Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Cabinet of Curiosities: the Curators Speak

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a disturbing little project helmed by four curators: Stefan Bachmann, Claire Legrand, Emma Trevayne, and me, Katherine Catmull. Each week on our web page, we post the stories—the unsettling, creepy, or quite terrifying stories—of some of the objects in our Cabinet of  . . . well, curiosities is a pleasanter word than horrors. 

A collection of those stories, entitled The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief & Sinister, was published yesterday by Green Willow/HarperCollins. It includes
eight never-before-seen tales and other new material, as well as cover and illustrations—awful ones, in the best sense—by Alexander Jansson

Both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly have awarded it stars, which we keep chained in a little silver birdcage under the stairwell.

To celebrate the book’s publication, I’ve roused my three fellow curators from their magnifying glasses and blood-smeared notebooks to answer a few questions. Also, see the conclusion of the interview for some astounding news.

Curator Catmull: How did this Cabinet business, in which one of us posts a story every week, begin? I know, of course. I am pretending I don’t for dramatic effect. 

Curator Trevayne: I was boiling my bones on a beach in Mexico when the idea of our collection came to me. Naturally, such an endeavor is best not attempted alone, so I quickly recruited the others for assistance. "Assistance" in this case meaning I found three people far more talented than myself and relaxed with a giant chocolate cake as they scurried around making the place neat and tidy and altogether more wonderful than I ever could have imagined on my own.

Stefan Bachmann
Curator Bachmann: I was terribly flattered to be asked to join this intrepid group of curators, as I had been known to shriek ecstatically about their writings at unsuspecting bookstore patrons long before they had any idea who I was, or that we would be embarking on these adventures together. I continue to be pleased by this fortuitous development almost every day, even when chasing nasty, pointy-toothed stories in Siberia.

Curator Legrand: In the fall of 2012, Curator Trevayne approached me asking if I would care to join her and Stefan Bachmann in a new and exciting venture--the telling of short stories for those souls--either young or young at heart--who crave tales of the strange and unsettling. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Curator Bachmann's first book, The Peculiar, and had had a peek at an early draft of Curator Trevayne's Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, and knew them both to be utterly talented. And I, of course, was eager to stretch my writing skills in new directions. So it took me no time at all to agree to join them--and I'm so glad I did.

Curator Catmull: And I was invited when—after careful calculations checked via abacus and a rusty, steam-powered computing machine—the other three determined that each month contains four weeks. They have been unable to shake me since, and I plan to die in the Cabinet, though not for several weeks at least, unless I miscalculate while animating these carved onyx cobras. 

Which brings me to my next question. Which is more fun—collecting the Cabinet objects, or writing about them? 

I’ll begin: for me, crawling on my belly through a nest of fire ants to reach a cursed goblet rumored to turn any beverage it contains into a flesh-devouring acid is considerably more enjoyable than writing. What about you?

Curator Trevayne: Being a person who quite likes comfortable cushions and readily-available cake, I should likely say that sitting in my rooms and writing the stories is more enjoyable, but I simply cannot deny the allure of visiting peculiar circuses, wandering bizarre museums, or riding the skeleton train to
Emma Trevayne
the sound of their violins. Those skeletons--how we danced and danced! It is always a relief to return home with all my fingers and toes (the former make eating cake that much easier) but also always a delight when I am called away on another escapade.

Curator Bachmann: I am a rather timid soul in essence if not generally in practice, and I do so prefer scribbling in the silent corners of my house to visiting deserted hollows at midnight or ripping out beating hearts, which alas, one is practically forced to do if one is curious (because what is a heart, really, and what dwells within it, pounding its little fists day in and day out as if it wants to escape?)

Curator Legrand: As much as I enjoy fighting my way through scorpion-ridden catacombs and running for my life through medieval villages overrun with goblins (did you know that we Curators can travel through not only time but also universes?), I must say that, for me, the writing of my stories is the most enjoyable thing. For often, when I am writing, I am happily ensconced in the Red Room at the Cabinet itself, which is my favorite writing spot. Sandwiched between the Bottomless Pit and the fairies' mortuary, the Red Room is...well, I shan't tell you why it is such a deep shade of crimson, nor why the air inside it is so pungent. Perhaps you will visit us someday and discover why for yourself.

Curator Catmull: Please tell us the collecting adventure associated with one of the stories in this book.

Curator Trevayne: Oh, what a great many grand adventures I've had in search of curiosities for the Cabinet, it is difficult to choose just one. However, what comes to mind is the strange incident detailed in "Spidersong." Having traveled quite far and wide for our dear collection, it was strange indeed to happen upon one very nearly on my doorstep. However, there I was, walking through a lovely forest with my dog, and I heard the oddest, most beautiful music. Being a music lover, I naturally followed it, only to run screaming in horror when I discovered its terrifying source--for though I am, as I said, a music lover, I most positively do not have the same affection for our eight-legged, er, friends. I fled home, dog at my heels, and immediately transcribed the tale.

