Ready to be chilled, thrilled and left a little uneasy about the dark? Four talented authors and one atmospheric illustrator combine their talents to produce a collection that will do just that.
Anthologies of short stories in children’s fiction are not all that commonplace. While back a few decades ago there seemed to be dozens of them, in the past ten years the number of anthologies seems to have dwindled substantially. (You can see more about short stories in my posts here and here .) And short stories are such a wonderful format for young readers to encounter! Bite- sized offerings that can entice even a reluctant reader to stick with the length, bubbles of ideas and situations that do not require novel-length arcs to express. They can offer a range of styles and events for a single theme, or explore the variety in one genre. So it is with great delight I delved into this new collection of strange and sinister stories. Four authors have put forth their talents to provide these tales. Stefan Bachmann, author of steampunk-styled The Peculiar series, Katherine Catmull, who penned the magical quest tale, Summer and Bird (Dutton Juvenile, 2012), Claire Legrand; creator of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls (Simon & Schuster, 2012) and The Year of Shadows (Simon & Schuster 2013), and Emma Trevayne, writer of young adult series Coda, and middle grade fantasy Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times (Simon & Schuster, May 2014). Add in the striking artistic talents of Alexander Jansson and this is something to spend some time reading–though preferably during the day.
I’ve been a librarian long enough to know that every group of kids that comes into the library has at least a handful who ask for “spooky” stories. Many of these readers will likely dive into adult horror genre in years to come, but right now they need something comfortably younger to read. They aren’t looking for happy endings or safe stories–they’re looking for relevant scary fiction that grips them by the throat and makes them jump at shadows. Good stories of this sort are not so easy to find. Even harder to locate are good anthologies. Most often I’ll send my readers in search of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Scholastic, c1981) by Alvin Schwartz and its sequel volumes. But what do kids read after that? What do I hand my fifth and sixth grade audiences who want something more? After reading this anthology, I have my answer.
Now if you’ve read my post, A Word on Anthologies, you know I have a list of criteria for these short story collections. So let’s go down the list.
First off, does this anthology have a clear theme? Do the stories reflect that theme?
Yup, that’s a definite affirmative. Like creepy? Like weird creatures, strange adults, awful revenges and deadly curses? Carnivorous trees, cursed cakes, dark futures, whispering mirrors . . . it’s all here. I’d say there’s something for everyone, but that’s not precisely true. There’s something for every child who likes sinister tales and ghost stories. For those who do not like to be scared or prefer happy endings, this is probably not the right choice. But for those hungry horror fans who are looking for something new? Now you can drop thirty-six new stories into their waiting hands. There’s no question what the theme is here, and no doubt of our authors and stories staying on theme.
Does the book showcase a variety of tales within that theme?
Under the banner of the sinister, there’s plenty of room for variety. We have ghost stories, monster stories, dark fantasy, and grim science fiction. There are tales that are sharp and bitingly to the point, and others that unroll slowly, casting their chill. Of course with so many tales to choose from, I can’t reflect on them all in one review, but I’ll pull up a few of my favorites.
“Fairy Cakes” by Emma Trevayne is the opening piece for this collection, as well as the first story in the teaser preview. It might just be my favorite work in the whole collection. A creepy sort of “fairy tale” that instantly evokes the visual thrill of the setting–and the chill of ever having these sorts of fairies visit. It’s short and sweet and to the point. And I guarantee it’s bound to hook in many a reader!
“Lucky, Lucky Girl” by Katherine Catmull introduces us to a girl who is very lucky indeed . . . but her luck has its price. And it’s a price that’s paid by everyone around her. A nicely open-ended sort of tale that’s creepy without monsters or direct magic. Luck is in the eye of the beholder. Katherine, like Emma has a real flair for the short-short story.
“Rhapsody in Doom” by Claire Legrand is one of the longer stories of this collection, a dark fantasy story with a wicked villain and a magical song. It’s a more classic kind of story and balances well against the shorter, stabbier sort of tales.
“Mabel Mavelia” by Stefan Bachmann is also from the teaser preview. Like most of Stefan’s writing, the stories have a deep and abiding oddness to them, a kind of horror that lurks beneath a veneer of strange absurdity. This one is the story of a girl unhappy with her new home whose impulsive actions have a terrible consequence.
These are just four such tales, but there’s plenty more to explore.
Is this collection well balanced with a thought-out anchor stories? Does it show a care and concern to the placement and framing?
