The Cabinet of Curiosities
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Episode 1: The Tin Man’s Price, by Claire Legrand

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Welcome to the first episode of The Cabinet of Curiosities podcast. This week, Curator Claire Legrand reads her story “The Tin Man’s Price.”

You can subscribe to this podcast at iTunes.

Each week, one of the four Cabinet curators—authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne—will read a tale from their collection of spooky, creepy, or simply horrifying short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, available May 27, 2014 from Greenwillow/HarperCollins, wherever books are sold. Scary stories for ages 8 and up. Adults will like them, too.

The Doll Collection

May 14 (Day #3 of being here):

I’m scared, and this is crazy, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. So I’m writing in this diary I got for Christmas, because this place is so weird, and I’m so lonely, and I don’t have anyone to tell.

My mom is housesitting. Or supposedly “we’re” housesitting, because I need to be Just As Invested as Mom is, supposedly. That’s the kind of thing she says now she has this new job. Blah.

It’s her new boss we’re housesitting for. Viv. She’s tall and super beautiful and pale and wears a black velvet coat even thought it isn’t cold outside. When we got here three days ago, she showed us around.

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The house is way nicer than our house and in a way nicer part of town. It’s over a hundred years old, skinny and four stories high, near the center of the city. Viv fixed it up, Mom says. It’s all shiny dark wood and soft carpets and deep colors and window seats.

I don’t like it. The street is noisy, and I’m far away from my friends, and I have to take a bus to school—not a school bus, a city bus, with a bunch of grownups who look like they’re really mad they’re on a bus.

And we had to leave our cat Spooky at home. She’s called that because she’s still kind of wild and shy, even though she’s lived with us for two years. I found her when she was starving, and fed her and petted her till she stopped biting me. Then I let her in our house, and ever since then she hasn’t ever even tried to leave. I really miss her. My friend Mabel is feeding her for $5 a day, but I bet Spooky feels so lonely in our house alone.

I feel lonely in this one. This house has its own cat, a weird one exactly half black and half white, with small, pinky, bloodshot eyes. It doesn’t seem very nice. But maybe it’s just lonely for Viv.

The worst part is my room. It’s supposedly really nice I guess, but the walls are the color of blood—which, in a bedroom?!?? And even though it’s on the top floor, way above the street, at night I still hear cars and drunk people and screamy laughter, or sometimes just screams, and I can’t tell if they’re the laughing kind or not.

But that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that this room is where Viv keeps her doll collection. As soon as I walked into the room, I felt a giant NO inside me. I said real fast, “Is there another room I could have?” And Viv said Not Really, the only other ones are the master bedroom where Mom’s sleeping, and Viv’s home office, which is Off Limits.

My mom said, “It’s so much nicer than your room at home, honey. Really, it’s all gorgeous, Viv, I don’t know what she’s thinking.”

I think she knew exactly what I was thinking, because she was in a hurry to get out of that room and look at the rest of the house. Anyone would be.

These dolls.

There are like hundreds of them, sitting on these dark wood shelves against the blood-colored walls, sitting on the ledge of the bay window, sitting on the bed, and on the floor, and just everywhere. All different sizes and kinds of dolls, regular plastic ones and old china ones, wooden painted ones and blotchy old tin ones. All different clothes and colors, boys and girls.

All different, except for one thing: they all have big, bright, open-mouthed smiles. Open mouths, where you can see their teeth.

DAY #4, Morning: I am almost 100% sure that when I woke up, all the dolls were one inch closer to my bed. The ones on shelves were closer to the edge of the shelves. The ones at the end of the bed were closer to me.

And the ones on the window ledge–all their heads are turned to look at me.

Night: Just now I was brushing my teeth in the little old-fashioned bathroom by my room. When I looked up into the mirror, there was a doll looking into the mirror too, right behind me, with its big open-mouth smile.

That doll wasn’t on the bathroom shelf before.

I texted Mabel to tell her and she texted back “Now I’m gonna have nightmares weirdo shut up.”

DAY #5, Afternoon: When I woke up this morning, the dolls were closer again, and half of them were upside down, still smiling their giant toothy smiles.

I hate this house.

And I hate my mother’s new job, which is making her weird. She wears a TON of makeup to work now. Her face looks weirdly too perfect. She’s wearing fake eyelashes, they look ridiculously long, it’s embarrassing.

