about his dubious reputation in certain circles than within certain pentagrams, octahedrons, and unusual triangles. In truth, a character as eccentric and secretly influential as Dr. Lambshead creates detractors like a swamp hiker picks up leeches—along with as many defenders. As of 2003 there existed no single entity called “Dr. Lambshead” but instead a hundred thousand refractions and reflections that go into forming a reputation, which is no longer a person but a kind of sad doppelganger.
GD: Why has the Lambshead Estate not yet made the doctor’s cabinet available to the public or at least provided more serious researchers access to the collection?
JAV: That’s a good question. There is perhaps the slightest hope on the part of the Estate that the doctor faked his own death and is still alive. This is of course ridiculous—we have Dr. Lambshead’s mummified remains in a box in the garage—but not everything in this world is based on the rational.
GD: What do you believe would be the tipping point for the world’s medical community to begin speaking openly of Dr. Lambshead’s contributions instead of changing the subject or simply pretending ignorance on the subject?
JAV: If they were all to come down with, simultaneously, mad quail disease. That would probably tip things in Dr. Lambshead’s favor.
GD: Has there been any new information regarding the rumored telephone conversation between Dr. Lambshead and the Woman in White a few weeks before his death? A few (obvious) faked transcripts have surfaced here and there on the Internet, but the News of the World transcripts of messages left on the doctor’s phone contain certain elements that ring true (especially given the recent news of phone hacking).
JAV: You really do want to spontaneously combust, don’t you? None of those messages were from Dr. Lambshead as far as we can tell. One might have been—”Loose the spoons homegirl, kthanxbai”—but we don’t know what that means. The only condition of publication of the Cabinet of Curiosities set by the only entity actually able to do us harm was not to talk about the woman in white, so we won’t.
GD: Several pages from The Book of Categories have reportedly been seen on a certain online auction site — I even bid on a couple. But two days before the auction was to end, the pages were removed with no explanation. Do you have any idea whether the pages were authentic? (I ask only because a few anonymous posts showed up on the ThackeryForum three days later and contained photos of one of the book’s two editors holding up two pages that did look strikingly similar to the old photos of the stolen pages from the 1958 theft of the book prior to its return. Might you have made the seller an offer off the books? Not judging, just asking.)
JAV: According to the Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects, the Book of Categories will continue to flicker in and out of existence in this manner. The more inquiries that are made about it, however, the more a certain inertia sets in, an entropy that will end in either millions of years or just a few thousand in the book’s sudden stillness becoming the death of the universe. So don’t mention it! Your great-great-great-great-great-etc-grandson will hate you for it.
GD: Back to the book — it’s obvious you couldn’t fit in every rumor, photo, and inventory that’s been created on the good doctor’s cabinet. Might there be another volume in the future related to Dr. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities? (And if so, it would be outstanding to have some detailed photos of the lost pages if you should encounter them in your research. Again, I’m not making any accusations here.)
JAV: The cabinet is likely mined out, if only because of some issues involving a parsnip, a contract killer, and a man in Malaysia. But this doesn’t mean that we won’t diligently and with the kind of perseverance you often find in the driven and the insane to document whatever parts of Lambshead and his many eccentricities as we can. (Please. Stop. Mentioning. The. Pages.)
GD: Finally, given the book’s variety of guest writers, have any of them been able to provide you with any personal stories related to Dr. Lambshead or his estate? Or, even better, would any of them be in possession of some of the hundreds of still-missing items reportedly being pursued by the estate? (You know which three writers I am talking about…)
JAV: You’d have to ask Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and Reza Negarestani. We have no further comment.