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Monday, July 16, 2018

For Love of the Weird

Sheepish werewolves,lonely griffins and mysterious blotches make up this merry collection of curiosities.

Written by Ipsita Chakravarty | Published: December 7, 2013 5:54:36 am

Book: Unnatural Creatures

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publication: Bloomsbury

480 pages

Price: Rs 499

Author Neil Gaiman speaks of visiting the Natural History Museum in London as a child. Hung with pygmy marmosets and birds of paradise,lined with neatly labelled dinosaur bones,the museum must have been a place of fear and wonder. But the natural world has been poked and prodded for too long now; it does not always send that pleasant shiver down the spine. The modern-day cabinet of curiosities must contain creatures of a different kind. A manticore,a griffin,a werewolf or two,a phoenix,even a mermaid. Creatures plucked from legend and assembled together. Unnatural Creatures,an anthology of short stories compiled by Gaiman,offers such a collection. Quite often in this collection,mythic beings are shorn of their traditional settings and placed in stories where they appear strange and new,yet dimly remembered from tales told long ago.

The anthology is also a cabinet of curiosities in other ways,bringing together writers of every shape,size and provenance. Saki and E. Nesbit share space with young authors like E. Lily Yu and Maria Dahvana Headley,with the doughty Samuel R. Delaney and Diana Wynne Jones thrown into the mix. Different genres are on display too. Science fiction shades into old wives’ tales,allegory gives way to gentle,uncomplicated fantasy. Gaiman indiscriminately gathers stories of the unnatural,starting from the mid-19th century and going up to the present day.

Not surprisingly,the briefest stories in the collection are the most unsettling. Taut as a pulled bow,they have the sense of incompletion that marks the best short stories. In Gahan Wilson’s unnameable story,a mysterious blotch appears in a London apartment one day and grows until it starts swallowing up the inhabitants. It is powerful in the way words trail off into visual representation,as though the object of fear cannot be adequately described by language. Then there is Saki’s ‘Gabriel-Ernest’,loping off into the sunset with a child no one will ever see again. In Headley’s dystopic ‘Moveable Beast’,a shrinking patch of forest is ringed with houses,guarding the beast within.

But the unnatural is not always allowed to be terrifying. So we are introduced to Nesbit’s laughing Cockatoucan,Frank E. Stockton’s lonely griffin and Anthony Boucher’s sheepish werewolf. The collection flags in unexpected places. Gaiman’s own contribution,‘Sunbird’,in which a group of bored epicurists set off to eat a creature they have never eaten before,has a ring of deja vu. Wynne Jones’s ‘The Sage of Theare’ is tediously philosophical. In ‘The Flight of the Horse’,Larry Niven breaks into gauche prose and leans heavily on the stereotypes of science fiction.

Gaiman,collector of the unnatural,gives you a fair idea of how the mythic and the hairy have been written about in the last century and a half. Which makes you wonder why H.P. Lovecraft is missing from the anthology,along with Edgar Allen Poe. But maybe Lovecraft’s vertiginous descents into the unknown,Poe’s brooding chambers do not belong in this messy,merry collection. This is one for firesides and train journeys. The unnatural as an interlude in our everyday lives,not a howling portal to dissolution.

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