Curator Bachmann: For years, I had been hearing whispers of a little house, small as a doll's, that could rush about on clickety spider legs; I could not have anticipated the difficulty of finding it, however. Its owner had it hidden away, walled up under a staircase. People always try to hide their wicked pasts, but it is we curators’ job to find them. We always do, eventually. And then we take great pleasure in publishing them in children's books for all to read.

Claire Legrand
Curator Legrand: To write about the silver-haired, pug-nosed girl called Quicksilver, I had to journey to the far north, and wander through many icy, underground labyrinths, to which I unhappily lost several digits. (Luckily, Curator Bachmann is a skilled brewer of tonics, and managed to concoct one for the re-growing of maimed body parts right before I returned home from that trip, largely digit-less.) There, I found a stranger hiding in the city hall of a hidden settlement far beneath the Arctic seas. The stranger had vibrant red hair and flaky white skin, but I could not tell if it was a man or a woman. It wore a strange necklace that vibrated with power. To obtain this fascinating artifact, I had to beat the stranger in a game of Nine Lives (which has nothing to do with cats, but rather with testing the skillset of the underground city's resurrectionist). It was a close game, but I eventually bested the stranger--I suspect not through my own virtue, but rather because the stranger, I think, was tired of bearing such a burden.

Curator Catmull: Obviously, we all share our Cabinet living quarters. But many are unaware that our individual rooms are—while contained within the Cabinet—located in entirely different cities. 

For example, my Cabinet rooms are located in Austin, Texas, a rather dry and dusty place where, in every single attic, mournful ghosts sing in harmony to the sound of lonesome guitars. I often wonder why it’s called “the live music capital of the world” when the dead musicians so very much outnumber us.

Curator Trevayne: My Cabinet rooms are located in London, England, a city filled with so many age-old mysteries it is rather difficult to believe someone didn't invent it for a story. Kings and paupers are buried here, as is an entire river which rushes, unseen, far below the streets. On quiet days, in the right places, you can hear it whispering...*

*I hasten to point out that this is, in fact, actually true.

Curator Bachmann: My own room is located in alpine Switzerland, surrounded by copious numbers of mountains and cheese, obviously, and with a lovely view of rolling pastures and a barn. The house that room belongs to is an old one, filled with new things, and sagging under the weight of all the many people who have walked through it over the centuries. There is a loose step on the front stairs, which I am convinced holds secret treasures, or at the very least a skeleton. There is a locked box in the basement that was there when we arrived and has never been opened. My room is under eaves, and was once the servant's quarters, and sometimes I am quite sure they never left, but have simply moved into the walls. . . .

Curator Legrand:  My Cabinet quarters are in a very old place called Princeton, New Jersey, where intellectuals who are very proud of their intellect attend classes and conduct research in an ancient university. I do believe the students think me odd whenever I go into town for supplies, for I can't seem to leave the Cabinet without taking some of it back with me. And Curating as we do is, of course, not something one can learn from a textbook.

Katherine Catmull
Q. Curatorial tale-spinning is not confined to the Cabinet. I myself am the author of Summer and Birdthe story of two sisters who wander into a land where a Puppeteer swallows birds alive, and where the earth and sky clash together like jaws—you know, that sort of thing. I am revising an even uncannier book right now, but on that topic I can say no more. What about the rest of you?

Curator Trevayne: I am the author of two novels about very strange music (Coda and Chorus, both available now), and one about a boy, a magical doorway, an evil sorcerer, a slightly mad Lady, and a clockwork bird (Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, also available now). My next book, about maltreated faeries, will be available in 2015.

Curator Bachmann: My latest book is called The Whatnot and is the companion and concluding volume to The Peculiar. It concerns a brave girl with twig-hair fighting her way through a dreary and dangerous faerie world, desperate to return to the Victorian England she was stolen from. Furthermore, it concerns a boy with an eye that can see into a dying country, moving prisons, a woman with a porcelain face, cottages that are bigger on the inside than on the out, and one very nasty king. There are other books coming later, different sorts of books, about adolescents instead of children, about terror in deep places and running in the dark, but those are a long way off yet.

Curator Legrand: I have three other books either already out in the world or soon to be released. One is The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, about a practically perfect twelve-year-old girl who must face off against a nefarious headmistress to rescue her friend from an orphanage that is not what it seems. One is The Year of Shadows, about a lonely girl who must work with a group of friendly ghosts to save her father's failing orchestra--if, that is, some not-so-friendly ghosts don't first destroy her. The next is a book for young adult readers called Winterspell, and is a dark, romantic fantasy re-telling of the classic ballet The Nutcracker. 

ASTOUNDING NEWS. To celebrate the publication of The Cabinet of Curiosities, we are releasing a series of podcasts, in which each week one of the Curators reads one of his or her own stories. The podcast includes deliciously disturbing music composed and performed by Curator Stefan Bachmann himself, whose talents are almost injudiciously cornucopian. The first podcast, in which Curator Claire Legrand reads her unsettling tale “The Tin Man’s Price,” is available now--or you can subscribe to the entire series at iTunes.


  1. Thank you for a wonderful peek into your cabinets - what strange and delightful things your have found! Delightful in a deadly way - obviously! I cant wait to get my grubby hands on your new book!

  2. thank you keely! you are welcome to the Cabinet guest quarters any time

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