REVIEW SUMMARY: Holy Unicorns, Batman! This novella, set in Charles Stross’ Laundry universe, will leave you sleeping with one eye open anytime a young girl mentions a penchant for the mythical horned beast.
BRIEF SUMMARY: What agent Bob Howard hopes to be a bogus assignment fueled by surviving death-bed letters written by H.P. Lovecraft, turns out to be a true eldritch nightmare. The mythical one-horned horse and its magical connotations are pushed through a Lovecraftian meat grinder with results both comical and frightening.
PROS: Stross channels Lovecraft masterfully; story is short enough to be read in one long sitting while not skimping on plot; works well as an introduction to the Laundry universe; balances wry humor with suspenseful elements.
CONS: Those familiar with Bob Howard and his adventures may find themselves skimming past introductory material, despite its brevity; in-jokes abound that will not have the same impact for new readers.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not my first experience with the writing of Charles Stross, but was my first foray into the world of his Laundry novels. I was encouraged to read the novella after seeing mentions of it on Hugo nominations lists and wanted to read it for consideration as I compile my own list. Given Stross’ ability to channel Lovecraft so well, it is a strong contender for a nomination. This is fun, funny and chock-full of the rich horror atmosphere that has helped the stories of H.P. Lovecraft remain popular to this day.
“…it’s probably safe to tell you that my name’s Bob Howard…and I work for a secret government agency known to its inmates as the Laundry.”
Bob’s employer is a little known wing of the British Intelligence Service, dealing with occult threats as they arise in the best, most efficient and hopefully most quiet manner possible. After all, the common man (woman and child) doesn’t want to know about things that go bump in the night. Most especially if those things are the stuff of sugar and spice fantasy that turn out to be anything but sweet or innocent.
This novella, published in 2013 on Tor.com, sees Bob Howard hustled off to the quaint British countryside to deal with a reported unicorn infestation. Oh, the images that conjures up, right? And oh how wrong those images are. As part of his assignment, Howard is given a dossier containing the death-bed confessional letters of H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch which he reads on the train ride to the epicenter of occult activity. It is with these letters, and the humorous way these letters effect Howard’s telling of the tale, that Stross demonstrates just how great a grasp he has on the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
“There are bits of the True Knowledge scattered throughout HPL’s oeuvre like corn kernels in a turd.”
Through Bob Howard’s narration of events, Stross pokes good-natured fun at the verbosity of that Lovecraftian style of writing, a style that can be quite affecting if you can resist the urge to scream “get to the point already”.
As the reality of what is occurring comes home to the reader, Stross inserts various memos from the Ministry of Defense that paint a picture of the efforts from mid-1940 up through the recent present of these creatures to enact their diabolical plans. I won’t say anything more about the specifics of the story elements as this was a very entertaining read and as such is one that I want everyone else to read.
I would be interested in reading comments from those who have read other Laundry stories. It was obvious to me throughout the reading of Equoid that there were series in-jokes and references that I was missing, some of which may simply be British language uses that I am not familiar with. None of that takes away from the story in any way, instead the presence of these elements make the story richer and exist as an integrated method of encouraging more exploration of the character and his employer through additional reading. Am I right here or am I reading more into the story than is actually there?
It could be easy to be dismissive of a story that is part of a greater series, especially when it comes to discussing award-worthy fiction. In looking at Equoid, the story works in part because it tells a complete tale in a satisfying manner and introduces readers to an engaging character in an interesting setting. A closer look reveals a skillful weaving of an old-style of storytelling with a contemporary style in a way that is very fluid. Stross does so with humor while not distracting from the tension and suspense of the narrative. It is apparent that Stross has an affection for his subject manner which results in the reader getting maximum value out the novella-length tale.
The illustration that accompanies this story is a painting from Spectrum and Chesley award-winning artist David Palumbo. David is the son of artist Julie Bell and step-son of artist Boris Vallejo. Talk about a talented family! His painting for Equoid is based on the narrative and the creepy nature of the painting takes on more significance as certain facts are unveiled.