Turns out my reading slump is still going on in the back of my brain. I think Cat Valente is at least partially to blame because, let’s face it, after reading her work, everything else is a little bland im comparison. But short stories came to save me! I picked this up on a whim – and because Neil selected these stories – and from the first page of the first story I was all in. Thanks, Neil. It’s good to know your readers can rely on you even when we don’t read your own work.
Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ebook: 480 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: (from the introduction) When I was a boy, the best place in the world was in London, a short walk from South Kensington Station.
Unnatural Creatures is a collection of short stories about the fantastical things that exist only in our minds—collected and introduced by beloved New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman.
The sixteen stories gathered by Gaiman, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, range from the whimsical to the terrifying. The magical creatures range from werewolves to sunbirds to beings never before classified. E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Gahan Wilson, and other literary luminaries contribute to the anthology.
Sales of Unnatural Creatures benefit 826DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students in their creative and expository writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.
This was an unexptected and incredibly pleasant surprise. I am not a big short story reader, even less a reader of collections, because even if I love one or two stories, I inevitable dislike others. That was the case here as well, but the good stories easily outweighed the bad ones, and almost every single unnatural creature was a joy to discovery. Different as they are in tone, style, and theme, these are all brilliant stories by fantastic writers that will – one day – make a great storybook for my own children.
I wasn’t surprised to love the stories by Nalo Hopkinson and Diana Wynne Jones the most, as these are two writers who have already stolen my heart with their novels. But Samuel Delany’s adventure short story took me by surprise, as did Grahan Wilsons “Inksplot”. At the very end, the list of contributors and the date of publication for each short story, offered another surprise. I had no idea (and wouldn’t have guessed from the stories themselves) that some of them were first published over 100 years ago. That just goes to show how timeless stories are and how undying our love for the fantastic.
I am not kidding, this is the actual title of the first story, and it set the perfect tone and mood for this collection. One of my biggest worries was that the titular Unnatural Creatures would be dealt with only in a Very Serious fashion, but this little story took turns in making me chuckle and horrified. An aristocrat and his butler are trying to deal with a mysterious black spot that appears on the table cloth but that won’t stay there. In fact, whenever you look away or so much as blink (Doctor Who, anyone?), the spot appears in a different place. And every time it moves, it grows.
What started out as a hilarious story of a gentleman trying to keep his house in order turns into a creepy hunt for a larger and larger black spot. I loved this story so much that I was a bit baffled by the abrupt and rather cliffhanger-y ending. If this were the beginning of a novel or novella, I would buy it in a heartbeat.The way it is, I’m a bit sorry that I don’t know how it all ends… Rating: 8,5/10
E. Lily Yu – The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees
What a strange little story. In it, people find out that when you boil wasps’ nests, the paper shows brilliantly accurate maps of the surrounding country, and so humans go and take down all the nests they can find. But one colony of wasps escapes and settles in the bees’ territory. They enslave the bees, setting up a whole new society which includes brainwashing bees when they are still larvae, making them work for the wasps, and teaching their doctrine to their own young.
As bizarre as the story was, I really enjoyed it. It felt like a surreal, animal dystopia, and made me deeply uncomfortable for the bees. Another thing it made me want to do is read more by E. Lily Yu. Her style really got to me and while I wouldn’t say this was my favorite story in this collection, it did follow me into my dreams. Rating: 8/10
Frank R. Stockton – The Griffin and the Minor Canon
Here’s a story about a misunderstood griffin who has to deal with an entire town’s prejudice. Wanting nothing more than to see his own likeness, he flies into a small village whose church has a statue of a griffin that he wants to admire, lacking a mirror or quiet body of water. People flee in fear, even though the griffin hasn’t done anyone any harm. They send out the Minor Canon, to talk to the griffin and make sure he goes away again. But the Minor Canon and the griffin become friends of a sort, which brings down the people’s scorn on both of them.
This was a bittersweet story that took a few pages to get into, a story that I finished with one smiling and one crying eye. It shows how fear and lack of understanding (or lack of wishing to understand creatures that are different from oneself) can lead to prejudice and cruelty. Rating: 7/10
Nnedi Okorafor – Ozioma the Wicked
This very simple tale tells the story of Ozioma, a girl who can talk to snakes and is shunned as a witch and an abomination. With hardly any friends, she contents herself in small tasks. Until a gigantic snake falls from the sky and terrfies her village. That’s when the people suddenly turn to her for help. Ozioma’s bravery and good heart make her face this snake-from-heaven and try to save her people – the same people who have mistreated her all her life.
