(Book Review) From the Stacks: Unnatural Creatures edited by Neil Gaiman

By David Nilsen

unnaturalUnnatural Creatures is a collection of stories about creatures that do not exist. Selected by cult author Neil Gaiman, these stories tell of everything from griffins to werewolves to Death herself, and range from fanciful to frightening. In his introduction to the collection, Gaiman explains the enjoyment he experienced as a child wandering through a Natural History Museum in his native England, and his confusion and disappointment the museum had no information (or specimens) on werewolves, unicorns, dragons, and other beasts of their ilk. Surely these were of interest to science? What he really hoped for was a Museum of Unnatural History, and with this book he has set out to create such a repository in the form of fantastical stories about these beasts.

Unnatural Creatures starts out with a wickedly clever story about colonial wasps convinced of their own superiority to bees. “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu tells of a colony of wasps that residents of a small town discover are capable of making elaborate maps of the nearby country side. The wasps decide to leave before they are exploited by the townsfolk, so they set off for a new home. Upon arriving, they quickly conscript the local bee colony to pay tribute to them. Upon subjugating these bees, they begin educating them in their ways. Over time, the bees foment a revolution. The story is a clever and succinct summary of the hubris and horror of colonialism and cultural assimilation, told in the straight-forward, nearly jaunty manner of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

In Maria Dahvana Headley’s (assistant editor for the collection) “Moveable Beast,” a hunter shows up in a town rumored to have a monster living in the bordering woods. He engages a sarcastic ice cream shop employee to help him find it. He finds it, but it’s not at all what he expects, though he doesn’t have much of a chance to reflect on his misunderstanding.

Perhaps the highlight of the collection is Anthony Boucher’s “The Compleat Werewolf,” first published in 1942. The lengthy story tells of Wolfe Wolf, a lovesick college professor whose movie star love interest has spurned him. While drinking away his sorrows at a local bar, he makes the acquaintance of a magician who points out to the aptly-named professor he is, in fact, a werewolf and has never known it. Contrary to popular legend, not all werewolves transform involuntarily under a full moon. Some can do so in response to hearing a trigger word. The same word transforms them back, but there’s a problem with that arrangement–wolves can’t talk, so once they’ve transformed, they need someone else to say the code word. The woebegone professor believes he can win back his love if he can impress her with his newly discovered powers. Things do not go as smoothly as planned. There are Nazis, and FBI G-Men, and shootouts in church steeples with silver bullets whizzing through the air. Gaiman explains in his introduction to the story that he loves werewolves because of this tale, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s wickedly clever, and a ton of fun.

The collection has a wonderfully varied and diverse range of contributors, both modern and classic, including YA author Nnedi Okorafor, science fiction greats Samuel R. Delany and Larry Niven, and classic children’s author Edith Nesbit. Neil Gaiman himself contributes the story “Sunbird,” a humorous story he originally wrote for one of his daughters when she turned 18.

Unnatural Creatures is an entertaining trip through the overlapping territories of the whimsical and the weird. These are not scary stories, and many could be read aloud with children. The book looks at unnatural beasts with wonder and curiosity, and makes a great non-scary read for a cozy October night.

Unnatural Creatures is available now at GPL.

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