Night: I found a linen closet with extra sheets. I didn’t ask permission. I hung them over the shelves with thumbtacks and I don’t care if the shiny wood is ruined. I draped some towels over the window dolls. The dolls at the end of my bed I stuck under the bed. I am not going to wake up to those horrible dolls again.

Day #6, Morning: Somehow in the night the bedsheets got torn down, and twisted into like ropes, and tied into hard knots around the bedpost. When I woke up, a doll from underneath the bed was halfway up one of the twisted sheets. Like he was climbing it. His big smiling mouth was turned right at me.

I texted Mabel again. She hasn’t texted me back.

The towels I put over the window dolls are on the floor, and soaking wet, but not with water, with something dark and sticky. I threw them in the wash, then I washed my hands for like ten minutes. The water ran the same red color as the walls.

So maybe it was paint?

I gotta get out, we gotta get out.

Day #7, Morning: Last night I tried to talk to my mom about the dolls. She laughed at me, this funny, robot-y sounding laugh, like “HA ha ha ha. HA ha ha ha.” She sounded like the laugher at some creepy fun house.

She was straightening up the living room in this funny stiff way, bending at the hips. like her joints didn’t work so well any more. She is wearing the same lavender-flower dress she wore yesterday. She looks smaller, somehow.

Something about this place.

I couldn’t even write in this diary, I just lay there saying “I won’t cry, I won’t cry,” until I fell asleep.

And then this morning I woke up with three little bloody bite marks on my arm, just like when I was taming Spooky. They sting really bad.

One of the dolls right across from my bed, a big Pinocchio with a long nose and a red hat and a wide smile, has a little streak of blood at the corner of his mouth.

DAY #7, Night: 

After school I saw that my mother is definitely smaller! She’s almost my size now! I asked her what was happening, why she was shrinking?

She said “HA ha ha ha. HA ha ha ha.”

When she tucked me in she had a big wide smile on her face and her eyes with their long fake eyelashes stared right over my head.

I secretly called Dad, which I am not supposed to do except in a giant emergency. I think I woke him up because of the time zones. I told him mom was getting smaller and laughing weirdly and he told me I was having a bad dream, go back to sleep, tell mom to call him later. Then he hung up.

DAY #10

When I woke up yesterday morning the dolls were all around me–some tucked under my pillow, some with their legs wrapped around my arm, some lying on my stomach–but every single one with their faces tilted UP at me. One big doll wearing some kind of peasant costume had her wide, smiling mouth around my hand. Its teeth were resting on my skin. I screamed. I ran downstairs.

Mom was sitting at the edge of the sofa, her legs hanging down. She was maybe two feet tall, still in her pale purple flowered dress, her black hair long and neat. “HA ha,” she was saying, “HA ha.” But like she was tired, like she was winding down.

So I took her home. I put her purse in my backpack. I left a bunch of food for Viv’s stupid ugly cat, a whole bag full on the floor. I held the doll that was my mom in my arms and waited for the bus to come. I asked the bus driver which stop to transfer at to get to our address, and she gave me and my doll-mom a funny look, but she told me.

Last night I slept with my doll-mom, I held her and talked to her and tried to talk her back into being my mom again, but it made no difference. She’s smaller this morning, she’s doll-sized for real now.

All morning I’ve been laying in my room, whispering to the doll, “Mama come back, come back.”

Tuesday I think

We’ve been home alone for a while now. We’re almost out of peanut butter and noodles. I hope I got mom out in time but I don’t know. I don’t know if I did. She can still move one arm a little, and creakily say “HA ha. HA ha.”

But so could those dolls at Viv’s house, right? So maybe she is gone all the way. I don’t know.

I’m lonely, I’m lonely, I’m scared. But I can’t call Dad or Grandma or anyone, and say “Mom turned into a doll.” No one would believe me. They’d take her away from me.

So I don’t answer any texts from anyone.

At night in bed I hold her in my arms, my mommy doll, my mommy doll, and I try not to cry. And every morning I wake up with these tiny little bite marks on my arms, and my mommy doll has blood on her big, smiling face.

