Unnatural Creatures - By Neil Gaiman


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

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