Unnatural CreaturesNeil Gaiman
For Bigfoot, for the time travelers, for the pirates, for the robots, for any boring people (who obviously aren’t actually secret agents in boring disguise), for people in space rockets, and for our mothers
Table of Creatures
2. The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees
3. The Griffin and the Minor Canon
4. Ozioma the Wicked
6. The Sage of Theare
8. The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby
9. Moveable Beast
10. The Flight of the Horse
12. The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me
13. The Compleat Werewolf
14. The Smile on the Face
15. Or All the Seas with Oysters
16. Come Lady Death
About the Editor
About the Publisher
WHEN I WAS A BOY, the best place in the world was in London, a short walk from South Kensington Station. It was an ornate building, made of colored bricks, and it had—and come to think of it, still has—gargoyles all over the roof: pterodactyls and saber-toothed tigers. There was a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the lobby, and a stuffed replica of a dodo in a dusty case. There were things in bottles that had once been alive, and things in glass boxes that were alive no longer, sorted and catalogued and pinned.
It was called the Natural History Museum. In the same building was the Geological Museum, with meteorites and diamonds and strange and glorious minerals, and just around the corner was the Science Museum, where I could test my hearing, and rejoice in how much higher than an adult I could hear.
It was the best place in the world that I could actually visit.
I was convinced that the Natural History Museum was missing only one thing: a unicorn. Well, a unicorn and a dragon. Also it was missing werewolves. (Why was there nothing about werewolves in the Natural History Museum? I wanted to know about werewolves.) There were vampire bats, but none of the better-dressed vampires on display, and no mermaids at all, not one—I looked—and as for griffins or manticores, they were completely out.
(I was never surprised that they did not have a phoenix on display. There is only one phoenix at a time, of course, and while the Natural History Museum was filled with dead things, the phoenix is always alive.)
I liked huge stone-skeleton dinosaurs and dusty impossible animals in glass cases. I liked living, breathing animals, and preferred them when they weren’t pets: I loved encountering a hedgehog or a snake or a badger or the tiny frogs that, one day every spring, came hopping up from the pond across the road and turned the garden into something that seemed to be moving.
I liked real animals. But I liked the animals who existed in a more shadowy way even more than I liked the ones who hopped or slithered or wandered into my real life, because they were impossible, because they might or might not exist, because simply thinking about them made the world a more magical place.
I loved my monsters.
Where there is a monster, the wise American poet Ogden Nash told us, there is a miracle.
I wished I could visit a Museum of Unnatural History, but, even so, I was glad there wasn’t one. Werewolves were wonderful because they could be anything, I knew. If someone actually caught a werewolf, or a dragon, if they tamed a manticore or stabled a unicorn, put them in bottles, dissected them, then they could only be one thing, and they would no longer live in the shadowy places between the things I knew and the world of the impossible, which was, I was certain, the only place that mattered.
There was no such museum, not then. But I knew how to visit the creatures who would never be sighted in the zoos or the museum or the woods. They were waiting for me in books and in stories, after all, hiding inside the twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation marks. These letters and words, when placed in the right order, would conjure all manner of exotic beasts and people from the shadows, would reveal the motives and minds of insects and of cats. They were spells, spelled with words to make worlds, waiting for me, in the pages of books.
The link between animals and words goes way back. (Did you know that our letter A began its life as a drawing of the upside-down head of a bull? The two bits at the bottom that the A stands on, those were originally horns. The pointy top bit was its face and nose.)
The book you are holding, with its werewolves and mysterious things in chests, with its dangerous inksplats and its beasts and snakegods, its sunbird, its unicorns and mermaids and even its beautiful Death, exists to help take care of the current Museum of Unnatural History.
The Museum of Unnatural History is a real place; you can visit it. It is part of the mysterious and shadowy organization that has brought us Pirate Stores and Superhero Supply Stores while at the same time spreading literacy by supporting, hosting, and teaching a number of writing programs for kids, along with providing a place where they can do homework, not to mention attend workshops.
By buying this book, you are supporting 826 DC and literacy, and I am grateful, and Dave Eggers, who cofounded the whole 826 movement, is grateful, and the kids who attend 826 DC are grateful too. Probably some of the griffins and mermaids, who are, as far as we know, not in the museum, are also grateful, but of this, as of so many things, we cannot be certain.
PS: An introduction is not an acknowledgments page. Lots of people have donated their time and their stories to make this book a reality, and I am grateful to all of them, to all the authors in this book and to everyone who has helped. But I want to embarrass my coeditor, Maria Dahvana Headley, by thanking her here by name. Maria is not just an excellent writer, but she is also an organized powerhouse and is the only reason that this book is coming out on time without lots and lots of blank pages in it. Thank you, Maria.
GAHAN WILSON is a cartoonist. He draws things that scare me. Sometimes he writes stories too. In this story, with a somewhat unpronounceable title (you’ll see why), he combines writing and drawing with terrifying results, to show us a most unnatural creature indeed.
