AT LAST! This anthology has been gestating since – well, since before I was involved with it – but I’ve been working on it since last summer. Somewhere in July or so, Neil Gaiman called me and asked if I’d join him in editing a YA book about strange monster/creature-y items, to benefit 826DC (also known as The Museum of Unnatural History). He’d signed on a few months before, and the book, while theoretically awesome, did not yet exist in any real form. I like strange monster-y/creature-y items. I like 826 (all the 826’s), and the things it does for kids. I like Neil, and his wide-ranging taste in stories (seriously, and this is to no one’s surprise, the man has read everything, and keeps the plot of everything in the back corners of his brain.) I said sure.
And so we went forth into the wilderness – and it was, indeed, a wilderness. The world is full of wonderful stories. The world is also full of wonderful stories long out of print, whose rights needed acquiring, stories extant only in crumbling paperbacks (or in some cases, in memory), stories sought in dark corners of the internet from scans of magazines last published in 1914. My job was to find those things, bring a few new stories and writers to the list, and generally fill in gaps in the process wherever we found them. It was an education. I have increased and epic respect (mind you, I already had respect) for anthology editors and their time-management skills. I had to do some hunting for rights and for stories, and my hunting wasn’t always in mapped forests. It is to my joy that between us, Neil and I know a lot of people, and that ultimately, we were able to score permissions for nearly all the stories on the original list. As well as a few more, once we realized that we could add some things, and have even more fun with the list than we’d originally thought.
Unnatural Creatures is a combination of classic stories and new ones. It’s a kind of glorious mixture, in my opinion, and in Neil’s too. He had an initial list of stories, which he brought to me, and then I read, added, subtracted, attempted to get permission for, jumped up and down, and ultimately…we ended up with an distractingly gorgeous selection of 16.
It’s a diverse collection of creatures (I think there’s only one duplicate monster, and it’s a werewolf – in Anthony Boucher and Saki’s very, very different stories). The book contains everything from Dianna Wynne Jones on dragons to Larry Niven on “horses”, Samuel R. Delany (yes, a YA-appropriate story, and even a rather fairy-tale-ish one, from Chip Delany!) on an unknown something in a box, to E. Nesbit on Cockatoucans. It has recent stories from Nalo Hopkinson on transformations, Megan Kurashige on manticore, mermaids and other wanderings through a Natural History collection, Nnedi Okorafor on serpents and goddesses, and E. Lily Yu on wasps and bees, alongside classic (but not obviously “creature” as in animal stories) from Avram Davidson on a multiplying and mechanical creature (s), and Peter S. Beagle on Death. It has Frank R. Stockton on Griffins, and Neil on Sunbirds. As well – and this was a matter of happy coincidence – it has a story by me, about a geographical beast. That particular story had been three lines from done for years, and when we discovered we had a gap, and that this story exactly fit the prompt, we added it.
I love all the stories in the book, but the one I think of most frequently when I think of Unnatural Creatures is by Gahan Wilson, about a bit of ink that isn’t. Why? Because the entire time I was putting the stories together into manuscript form, and sending them in to Harper, I was biting my fingers in fear that the title of the (utterly wonderful) story would somehow end up being not but INKSPLOT TK. (As it was in the word doc.) (Or worse: INKSPLOT TK – NOTE FROM MARIA: OMG OMG OMG, PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO PUT THE INKSPLOT IN, FOR REAL, NOT THE WORD, BUT THE IMAGE, THANK YOU GODS.)
In addition to the stories, the book has gorgeous illustrations by Briony Morrow-Cribb, and that is to my extreme joy, because I got to add her to the project. I’ve long admired her work (See here for lots of beautiful examples…I’ve not only bought her etchings for friends, I’ve got two of them on my own wall) and when we needed an illustrator, I brought her in.
It’s a really great book. It’s getting really great reviews.
Here’s the starred review from Publisher’s Weekly:
Edited by Neil Gaiman with Maria Dahvana Headley. Harper, $17.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-06-223630-2
In this striking anthology of 16 stories of strange and incredible creatures (most previously published), Gaiman and Headley have included several classic tales, such as Frank R. Stockton’s delightful “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” (1885), which concerns the unlikely friendship between a monster and a minister; Saki’s mordant werewolf tale “Gabriel-Ernest” (1909); and Anthony Boucher’s astonishingly silly “The Compleat Werewolf” (1942). There are also fine stories from such major contemporary fantasy writers as Peter S. Beagle, Samuel Delany, Diana Wynne Jones, and Gaiman himself. Particularly pleasurable are the stories by newer writers, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Smile on the Face,” which demonstrates the benefits of channeling one’s inner hamadryad; E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” an animal fable with a sting in its tale; and Nnedi Okorafor’s original story “Ozioma the Wicked,” which concerns “a nasty little girl whose pure heart had turned black,” but who nonetheless saves her village from a monstrous snake. Teens with a yen for the fantastic would be hard pressed to find a better place to start. The collection benefits literacy nonprofit 826DC. Ages 13–up. (May)
Booklist made it their Review of the Day: From darkly menacing to bizarrely surreal, these 16 fantasy stories featuring mythical and imaginary creatures combine work from such luminaries as Saki, E. Nesbit, and Anthony Boucher, as well as more contemporary writers. Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse” is on the sillier side of the spectrum: a time traveler is sent to the past to retrieve a horse, which he has never seen except in picture books, and he mistakenly returns with a unicorn instead. In Nalo Hopkinson’s “A Smile on the Face,” a self-conscious girl is bullied for her size and pressured into an unwanted sexual encounter, but she finds inner strength—and an inner fire-breathing monster—thanks to an accidentally swallowed cherry pit from the hamadryad in her front yard. Gaiman’s contribution, “Sunbird,” recounts the adventures of the Epicurean Club members, who, grown bored after tasting every available thing on the planet, enjoy the best (and last) meal of their lives. In true Gaiman fashion, these stories are macabre, subversive, and just a little bit sinister. His fans will eat this up—ravenously. The book will benefit nonprofit 826DC, which fosters student writing skills.
And here’s one from TOR.com, which called it – among other excellent things, “a wonderfully diverse and enjoyable collection of stories from over a century of fantasy writing.”