But I was thinking, maybe it will be like Spooky. Maybe she’ll bite me and bite me and then see I still love her anyway. And then after a while, she’ll give up biting, and give up being a doll, and be my mom again.

Friday

The most terrible thing happened. The police came, and Viv came with them.

They kept asking where my mom was, or who was taking care of me. I said “she’ll be right back in minute” in this high, obviously lying voice.

The police looked at each other. Viv smiled a tiny, mean smile.

Then she said to me, in this fake nice voice, that she knew I had stolen a doll, this supposedly really valuable doll, worth thousands of dollars. At first I didn’t even know what she was talking about, like I would STEAL one of those horrible things?

But then the police lady starts reading a description that says “long black hair, brown skin, brown eyes, lavender-flowered dress”—and I realize she means my mother. My mother, she means.

Viv wants my mother back for her collection.

I run to my room to get to her before they do. I lock the door, but the police start banging on it, yelling OPEN UP MISS. OPEN UP.

I grab my mom-doll, and now I finally do cry, for the first time this whole time, I cry all over the place. “Mama,” I cry, ”you have to come back, you have to.”

“HA ha,” she say softly, and lifts her hand a little.

“Mama!” I say. My tears are pouring all over her hard little face. I think for a minute–but maybe it’s just because my eyes are full of tears?–that her plastic face starts to soften a little. I think it is softening, though–it’s like the tears are ruining the perfectness of the plastic, and making it a little bit alive again.

But there’s no time to keep watching. I hear the police backing up to smash down the door. So I throw the doll behind me and get ready to fight.

I know it’s useless, but I have to try.

And as the police bust through the door, in that one second, I can see it all happening, the rest of my life: Viv taking my mother away to put in her collection, and I never see her again, never again. And they send me to some place for crazy children, my Dad and Grandma standing in the door crying while they drag me away. And people say “What a shame, poor girl, what a shame.”

The door smashes down. The police stagger in. Then they blink, and straighten up.

“Mrs. Everton?” they say. “We didn’t realize you were here, your daughter said—“

“I was asleep,” says my mother, from behind me. “What in the world is going on? What have you done to our door?”

And behind the police, I see Viv’s face twist up in rage and disappointment. I see her slip quietly away.

And on my shoulder, warm and real and right-sized, I feel my mother’s hand.

The Hills and the Valleys

Creatures live in the hills and in the valleys. They are creatures of smoke and ash, of whispers and misunderstood words, of lavender and poison and hollow bones. Some are so not-there you could put your hand right through them, but if you tried, their very-real fangs would feel very solid indeed, solid and sharp. Others have a laugh that shatters glass…when they laugh.

At night, they run toward the villages. They listen for the sounds of sleep, for breath and snores. They reap their harvest, and return to the hills and the valleys carrying their prizes in talons or on the wind.

A hair, a tooth, a shard of fingernail.

It has no name, the young creature, for names are human things. Ages are human things, too, but it can truly be said that it is young, formed of thistles and lightning the last time the snows had melted and the land had sprung anew with green.

Names are human things, so we shall give it a human name. The hills and the valleys are where the Nightmares live.

The young Nightmare dances across the fields, a crackle of blue and sting, strong enough for the first time to move. It will soon be even stronger. All around, the other, older Nightmares skip and fly and tumble toward the houses, thatched roofs pointed above darkened windows. A dog whines, perhaps sensing something that humans cannot, perhaps simply wishing to fill the silence, for the Nightmares make no noise. No noise, at least, where they can be heard.

Grass gives way to stone under the Nightmares’ feet, and here they all part ways, heading for different places. They slip through window cracks and mouse holes, down chimneys and through letterboxes. Any way inside is good enough, and once they are inside, they cannot be stopped.

The young Nightmare knows what to do. It is knowledge passed from creature to creature by the howl of the storm, by the rustle of leaves—are they just leaves?—in the darkness. It watches the house for a minute, and creeps inside. Up the stairs, past two doors that are not the right doors, and to the one that is. The girl in the bed tosses and turns as the Nightmare nears, her face scrunched at the pictures in her head. The Nightmare knows precisely what the pictures are. She belongs to this Nightmare, and it to her.