One morning, beside the eggs and toast, there’s a dark spot on the tablecloth, and where it came from, no one knows. The only certainty is that the moment one stops looking at it, it moves. And as it moves, it grows….
THE FIRST TIME REGINALD ARCHER saw the thing, it was, in its simplicity, absolute. It owned not the slightest complication or involvement. It lacked the tiniest, the remotest, the most insignificant trace of embellishment. It looked like this:
A spot. Nothing more. Black, as you see, somewhat lopsided, as you see—an unprepossessing, unpretentious spot.
It was located on Reginald Archer’s dazzlingly white linen tablecloth, on his breakfast table, three and one half inches from the side of his eggcup. Reginald Archer was in the act of opening the egg in the eggcup when he saw the spot.
He paused and frowned. Reginald Archer was a bachelor, had been one for his full forty-three years, and he was fond of a smoothly running household. Things like black spots on table linens displeased him, perhaps beyond reason. He rang the bell to summon his butler, Faulks.
That worthy entered and, seeing the dark expression upon his master’s face, approached his side with caution. He cleared his throat, bowed ever so slightly, just exactly the right amount of bow, and, following the direction of his master’s thin, pale, pointing finger, observed, in his turn, the spot.
sked Archer, “is this doing here?”
Faulks, after a moment’s solemn consideration, owned he had no idea how the spot had come to be there, apologized profusely for its presence, and promised its imminent and permanent removal. Archer stood, the egg left untasted in its cup, his appetite quite gone, and left the room.
It was Archer’s habit to retire every morning to his study and there tend to any little chores of correspondence and finance which had accumulated. His approach to this, as to everything else, was precise to the point of being ritualistic; he liked to arrange his days in reliable, predictable patterns. He had seated himself at his desk, a lovely affair of lustrous mahogany, and was reaching for the mail which had been tidily stacked for his perusal, when, on the green blotter which entirely covered the desk’s working surface, he saw:
He paled, I do not exaggerate, and rang once more for his butler. There was a pause, a longer pause than would usually have occurred, before the trustworthy Faulks responded to his master’s summons. The butler’s face bore a recognizable confusion.
“The spot, sir—” Faulks began, but Archer cut him short.
“Bother the spot,” he snapped, indicating the offense on the blotter. “What is this?”
Faulks peered at the in bafflement.
“I do not know, sir,” he said. “I have never seen anything quite like it.”
“Nor have I,” said Archer. “Nor do I wish to see its likes again. Have it removed.”
Faulks began to carefully take away the blotter, sliding it out from the leather corner grips which held it to the desk, as Archer watched him icily. Then, for the first time, Archer noticed his elderly servant’s very odd expression. He recalled Faulks’s discontinued comment.
“What is it you were trying to tell me, then?” he asked.
The butler glanced up at him, hesitated, and then spoke.
“It’s about the spot, sir,” he said. “The one on the tablecloth. I went to look at it, after you had left, sir, and I cannot understand it, sir—it was gone!”
“Gone?” asked Archer.
“Gone,” said Faulks.
The butler glanced down at the blotter, which he now held before him, and started.
“And so is this, sir!” he gasped, and, turning round the blotter, revealed it to be innocent of the slightest trace of a
Conscious, now, that something very much out of the ordinary was afoot, Archer gazed thoughtfully into space. Faulks, watching, observed the gaze suddenly harden into focus.
“Look over there, Faulks,” said Archer, in a quiet tone. “Over yonder, at the wall.”
Faulks did as he was told, wondering at his master’s instructions. Then comprehension dawned, for there, on the wallpaper, directly under an indifferent seascape, was:
Archer stood, and the two men crossed the room.
“What can it be, sir?” asked Faulks.
“I can’t imagine,” said Archer.
He turned to speak, but when he saw his butler’s eyes move to his, he looked quickly back at the wall. Too late—the was gone.
“It needs constant observation,” Archer murmured, then, aloud: “Look for it, Faulks. Look for it. And when you see it, don’t take your eyes from it for a second!”
They walked about the room in an intensive search. They had not been at it for more than a moment when Faulks gave an exclamation.
“Here, sir!” he cried. “On the windowsill!”
Archer hurried to his side and saw:
“Don’t let it out of your sight!” he hissed.
As the butler stood, transfixed and gaping, his master chewed furiously at the knuckles of his left hand. Whatever the thing was, it must be taken care of, and promptly. He would not allow such continued disruption in his house.
But how to get rid of it? He shifted to the knuckles of his other hand and thought. The thing had—he hated to admit it, but there it was—supernatural overtones. Perhaps it was some beastly sort of ghost.
He shoved both hands, together with their attendant knuckles, into his pants pockets. It showed the extreme state of his agitation, for he loathed nothing more than unsightly bulges in a well-cut suit. Who would know about this sort of thing? Who could possibly handle it?