Cabinet of Curiosities is a curious endeavor in and of itself: rather than one editor spearheading the process and a dozen or more authors contributing, four authors have put their heads together to craft this collection. Instead of delivering this run of stories in a straightforward one-after-the-other, these curators have framed the entire affair with letters and notes about their collection. On top of the fictions of the stories themselves, a greater fiction encompasses them all in the shape of this text-based “cabinet”. Our authors become intrepid adventurers in search of the prize curiosities for this collection. It makes the book not just a delivery system for short stories, but pulls them into a greater whole.
These thirty-six stories have all been allocated to different “drawers” of the collection. Stories about Cake, or Luck or Fairy Tales for example. There are Eight drawers in all. Some tales are introduced with an additional letter by one of the Curators who “discovered” the story. Throughout the entire volume, Swedish artist, Alexander Jansson’s black and white illustrations pop up at regular intervals to punctuate the text, and add to the overall appeal of this work as a complete volume. His talents and style fit well with the tone of his anthology, as well as in the remarkable cover art. There is a great deal of care and attention going into this framework, and I think it pays off.
Readers will feel there is a powerful intent to this anthology. How it was created, how the authors/curators were involved, and the process of organizing them. Each tale is purposely placed within a particular drawer for the reader to discover. I admit I’m fairly hard on anthologies, but this one stands up well against my concerns and was a real delight to read. My only complaint with the collection may lie in the fact that the way the drawers were arranged meant most of the longest pieces wound up towards the second half of the anthology, but it’s a fairly small quibble with what I think is an admirable labor that had to require quite a bit of cooperation between all parties involved.
A great read for precocious fourth graders and fifth and sixth graders who don’t mind a good scare and enjoy stories full of creepy and sinister subjects. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for younger audiences, given that some of the stories are quite disturbing–and even older, more sensitive readers may want to consider what kind of stories they will encounter. I quite enjoyed it as an adult and would have eaten this up in a heartbeat as a child. (I probably would have spent some nights with all the lights on and covering up mirrors and windows and things, but that’s what spooky stories are about!)
Find this book and read it–if you dare!
Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher....more
Intro by Charlaine Harris: very brief, just a paragraph or two. Which is fine in reality, since the interest is goWill comment on the stories as I go:
Intro by Charlaine Harris: very brief, just a paragraph or two. Which is fine in reality, since the interest is going to be in the stories themselves.
"Playing Possum" by Charlaine Harris--I've never been a huge Harris fan, but this short story is fine, and Sookie fans will be delighted by the added side story.
"Spellcaster 2.0" by Jonathan Maberry--at times I thought this lost steam, but the overall story is rather interesting, and I did wind up sticking to it.
"Academy Field Trip" by Donald Harstad--Different, but interesting. Has a twist to it I didn't suspect until almost the end. Apparently it's his first paranormal.
"Sympathy for the Bones" by Marjorie M. Liu--Very chilling and dark . . . hard to say I liked it but it's a proper little horror story about a student who learns her lessons well.
"Low School" by Rhys Bowen--certainly a bit of a lighter tone than the one before it, this takes a whole new perspective on selling your soul . . .
"Callie Meet Happy" by Amber Benson--Could not get into this. I don't know if it's because it's part of a series or if I'm just not finding the writing particularly accessible. this is a side story from the author's series featuring Calliope Reaper-Jones.
"Iphigenia in Aulis" by Mike Carey--The best I've read so far. Mike Carey has a real talent for this--and this is just . . .chilling, heartwrenching, beautiful. Loved it.
"Golden Delicious" by Faith Hunter--Liked it enough that I want to find the author's series work. Fun urban fantasy/detective work with interesting characters.
"Magic Tests" by Ilona Andrews--I'm a big fan of Ilona Andrews, so reading this little sidebar story was entertaining, although not their best work. Still, it should be readable both by those familiar with the Kate Daniels books and those not.
"An Introduction to Jewish Myth and Mysticism" by Steve Hockensmith--Overall the story arc on this one is familiar, but the writing and tone take it a step above. Worth a few dark chuckles.
"VSI" by Nancy Holder--Reads a lot like the earlier story, Academy Field Trip, but not as strong. Really didn't like the characters much overall, and seriously unimpressed with the portrayal of female characters in this.
"The Bad Hour" by Thomas E. Sniegoski--A short story set in this author's series that features an angel works as a detective. I didn't love it, but the dog saved it from being too bad. Fans of his work will probably enjoy the story more.
"Pirate Dave and the Captain's Ghost" by Toni L. P. Kelner--Just . . .eh. I don't know. I wasn't won over by this last offering very much. I also felt it was stretching to really fit the theme.
Over all this was a passable collection. Fans will probably like picking it up from the library to peruse their favorite authors. ...more