Fabulous creatures

The back blurb of the book says “Welcome to a menagerie unlike any other, where stories let amazing, beautiful and occasionally terrifying creatures roam free in your mind.” And, the front cover has the name Neil Gaiman printed prominently. If you are a fan of the fantastic tales, you don’t need more goading than this to pick up the book Unnatural Creatures. If you have read any book by Gaiman, it is unlikely that you are not his fan. Gaiman’s books for children and adults alike are excellent works of outwardly themes. On the outset they seem like stories of fantasy but the devil is in the details. Each reader will have a different take on Gaiman’s stories.

Unnatural Creatures, an anthology compiled by Gaiman is no different from his own works. At the outset, each story in the book is about a magical creature, but they are all metaphorical. Each one to his own interpretation of what the creature is. The collection includes classic writers like Saki and Nesbit, some well known fantasy writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Boucher and a number of new writers. The icing on the cake is each story has a short introduction by Gaiman about the writer, which itself is a treat to read.

For example, here is what he says of the writer Megan Kurashige “she is a dancer who sometimes writes. I wish she would write more, but that would mean she would dance less. Here she shows us some unnatural creatures made by hand.” You will be indeed tempted to read all the blurbs first!

Four epicureans of a rather abnormal sort discuss at length all the animals, insects, and birds they have devoured thus far. One of them, Virginia Boote, decides that she now wants to try eating the sunbirds from Suntown. The foursome decide to travel to Cairo (that is where Suntown is according to them) to catch the sunbirds the traditional way and to cook them the traditional way as well. The setting, characters, conversations — everything is peppered with Gaiman’s inimitable satire. “There was Virginia Boote, the food and restaurant critic, who had once been a great beauty but was now a grand and magnificent ruin, and who delighted in her ruination.” And, he never overdoes his one-liners and that keeps readers hooked for the want of more.

Then there is Diana Weyne Jones’ “The Song of Theare”, replete with gods, demigods, and multiverses. The characters are well etched even within the confines of a short story. Gods are worried about a prophesy that predicts their ruin by a human. The god in charge of finding the man who brings their dissolution, is rather shocked that it is his own son. The story revolves around the futile efforts of the insecure gods to divert their end — most certainly a pot-shot at the political system.

Gahan Wilson’s story leaves you as exasperated, as the protagonist when finds a spot on his dining table that keeps growing in size and moving its location. Antony Boucher’s story is about an eccentric professor Wolfe Wolf, who is nicknamed Woof Woof by his students. Most situations are created to elicit laughs and the author very well succeeds. The romp starts when Wolfe Wolf learns that he is actually a werewolf and can change at will. Though predominantly humorous, this novella set in the 40s, takes ample digs at the Nazi regime. 

Maria Dahvana Headley is the assistant editor of the anthology. Her story “Movable Beasts” is short and well crafted. The girl who works at the Bastardville Dreamy Creamy ice-creame shoppe has given up all hopes of any life altering events in her small little town until she meets Billy Beecham the beast hunter. The entire story drips with satire — “no swearing Andrea. Bastardville is a family town”. 

There are traditional fantastic beasts like the dragons, trolls and werewolves but there are also ample new and never heard of ones — “The Girl Who Talks To Snakes (by Nnedi Okorofor), “Bee Invading Wasps” (E Lily Yu), “A Bike Shop That Is Not” (by Avram Davidson) — 16 stories, well actually creatures, in all!

An anthology is a tricky business — the stories should have a common thread running through them and yet they have to be unique from one another. The onus of compiling a coherent anthology lies squarely on the editor. Full credit to Gaiman here for choosing stories where each is a masterpiece. They are uniformly fantastic, ironical, and humourous with always a twist at the end. It is a wonderful book — not only for the stories but also to discover some good fantasy writers. 

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