It came to him in a flash: Sir Harry Mandifer! Of course! He’d known Sir Harry back at school, only plain Harry, then, of course, and now they shared several clubs. Harry had taken to writing, made a good thing of it, and now, with piles of money to play with, he’d taken to spiritualism, become, perhaps, the top authority in the field. Sir Harry was just the man! If only he could persuade him.
His face set in grimly determined lines, Archer marched to his telephone and dialed Sir Harry’s number. It was not so easy to get through to him as it had been in the old days. Now there were secretaries, suspicious and secretive. But he was known, that made all the difference, and soon he and Sir Harry were together on the line. After the customary greetings and small talk, Archer brought the conversation around to the business at hand. Crisply, economically, he described the morning’s events. Could Sir Harry find it possible to come? He fancied that time might be an important factor. Sir Harry would! Archer thanked him with all the warmth his somewhat constricted personality would allow, and, with a heartfelt sigh of relief, put back the receiver.
He had barely done it when he heard Faulks give a small cry of despair. He turned to see the old fellow wringing his hands in abject misery.
“I just blinked, sir!” he quavered. “Only blinked!”
It had been enough. A fraction of a second unwatched, and the was gone from the sill.
Resignedly, they once again took up the search.
Sir Harry Mandifer settled back comfortably in the cushioned seat of his limousine and congratulated himself on settling the business of Marston Rectory the night before. It would not have done to leave that dangerous affair in the lurch, but the bones of the Mewing Nun had been found at last, and now she would rest peacefully in a consecrated grave. No more would headless children decorate the Cornish landscape, no more would the nights resound with mothers’ lamentations. He had done his job, done it well, and now he was free to investigate what sounded a perfectly charming mystery.
Contentedly, the large man lit a cigar and watched the streets go sliding by. Delicious that a man as cautiously organized as poor old Archer should find himself confronted with something so outrageous. It only showed you that the tidiest lives have nothing but quicksand for a base. The snuggest haven’s full of trapdoors and sliding panels, unsuspected attics and suddenly discovered rooms. Why should the careful Archer find himself exempt? And he hadn’t.
The limousine drifted to a gentle stop before Archer’s house and Mandifer, emerging from his car, gazed up at the building with pleasure. It was a gracious Georgian structure which had been in Archer’s family since the time of its construction. Mandifer mounted its steps and was about to apply himself to its knocker when the door flew open and he found himself facing a desperately agitated Faulks.
“Oh, sir,” gasped the butler, speaking in piteous tones, “I’m so glad you could come! We don’t know what to make of it, sir, and we can’t hardly keep track of it, it moves so fast!”
“There, Faulks, there,” rumbled Sir Harry, moving smoothly into the entrance with the unstoppable authority of a great clipper ship under full sail. “It can’t be as bad as all that now, can it?”
“Oh, it can, sir, it can,” said Faulks, following in Mandifer’s wake down the hall. “You just can’t get a hold on it, sir, is what it is, and every time it’s back, it’s bigger, sir!”
“In the study, isn’t it?” asked Sir Harry, opening the door of that room and gazing inside.
He stood stock-still and his eyes widened a trifle because the sight before him, even for one so experienced in peculiar sights as he, was startling.
Imagine a beautiful room, exquisitely furnished, impeccably maintained. Imagine the occupant of that room to be a thin, tallish gentleman, dressed faultle
ssly, in the best possible taste. Conceive of the whole thing, man and room in combination, to be a flawless example of the sort of styled perfection that only large amounts of money, filtered through generations of confident privilege, can produce.
Now see that man on his hands and knees, in one of the room’s corners, staring, bug-eyed, at the wall, and, on the wall, picture:
“Remarkable,” said Sir Harry Mandifer.
“Isn’t it, sir?” moaned Faulks. “Oh, isn’t it?”
“I’m so glad you could come, Sir Harry,” said Archer, from his crouched position in the corner. It was difficult to make out his words as he spoke them through clenched teeth.
“Forgive me for not rising, but if I take my eyes off this thing or even blink, the whole—oh, God damn it!”
vanished from the wall. Archer gave out an explosive sigh, clapped his hands to his face, and sat back heavily on the floor.
“Don’t tell me where it’s got to now, Faulks,” he said, “I don’t want to know; I don’t want to hear about it.”
Faulks said nothing, only touched a trembling hand on Sir Harry’s shoulder and pointed to the ceiling. There, almost directly in its center, was:
Sir Harry leaned his head close to Faulks’s ear and whispered: “Keep looking at it for as long as you can, old man. Try not to let it get away.” Then in his normal, conversational tone, which was a kind of cheerful roar, he spoke to Archer: “Seems you have a bit of a sticky problem here, what?”
Archer looked up grimly from between his fingers. Then, carefully, he lowered his arms and stood. He brushed himself off, made a few adjustments on his coat and tie, and spoke:
“I’m sorry, Sir Harry. I’m afraid I rather let it get the better of me.”
“No such thing!” boomed Sir Harry Mandifer, clapping Archer on the back. “Besides, it’s enough to rattle anyone. Gave me quite a turn, myself, and I’m used to this sort of nonsense!”