Review: Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief & Sinister


The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief & Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand and Emma Trevayne, illustrated by Alexander Jansson (Greenwillow, May 2014)

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.


Expected Publication Date: May 2014

ISBN13:      9780062313157

Recommended for ages 9-14


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on July 9, 2014, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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