Anthologies are tricky beasts: They need to collect a disparate set of stories that nonetheless share some thematic through-line. The best multi-author collections showcase an eclectic group of tales that complement one another, usually due to the editor’s abilities as a curator. Unnatural Creatures hits the mark, for the most part, due to the clear theme of imaginary animals, and Neil Gaiman’s exquisite editorial taste.
Published as a fundraiser for 826DC, a non-profit creative-writing program that operates a “Museum of Unnatural History” storefront, Unnatural Creatures collects old and new stories about unicorns, dragons, and more unusual things. The book has some hefty names aside from Gaiman, including Samuel R. Delany and Diana Wynne Jones, but it’s obviously his show. He gives each story a personal introduction, usually describing how he first came across the tale or writer, and offering a brief synopsis. Each story also shares Gaiman’s penchant for exploring the darker elements of fantasy. It’s telling that the collection has “unnatural” in the title: Gaiman means to unnerve more than amaze.
It’s fitting that his story is the best of the lot, and one of the scariest. “Sunbird” is from Edgar Allen Poe’s wheelhouse, with its Dickensian names, secret societies, and ironic ending. Gaiman is known to most for his novels and epic Sandman comics series, but “Sunbird” is a reminder that he writes killer short stories when he sets his mind to it. His section also hits the sweet spot in length, imagining an entire world without overpowering the other tales.
This isn’t true for all Gaiman’s selections. Delany’s “Prismatica” is almost triple the length of the stories bookending it. Outside of Unnatural Creatures, “Prismatica” is a good read, but it comes across as bloated and slow in comparison with the collection’s leaner, zippier works. The same goes for Anthony Boucher’s 1942 story “The Compleat Werewolf,” which crams Nazis, werewolves, Indian rope tricks, and talking cats into one narrative. It’s quite a feat, but still takes too long beside works like Gaiman’s “Sunbird.”
And by contrast, “Prismatica” and “The Compleat Werewolf” make some of the shorter pieces feel sketchy. Delany and Boucher realize entire worlds (though they take their time to do it), but pieces like Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Smile On The Face” end before they’ve really begun, only hinting at the fantasy lurking on the sidelines. Most of the chapters manage to reach a comfortable middle ground between Delany’s and Hopkinson’s pieces, but the ones that don’t grind Unnatural Creatures to a halt. No one story is bad, but the collection as a whole doesn’t feel as organic as readers might expect from an author especially known for his ability to blend disparate themes and settings. At more than 400 pages, Unnatural Creatures may be too much of a good thing. With a little whittling, Gaiman could have created a leaner, more thrilling beast.