Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Horror at Oakdeene and Others, by Brian Lumley

Arkham House, 1977
229 pp

I have been an avid collector of Arkham House books for quite a long time now and luckily got this like-new edition of The Horror at Oakdeene and Others a while ago.  The book is an anthology of eight stories written by Brian Lumley, whose early horror writings are among my favorites in the world of weird fiction and cosmic horror.  As is true in many anthologies, you take the excellent with the good with the not so hot in this collection, but when all is said and done, it's a pretty good conglomerate of weird fiction.  Lovecraft's influence can be felt throughout, but there is plenty here to mark Lumley's own writing style as well.

author Brian Lumley

The eight stories in the book (with a brief intro to each) are:

"The Viking's Stone"  -- featuring Titus Crow, Lumley's very own creation, about whom Lumley writes:  
"he is one to whom, in his unending search for mysteries and discoveries of marvels, the occult has been simply a passage down which his wanderings have taken him; where he has learned, on more than one occasion, outre things unheard of in the more mundane world of ordinary men. Crow may, in that snese, be called an occultist -- but so is he a most knowledgeable man and something of an expert in many fields."
In this story, Crow and his partner de Marigny get involved with a fellow scholar who is messing about with things he shouldn't and removes the "bautastein" (tomb marker)  of a bloodthirsty Viking when the runes say not to;  "Aunt Hester" finds a  young man going to visit his black-sheep aunt shunned by the rest of his family and in the process and  to his detriment he discovers why no one even speaks of her any more;  "No Way Home" is an eerie tale of a man who has been trying to find his way home for 15 years; this one is somewhat marred by its ending and although it started out like a hackle-raising ghost story it lost me at the finish.   The title story "The Horror at Oakdeene," finds Martin Spellman, an aspiring author who wants to do a compilation of "rare or outstanding mental cases," soaking up atmosphere  in  training as a nurse at Oakdeene Sanatorium.  Spellman tries to avoid the basement ward known as "Hell," where a fellow nurse may or may not have had anything to do with a patient's bizarre death.  Burglar William "Spotty" Morton decides to go back and finish something he'd started a year ago in  "The Cleaner Woman," but the perfect crime may still be out of his reach.  Quite possibly my favorite in the entire collection is "The Statement of Henry Worthy," a little reminiscent of HPL's Innsmouth adventures but with a clever and spooky twist.  This one takes place in the moors of Scotland, when Matthew Worthy, Henry's nephew, comes down to visit his uncle and to also follow in the footsteps of a lost botanist who had disappeared after finding a very unusual species of plant.  "Darghud's Doll" is another Titus Crow story, where Crow is not really involved in the action but shares a bizarre story about the power and  long reach of supernatural revenge. Ending this collection of stories is "Born of the Winds," a rather long, drawn-out account of a determined woman seeking her son in the frozen Canadian north.  This story started out fine but got kind of bogged down as Lumley combines a mix of mythologies that imho didn't match the state of hovering horror as much as the other stories in this book were able to.

All in all -- a pretty good volume of tales of terror influenced largely by HP Lovecraft; a highly-recommended must for collectors  if you're into Lumley or Lovecraft or this brand of cosmic horror/weird fiction.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012
833 pp

There is nothing I like better than a good, old-fashioned ghost story, and here in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Otto Penzler, I am completely in my element.  Ghosts are everywhere, roaming in the old English abbeys, conjured up in the eerie atmosphere of the Victorian seance room, moaning in old castles, sailing the seas, you name it, and a ghost will be found there.  This is an incredible collection, one I couldn't wait to get to every time I had a moment to pick it up.  

