Editor: Neil Gaiman
Type: Fiction, short stories
I read it: August 2017
Neil Gaiman is all over the place. He releases a constant stream of his own books while at the same time having shows or movies made of his books and writing piles and piles of blurbs to go on the backs of other people’s books. Or maybe it’s that the blurbs written by everyone else seem to name-check him as often as possible. It’s Neil Gaiman’s literary world, and we just read in it.
This makes the prospect of a collection like Unnatural Creatures feel both inevitable and exciting. A charity release to support 826DC, it expands upon the magical conceit of that organization to include fantastical creatures of every shape. In this “Museum of Unnatural History” are stories about creatures who are “either unlikely, impossible, or do not exist at all.” This seems right up Gaiman’s alley, and in the intro he expresses his love for the wacky creatures found in experimental fiction. Indeed, the very first story goes straight for the uncategorizable, featuring a spreading ink splotch as the creature, with the title of the story made up not of words but of an inky mark. (Remember that red dot song from Pearl Jam’s Yield? No? Anyway, it’s like that.)
One great strength of the book is the deliberate mix of old and new. There are several names I knew of but hadn’t actually read, such as Peter S. Beagle (famous for The Last Unicorn), Diana Wynne Jones (who wrote Howl’s Moving Castle), and Frank R. Stockton (remembered for “The Lady, or the Tiger?”). This last author provided one of my favorite stories here, called “The Griffin and the Minor Canon.” It’s the oldest in the bunch, published way back in 1885. The dates of each story aren’t given until the contributor pages at the end, a clever trick to create a sense of timelessness and temporal disorientation while you are reading through the collection. Each story is also prefaced by an intriguing graphic from Briony Morrow-Cribbs. These details, along with the overall physical appeal of the hardcover, go a long way toward making this a delightful reading experience.
The newest stories are the ones that appear in this collection for initial publication. These include Nnedi Okorafor’s intriguing “Ozioma the Wicked,” Megan Kurashige’s “The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me” (not really my favorite), and Maria Dahvana Headley’s more abstract “Moveable Beast.” Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse” is a bit of a head scratcher and somewhat slow, and E. Nesbit’s “The Cockatoucan” (from 1900) is an amusing though not essential. Jones’ story is dreamy and symbol-laden if not altogether coherent, and “Prismatica” by Samuel Delany also feels like an attempt at allegory and was a favorite of mine. Neil Gaiman’s own contribution is “Sunbird,” from Fragile Things, which was the first book of his I read. It’s solid and amusing, if not overly thrilling. There are two werewolf stories (“Gabriel-Ernest” by Saki stands out), one about wasps and bees, and another about bicycles and coat hangers. Beagle’s story is about Lady Death herself.
If the collection seems lumpy and awkward at times, I put that down to a byproduct of its ambition. The only comparisons that come to mind are the McSweeney’s genre collections, the Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. I’m just a big fan of this idea of picking a conceit, casting a wide net, and seeing what you can put together. It makes for unique and educational reading, where you can learn a lot about how writers have crafted stories over the decades (or centuries).