The tidal wave of vampires, werewolves, and mermaids that has washed over the publishing industry these last few years has obscured the stranger and subtler pleasures of griffins, unicorns, and even weirder chimerae and unspeakable things with no names. For re-introducing these things, Unnatural Creatures would be a welcome volume by any standard, and it also happens to be, by any objective standard, an excellent anthology. Additionally wonderful is that sales will benefit 826 DC, a non-profit dedicated to developing the writing skills of elementary, middle-school, and high school students. So if you like fantasy fiction, especially about weird mythical creatures, you should check out this volume.
Gaiman’s status as a writer needs no further elaboration in these parts, and he is also an impressive reader of remarkable breadth and depth—this is, after all, the man who Alan Moore described as having “a dirty mouth in seven centuries.” As a result, it’s not really surprising that he and co-editor Maria Dahvana Headley have assembled a wonderfully diverse and enjoyable collection of stories from over a century of fantasy writing; Frank R. Stockton’s melancholy “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” (1885) and E. Nesbit’s weird and witty “The Cockatoucan” (1900) rub shoulders with two stories appearing for the first time in this anthology, Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Moveable Beast” and Megan Kurashige’s “The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me.”
There really isn’t a weak story in the lot; at worst, Anthony Boucher’s 1942 story “The Compleat Werewolf” feels a little out-of-step and dated; the hero, Professor Wolfe Wolf, is something of an injured nice-guy hung up on a former student of his who has become a glamorous Hollywood starlet; he immediately sees his lycanthropy as a way to get her back, particularly once she comes to town looking for a dog to play a Rin Tin Tin-like sidekick. The joke in Larry Niven’s “Flight of the Horse” from 1969 is maybe a little obvious—a man is dispatched to the twelfth century to find a horse, wearing a helmet that gives him a halo effect, a white robe, and traveling on a device that allows him to fly, and the “horse” he finds has an extra pointy bit on its forehead that the history books never mentioned—but it’s told with excellent deadpan humor. Gaiman’s own contribution, “Sunbird,” is a typically Gaiman-esque twist on an old myth, in this case—well, you can probably guess from the title, and there is something of the comfort of your favorite tea in a familiar mug in it.
In many other collections these stories would probably be standouts; here, their only fault is that they just don’t quite reach the heights of intensity and invention that many of the other stories do—which is a credit to the quality of the anthology overall. In “Moveable Beast” the titular creature lives in a mini-forest surrounded by the town of Bastardville, where awful customer service is a major tourism draw; it and the snarky heroine are clearly forces to reckon with, as a collector of beasts discovers to his extreme detriment. Nalo Hopkinson’s outstanding “The Smile on the Face” twines legends of female saints and pagan myths of tree-spirits with the struggles of teenage Gilla as she tries to cope with her changing body and the vicious sexual politics of high school. Samuel Delany’s 1977 story “Prismatica” is a creepy fairy tale in which the trapped princess becomes an agent in her own rescue, and Gahan Wilson’s contribution, which has a title that is not to be written out:
is a darkly hilarious and absurd story about a spot on the wall that gets rapidly and frighteningly out of control in a way that will undoubtedly remind many readers of the Doctor Who episode “Blink.” (Wilson got there first, by the way; this story was published in 1972.)
There are also delights and wonders from Saki, Avram Davidson, Diana Wynne Jones, Nnedi Okrafor, and Lily Yu, and lovely illustrations by Briony Morrow-Cribbs. And then there’s the final story in the collection, Peter S. Beagle’s “Come Lady Death”, in which Georgian aristocrat and society hostess Lady Neville, to fend off her own ennui, throws a magnificent party at which Death, the “most natural of unnatural creatures,” is to be the guest of honor. What starts out as bright and brittle becomes an unexpectedly heartwrenching fable of mortality and sacrifice. It’s a beautiful conclusion to an excellent collection of stories, one that every fantasy fan should have on their shelves.