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on 25 May 2014
Compiled by fantasy-scribe extraordinaire, Neil Gaiman, this exceptionally enjoyable anthology of short stories that make up this volume is bound by the subject of fantastical creatures - the ones "that only exist in our minds". The writing is eclectic; there's the noirish "The Compleat Werewolf" by Anthony Boucher, which boasts Nazi spies, a femme-fatale Hollywood starlet, a magician, and of course a werewolf; the 19th-century tale of "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" by Frank R. Stockton, where the titular Griffin learns of his carven image on the church grounds of a small village and comes to see his likeness, throwing the lives of the parishioners and a young canon into disarray; and the contemporary YA story by Caribbean writer Nalo Hopkinson that interweaves the perils of teenage parties with an age-old myth in "The Smile on the Face".
Gaiman too, contributes his own piece "Sunbird" (found also in his earlier collection "Fragile Things"), about a group of epicureans who have exhausted their quest for every known kind of animal, and still seeks for more. Gaiman credits children's author E. Nesbit for introducing this creature to him, and I was pleasantly surprised to read her story, "The Cockatoucan; or Great-Aunt Willoughby", in this collection. I have never associated her with fantasy writing, being more familiar with her children's classics like "The Railway Children", though I had read her trilogy about five children and the mythical "psammead" as a child. Elsewhere in the collection are also tasty nuggets by familiar names like sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany, Diana Wynne Jones, and even Saki, whose "Gabriel-Ernest" make up the other werewolf story in this collection.
In a collection about fantastical creatures, it seems fitting that the last story "Come Lady Death" by Peter S. Beagle is about death, which Gaiman acknowledges as "the most natural of all unnatural creatures". A bored and aging socialite Lady Neville has grown tired of her own parties, fine as they are, and she decides to invite Death to up the ante, so to speak. The result is a truly engaging tale with a chillingly unexpected conclusion.
Highly recommended by anyone who has even a vague interest in imaginative fiction.