My latest editing project with my husband, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, started out as a “shared worlds” project centered around the life of Dr. Lambshead and his collection of artifacts. However, by the time we’d put it all together, the anthology had naturally morphed into something more. There is a framing story involving Lambshead, and the good doctor is mentioned in several stories, but in its mix of major established creators and up-and-comers, the Cabinet serves as a modern treasury of fantastical and weird fiction and images.
The “weird” part, which is probably of most interest to Weird Tales readers, starts with the art. Genius animator Jan Svanmajer contributed a three-part crypto-zoology print that as playful and yet creepy as any of his films. If you’ve seen his version of Alice in Wonderland, you know what I mean. Another great artist, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, gave us four originals and asked us to approach specific writers to create stories based on them. Mignola’s mind tends toward both the dark and the darkly humorous, so it’s no surprise that in one case his art led to both Cherie Priest’s “The Clockroach” (art and excerpt here) and China Mieville’s somber and effecting “The Pulvadimonitor: The Dust’s Warning,” with its investment in the macabre: “Even by indirect light the extraordinary texture of the head was clear. It moved in small spasm, creasing its dun self in unnatural directions. ‘Not like a head,’ one witness said. Its teeth, gleaming from behind dirt-coloured lips, ceramic-white and vivid, look in the photographs overlaid on the picture like a crude collage, part of a wholly different image with a quite different palate. At seconds when the dials on the little motor twitched, the face might slightly crease its eyes or wince as if in pain, in response or cause, it was impossible to say.”
Always a double or triple threat, Mieville also contributed art to the Cabinet, specifically “The Very Shoe” and “The Gallows-horse”. Helen Oyeyemi wrote a story around the shoe and Reza Negarestani wrote a kind of meta-horror story around the horse. Negarestani’s work has appeared in Starry Wisdom, and his philosophical novel Cyclonopedia is a masterpiece of horror that includes supernatural weapons, sentient oil, and Lovecraft influences in a potent and unique mix. “The Gallows-horse,” which is excerpted here along with a statement from the writer, has an almost existential strangeness to it that speaks to the weird’s uncanny genius for making you uneasy, uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Aeron Alfrey, who has done amazing macabre work for the likes of Thomas Ligotti, contributed art for two of the darkest stories: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s epistolary “A Key to the Castleblakeney Key” and Michael Cisco’s strange, funny, and oddly moving “The Thing in the Jar”. In both cases, Alfrey’s artwork sparked the stories in question rather than the other way around, and the style and mood of the text perfectly captures the atmosphere of his images. There are other examples from the Cabinet antho that will satisfy even the most jaded reader of weird fiction, but for now I thought I’d give you just a taste of Alfrey’s artwork and short excerpts from the stories (after the break)…
From “A Key to the Castleblakeney Key” by Caitlin R. Kiernan:
It starts as it always does. Me waiting on the shore for the ferry, looking out across the sea, the waves thundering against the rocky jetty. The ferry arrives, and it delivers me to the island where the sickly yellow house stands alone amid that shaggy grove of hemlocks and the overgrown rose garden. Nothing’s any different until after I’ve spoken with the ravens and the silver-eyed women and the Bailiff, until after the cannibalistic banquet and the disturbing images that old film projector spits out onto the parlor wall. But then, when I’m lead [sic] to the cellar door, the women both turn back and leave me to make the descent alone! Never before have they done this, but you know that. They shut the door behind me, and bolt it, and I go by myself down those creaking wooden steps…
As always, I reach the bottom of the stairs and find the cellar flooded by several inches of stagnant saltwater. The odor is overwhelming, and bloated fish and tangles of seaweed float all about me. Tiny crabs scuttle across the submerged cellar floor. This part is the same as always, of course. I try not to smell the rot, and splash between those moldering brickwork arches until I have come to the wall of gray granite blocks and gray mortar. Like always, it’s encrusted with slimy moss and barnacles. Like always, the moss and barnacles have grown in patterns that make them look like leering skulls. All of this is the same. But when I reach into my pocket for the skeleton key the Bailiff always gives me, it isn’t there. There’s nothing there, and for a moment I panic. They’ve trusted me to go down to this place alone, and I’ve managed to lose the damned key! I stop, trying hard to remember each step across the cellar, each step down, everything that occurred before the silver-eyed women lead [sic] me to the cellar door, how I might have possibly mislaid the key (which I always put in my dress pocket immediately, the moment the Bailiff places it in my palm). My mouth goes dry. My heart is hammering in my chest. They’ll make me leave and never ask me back again, never again send the ferry for me…Then I look down, and there’s something hideous crouched in the water not far from me.
From “The Thing in the Jar” by Michael Cisco:
The Thing in the Jar was presented to Dr. Lambshead by an African anthropologist specializing in the study of Europeans, one Prof. Manjakanony Ramahefajonatana, of the University of Antananarivo, Antananarivo, Madagascar, in exchange for some assistance rendered in accumulating a representative collection of items of contemporary everyday English use. The object was discovered by Prof. Ramahefajonatana’s principal research assistant, Vololoniaina Rasendranoro, who, owing to a condition of amnesia brought on by a clout she received on the head as she was escaping from a burning barn in Essex, was entirely unable ever to account for how she came across it. The only definitely known fact about the jar’s past is that it was found in England, and does not appear to have originated elsewhere…
This object is associated with a manuscript in Dr. Lambshead’s own hand, consisting of a great many sheets of different hotel stationery, contained in a manila file folder. The folder’s projecting tab is covered with a stack of adhesive labels, one laid atop another. The exposed, uppermost label had something written on it which was then aggressively scribbled over, and the rest of the folder is leopard-spotted with scribbled-out words or phrases. The only unmarred writing on the folder itself consists of three words inscribed in a column on the inner surface of the front, or untabbed, half of the folder. They are, from top to bottom: MUSHROOMS, BACON, OVALTINE.
Not unlike the folder, the manuscript is also heavily emended, with many strikethroughs and insertions. The battered, fraying pages show signs of having been much handled. Not only are all the pages from different hotels, but they are written and marked in a variety of media, including ink, pencil, lipstick, crayon, pastels, and, in one case, a dry and crusty reddish-brown fluid that has the characteristics of blood. The alterations are, more often than not, written in a medium different from that of the older text. The implements used also must have been highly varied, ranging from rare and expensive Sheaffer or Pelikan fountain pens, to the quills of exotic birds, to ordinary run-of-the-mill ball point pens and number-two pencils, to sharpened fragments of bone, or medical implements dipped in ink or stain. In one case, a correction is actually cut into the paper with a sharp instrument, perhaps a scalpel, and there are minute discolorations around the incisions that suggest the scalpel had been in surgical use quite recently when the correction was made, or that, perhaps, Dr. Lambshead had been struck by an idea in the very midst of performing an operation, and had paused to make the change in the text using literally what he had in his hand just at that moment.