What a beautiful story about being an outsider and yet caring about the ones who wouldn’t have you as their friend! The language wasn’t very complex, the plot straightforward, and the theme a simple one. But Okorafor is a powerful storyteller and made me care about her protagonist without being flowery or overly poetic. Rating: 7/10
Neil Gaiman – Sunbird
I almost dare not say it but this was my least favorite story. Not only was it tedious to plough through, the twist at the end was obvious from a very early point and the four main characters kind of mushed together in a way that made it impossible for me to tell them apart – with the exception of Zebediah, who is, to say the least, strange from the very beginning. The Epicurean Society is always on the lookout for new and interesting things to eat. They’ve had everything from turkey, to beef, to unicorn and several types of beetle. It seems only the Sunbird has not been tasted yet, and so they set out for Egypt and prepare to catch and eat that mythical bird that comes from the sun.
I love Neil Gaiman, I really do, but this story was a mess. The pacing was off, the dialogue was boring, and the characters didn’t stand out at all. For a short story, it actually took me a long time to get through it and I thought of skipping it several times. Rating: 3,5/10
Diana Wynne Jones – The Sage of Theare
There is a reason why everybody loves Diana Wynne Jones. This is not only one of the best structured, plotted and paced story in the collection, it also deals with the subjects of free will, free thinking, breaking the rules, and, most importantly, asking questions. The very orderly, very much rule-abiding gods of Theare are afraid of a prophecy that warns of their Dissolution. They try to escape their fate – which of course backfires. We follow the young boy Thasper, who – above all things – asks questions. He questions everything, why the sun is bright, why his father (the god Imperion) is so shiny, why there are rules in the first place. I adored every single page and it goes to show DWJ’s talent that she brought her characters to life on so few pages, made me care about them and made me think for myself as well. All children’s literature should be this way – fun and light, but opening the mind to deeper thoughts and more complex subjects. Oh yes, and there’s a bonus point for the invisible dragon. Fantastically done! (I also went ahead and got the first book in her Chrestomanci series after this.) Rating: 9/10
Saki – Gabriel-Ernest
I was wondering how long it would take for werewolves to appear. The chapter illustration gave it away before the story even started. When Van Cheele takes a walk through the woods on his property, he encounters a naked young man, sunning himself on a rock. This unsettling person refuses to leave the property and explains how he survives in the woods – by hunting. Deer, hare, but preferably human child-flesh. Despite the knowlege of having a werewolf at my hands, the story still sent chills down my spine. This clever, and very short, story managed to build up suspense, keep me on the edge of my seat, and then come to a not-so-nice conclusion. I enjoyed it immensely and I am still surprised that, with only a few lines of dialogue, Saki managed to make this werewolf-boy seem utterly strange and dangerous. Rating: 7/10
E. Nesbit – The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby
Ah, now this was a delight to read. The young girl Matilda dreads to go visit her aunt Willoughby as much as she hates being put into tight frocks that scratch her arms and have too many buttons. By a fortunate turn of events, her nursemaid takes the wrong bus and the two arrive at a truly magical place. Here, everything is dictated by the whims of a cockatoucan – whenever the bird laughs, everything changes: men into boys, palaces into butcher’s shops, Thursdays into Sundays, and so on. It is up entirely to Matilda’s wits to bring peace to the kingdom.
I have a thing for whimsy and for stories about clever girls – both of which were represented here and, what’s more, excellently done. Every page solicited a grin or chuckle, Matilda was a delightful heroine with clever ideas and a good heart. This light-hearted romp was just a wagonload of fun. Rating: 8,5/10
Maria Dahvana Headley – Moveable Beast
This story feels like the first modern one, although Okorafor’s Oziama had an iPod (which limits the time frame for the story to pretty modern times), because the language reads like a real modern 16-year-old girl is telling the story of her home, Bastardtown. In this 500-soul-village, things aren’t like in other towns. Angela works at an ice cream shoppe (!) and is deeply annoyed by a Beast Collector who has come to hunt the Beast that lives in their mini-forest. As to the nature of that beast, we don’t find out until the end but it is amusing and satisfying at the same time. The story may be short in comparison, but it had personality and atmosphere and made me want to pick up Headleys novel Queen of Kings which I have lying around here somewhere. Rating: 6,5/10
Larry Niven – The Flight of the Horse
Over 1000 years into the future, one man is sent back in time to acquire a horse – by now extinct and only recognisable through its similarity to a drawing in a children’s book. When he arrives somewhere close to the year 1200, he does find what looks like a horse, with some slight but surely negligible differences. But getting this creature to cooperate and follow him into the future is harder than expected. And then there’s the thing about the horn…
I feel like a broken record by now but I also liked this story. Coming from a more science fiction-y angle, it was nice to see the unnatural creature through the eyes of a man who knows nothing about animals (at least not horses) or, apparently, mythology. The ending gave me a last-minute occasion to chuckle and rounded up the story very well. Compared to the other stories represented here, it wasn’t as memorable or original but definitely worth the quick read. Rating: 6,5/10
