This week’s Friday Reads selection is “Equoid” by Charles Stross. It’s set in the Laundry Files universe1 and follows an investigation into a possible unicorn infestation in a small British village. Of course these unicorns aren’t from cutesy Lisa Frank notebook covers. Nope! These unicorns are horrible monstrosities with a taste for human flesh. The present-day investigation is intercut with a series of fictional letters found in H. P. Lovecraft’s Laundry file that describe his terrifying encounter with a unicorn the summer before his grandfather died.
“Equoid” won the Best Novella category at the Hugo Awards last month. (Yes, I’m still working my way through this year’s Hugo Packet. Hopefully this exercise will mean that next year I’ll pay close attention to Hugo-related announcements so that the packet can be put to its intended purpose. Sigh. This is not strictly relevant here.) I’m just about a third of the way done and I can see why it won a Hugo.
For one thing, the protagonist is an appealing character. I have a soft spot for first person narratives, anyway, but Bob’s voice and point of view are quite funny. I enjoy the way that he describes his department and it’s operations, poking fun at career civil servants the way that we do when we’re talking about our own kind. Bob’s descriptions of people and locations are visual, concise, and cutting in a way that reminds me of Flannery O’Connor.
I also like the literal inclusion of H. P. Lovecraft in a Laundry story. Directly referencing HPL rather than just lifting motifs from his stories is a nice touch. Stross skewers Lovecraft’s problematic points by having Bob complain about Lovecraft’s language and storylines while at the same time doing a great job mimicking them in the letters. He also completely calls Lovecraft on his xenophobic b.s., which is a refreshing bit of truth-telling that I appreciated.
Here’s my favorite passage so far:
It’s absolutely true that Lovecraft knew stuff. Somewhere in grandpa’s library he got his hands on the confused rambling inner doctrines of a dozen cults and secret societies. Most of these secrets were arrant nonsense on stilts—admixed with just enough knowledge to be deadly dangerous. Occultists of old, like the alchemists who poisoned themselves with mercury in their enthusiasm to transform lead into gold[…]didn’t know much. What they did know was mostly just enough to guarantee a slow, lingering death from Krantzberg Syndrome (if the Eaters in Night didn’t get them first). Not to mention the fact that the vain exhibitionists who compiled these tomes and grimoires, strung out between the narcissistic urge to self-exposure and their occupational addiction to secrecy, littered their scribbled recipes with booby traps on purpose, just to fuck with unauthorized imitators and prove how ’leet they were for being able to actually make this junk work without melting their own faces.
But the young idiot savant HPL was unaware of the social context of 18th century occultist fandom. So he naively distilled their methanol-contaminated moonshine and nonsense into a heady brew that makes you go blind and then causes your extremities to rot if you actually try to drink it.
“Equoid” is a fun romp so far. There probably won’t be a lot of deeper meanings to be picked out of the story once I’ve finished it, but that’s okay. Sometimes the only ingredients you need for a great story are humor and adventure.
If this sounds like something you’d like, too, you can read “Equoid” for free over on Tor.com.
1 “The Laundry Files are a series of science fiction spy thrillers written by British writer Charles Stross. The series main character is Bob Howard, a one-time I.T. consultant, now field agent working for British government agency The Laundry which deals with occult threats. The books are influenced by Lovecraft’s visions of the future, and set in a world where a computer and the right mathematical equations is just as useful a toolset for calling up horrors from other dimensions as a spellbook and a pentagram on the floor.”–from The Laundry Files Wiki