She has not recently lost a tooth, and her fingernails are short and smooth, but it is no trouble to take a single long, red hair from her head. She does not even notice. The Nightmare crackles brighter blue. Happiness is a human thing, but this is an important moment, this first collection. It dances back across the fields, the hair streaming behind it. Back in the hills and the valleys, the others have returned to crow over their spoils, and the young Nightmare watches as they grow bigger, stronger from the things they have gathered.

Nightmares are creatures, and creatures must feed. The young one feels itself grow, an inch taller perhaps. Not much, but there is time. Years. The girl’s red hair is cut short, and grows long again. She loses a tooth, and it is replaced by another. One night, a sliver of fingernail is painted pink.

She is alone in the house when the Nightmare, no longer young, climbs the stairs to her room and stops at the landing, for, no, she is not alone. It glows brighter, not from joy at this collection, this time, but rage.

“Mine,” it says, and its voice is the sear of lightning and the burn of a thistle on skin.

The other Nightmare turns from her bedside, empty-handed, but clearly hoping not to be for long. “Mine is gone. It slept the wakeless sleep.”

“Mine,” says the lightning-thistle voice again. “I am gentle to her. She never remembers.”

The girl’s face twists and grimaces as the Nightmares battle inside her head. It is loud, and at the same time completely silent, and when it is over the winner backs away, taking nothing from her tonight and knowing she will not sleep peacefully until it is gone. It crackle-dances over the grass and up the hill to a strange, hollowed-out spot filled with red hair and pink fingernails. “Mine,” it thought once more. She had made the Nightmare strong. “Mine.”

Snows and springs fell over the hills and the valleys, one after another. The girl’s hair turned white, and her fingernails brittle. Once more, she lost her teeth and had them replaced by fake ones that were of no use to the Nightmare at all.

The moon was full, and bounced off the lightning as it moved slowly down to the village. It knew. The Nightmares always knew when the wakeless sleep would come. The house was full of people, speaking in hushed voices the Nightmare ignored as it crept to her bedside.

She opened her eyes, and blinked.

“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you from once, when I was a little girl. I never dreamed again after that.”

The Nightmare thought of its collection. “You did, many times,” it said, and of course she did not understand it, but she nodded, a tiny jerk of the head.

And closed her eyes.

A Brief Note From Your Curators

Dearest readers,

Please note that, during the month of May, we Curators will be posting our stories about collections every Thursday, rather than every Wednesday.

On every Wednesday in May, the kind folks at our publisher, Greenwillow Books, will be hosting a contest in which they will post an exclusive story written by one of us, as well as give away an art print by our illustrious illustrator, Alexander Jansson.

We encourage you to enter these contests, and to follow us on Twitter, where we will be announcing each one as it happens.

Please make your way to the first contest, and follow the instructions to enter the giveaway.

Encouragingly,

Your Curators

May is for Collections

Although we Curators enjoy telling our stories, and naturally hope that you enjoy reading them, this Cabinet’s true raison d’être—if I may shock you with French—are our collections.

What haven’t we braved to feed the collector’s chief obsession? Which is, of course, completeness. Curator Trevayne once climbed an immense and ancient tree to find the nest of a winged ghoul, otherwise occupied, whose infant hatchlings greeted her with gaping mouths full of tiny, razor-sharp, bloodstained teeth. I cannot imagine how, one by one, she managed to pull those teeth—now prominently displayed in her Dentition of the Necrophagi exhibit—but I hope someday she will tell us. So far she insists she’s just trying to forget.

Curator Legrand once slept under a young child’s bed for 13 nights in a row in order, finally, to slaughter and stuff an enormous gila monster—which was just as well, as the monster had taken to sleeping under the covers at the end of the terrified child’s bed, occasionally licking her feet with disturbing interest.

Curator Bachmann once disguised himself as a snowdrift to record the domestic dispute of a pair of yeti.

I myself, for the sake of a collection, braved a 7th grade gym class. The horrors I witnessed would strain your sanity, but it was worth it to capture a splendid specimen of Adolescent Voodoo Experimentation, including a little blonde doll that may still be causing weight problems for a certain cheerleader.

But of course, these stories we tell you form a kind of collection themselves—a collection which, in fact, will be magnificently published in a few short weeks, on May 27. In honor of that massive and remarkably beautiful tome, we will devote the month of May to stories about collections, and collectors, and all the pleasant horrors they entail.