Samuel R. Delany – Prismatica
Oh, I do love adventure stories. This one is actually structured in chapters and reminded me very much of a fairytale with its repetitive description and the number three playing a major part. Amos, a young and clever man, meets the greyest person he’s ever seen and takes on the task of retrieving three parts of a broken mirror for the grey gentleman. What starts out as a creepy but fairly straight forward ship journey turns into a fun adventure with cursed princesses, trapped princes, vain North Winds, and lots and lots of colors. I loved that the story was a bit longer and how it showed off Amos’ cleverness. I’ve only ever read Babel-17 by Delany but, after this sample of a very different kind of work, I will be sure to read more. Because this was excellent! Rating: 8/10
Now this was a bit of a mess. Beginning with the protagonist’s age, there were a lot of unclarities that diminished my reading pleasure. What I thought were two grown-ups turned out to be teenagers of an unknown age (I think). It all starts with their visit to the Natural History Museum to see the raccoon with wings some rogue taxidermist had made. But then it is a platypus that is promptly kidnapped and taken home, only to turn into a mermaid in the bathtub. Question marks were popping up over my head like crazy at this point. On their second visit, there is an incident with a manticore which leaves real scars and frightens the shit out of people – but all of these events are so random and make so little sense that I didn’t really know what I was reading. It left me with the feeling of a confused, chaotic thing that I couldn’t call a story if I wanted to. Rating: 4/10
This somewhat silly, at times funny, story is about a university professor who finds out he is a werewolf – not the kind that has to transform at every full moon, but the kind that can change at will – rather, whenever a certain word is said. He has the apt name of Wolfe Wolf and drowns his worries about the beautiful Gloria in alcohol. The plan is: Get Gloria to accept his wedding proposal, but things don’t go exactly as he wants them to. Wolf’s mishaps are mostly funny, sometimes a bit bland, but offer a culminating end that was utterly satisfying. Plus, he makes a cat friend while he is a wolf, which lifted the whole story up a notch. I have a thing for speaking cats. Not great, a bit long for my taste, it was enjoyable nonetheless. Rating: 6/10
Gilla, a girl living in the here and now, has to read for school but would much rather prepare for the party tonight. Taming her hair, comparing herself to her beautiful best friend, and generally worrying about high school things and growing up as a girl, offer a lot of interesting conflict right from the start. Hopkinson adds a mythology element to do with the cherry tree in Gilla’s yard. Because that tree seems to talk to her. When it drops a perfect cherry into her cloud of hair and Gilla accidentally swallows the pip, things really start to kick off…
The story’s biggest strength is definitely Gilla’s character. Oh, how well I understand this teenager questioning herself and every move she makes. Wondering whether she’s pretty enough, or slim enough, whether she should eat in front of people who already call her fat, why other rounder girls seemed to look beautiful so effortlessly. Any girl who has grown up not being perfect (so… everyone) will understand the torment and self-doubt going on in Gilla’s brain. Maybe the story spoke to me that intensely because I knew exactly what it feels like to be a bit too chubby, to be friends with a gorgeous girl, to get attention only in the form of insults or – worse – to be ignored completely.
The story gets better and better until, by the end, I deeply cared about Gilla and wanted her to gain some confidence as much as the Unnatural Creature represented here. The Smile on the Face may not be an intriguing title, but the story was easily one of my favorites in this collection. Rating: 9/10
I’m not sure how I feel about this story. Its strength is definitely the characters, rather than its particular – if very original – unnatural creature. It’s the story of two bicycle shop owners, one always on the lookout for lady customers he can seduce, the other introvert and bookish. Their relationship was simply charming to read about and their search for paperclips (there never are any paperclips when you need them!) understandably frustrating. I liked it for the protagonists but found the idea of a, if not sentient, sort-of-alive bicycle rather silly. Rating: 6,5/10
The Last Unicorn was one of my first favorite fantasy stories and I can still watch the movie with enjoyment and wonder. So expectations for Beagle’s story were high. Lady Neville wants to throw the best ball there is, being bored with life in general and the endless repetitive balls in particular, and promptly decides to invite Death. The way she goes about handing the invitation to Death himself (herself, as it turns out) was shocking and a little heartbreaking. The ball itself though was a little boring to read, even when Lady Death arrives, and only the very fitting and satisfying ending made up for it. Maybe I am too biased because of my love for Beagle’s Unicorn but the language here underwhelmed me a bit. Rating: 6/10
All things considered, this was an excellent story collection and if Neil Gaiman should ever decide to compile another one, I’ll be the first to buy it. Reading one or two stories before bed was a wonderful experience and I jotted down so many authors’ names whose work I want to read (or read more). Highly recommended to people who like mythological creatures, a diverse range of short stories, and those who want to visit the Museum of Unnatural History with Neil Gaiman.