The stories in this book are divided into thirteen (of course!) sections and cover a broad spectrum of authors, many of whom are known for their supernatural writings as well as others whose work is not as famous.  As Penzler notes in his introduction, many of the stories that appear in this volume have not previously been anthologized, nor have they appeared in book form anywhere else. And as he states, the stories that are found between the covers cover the range from the Late Victorian era through the heyday of the pulp mags, and he's also included some of the works of modern tellers of ghostly tales. I found perhaps two out of the entire collection that just didn't do it for me; the rest more than surpassed the creep factor I always hope to feel when reading a good anthology of scary stories.    

There's just nothing more to say really, except that if you're a huge fan of ghost stories, if you can move beyond the vampire/zombie/werewolf genres that top the horror charts today,  and if you are not bound to the gory, hack/slash horror to get your chills, this book just might do it.  It's incredibly rare to find a near-perfect anthology of stories; this one definitely fits that bill.  There's an added bonus as well:  when introducing each story, there is a short blurb about each author and his or her other works.  I've used this feature to full advantage for future ghost-story reading.  

Super book, best read at night when everyone's asleep and it's eerily quiet, The Big Book of Ghost Stories will likely most please readers of more cerebral weird/horror tales rather than what's popular on the shelves today.  I highly recommend it!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Banquet for the Damned, by Adam LG Nevill

Virgin Books, 2008
408 pp

While I happen to sit on the side of the fence of readers who claim that horror is much more potent in short-story format, once in a while I run into a full-length novel that can throw a continually sustained chill down my spine.  Banquet for the Damned did just that. Although it didn't give me nightmares or produce the sort of night terrors that some of the characters suffered in this book,  the creep factor was intense enough to where I read it in one sitting -- alone, at night,wind howling outside, the perfect horror-read atmosphere.

Banquet for the Damned is set in the Scottish town of St. Andrews. As the story opens, in a "night empty of cloud and as still as space," a young man is slowly moving away from the town, across a beach to the dunes where he's fully enveloped in the darkness.  But he hasn't done this consciously, and he suddenly stops dead in his tracks, confused, realizing he'd only been sleepwalking. As he wakes he becomes aware that he's traveled a mile from his residence hall, where he'd earlier fallen asleep working on his thesis.  Out of the darkness comes a voice calling his name; fear sets in as he hears movement coming toward him. What he sees drives him into the sea, thinking that his pursuer won't follow -- but it's a big miscalculation on his part.

Arriving in St. Andrews are two leather-clad, has-been heavy metal rockers who've driven there from Birmingham. Dante has received an opportunity to work with his idol, Professor Eliot Coldwell, who works at St. Andrews University's School of Divinity. Some years back Coldwell had written a book called Banquet of the Damned, a volume of his "carefully recorded visions and bodily sensations induced by hallucinogens," such as dialogues with various spirits; probably something along the lines of the books produced in real life by Castaneda.   The book was Dante's lifeline through all of the hard times, and now he has been invited to St. Andrews where his hope is to create a concept album and make a musical comeback based on Banquet of the Damned, along with Tom, his friend and companion. The new university term hasn't yet started so all is relatively quiet in St. Andrews, but their arrival coincides with a police investigation underway at the beach where their curiosity gets the better of them as they go take a look at what's happening, and immediately wish they hadn't. 

Also in St. Andrews is an American, Hart Miller, who has flown in from Africa where he's been doing anthropological fieldwork studying the phenomenon of night terrors. Informed by a friend in St. Andrews that a student committed suicide in his car after a series of nighttime trauma, he came to Scotland to hopefully gain more first-hand case studies to add to his work. Posting flyers that direct anyone with "nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns, or night terrors" to come to him for a "confidential analysis," people begin coming -- many of whom share the same basic stories and same symptoms, some of whom later disappear into thin air.  
 The unease sets in from the beginning and increases throughout the novel, helped along by other mysterious characters -- Coldwell, his beautiful young student protegé, some of the staff at the School of Divinity and others along the way through whom the mystery behind what is happening at St. Andrews is slowly revealed to the reader.  In fact, intensifying this edginess is what Nevill does best throughout this book, revealing the terror through multiple points of view, often distorting our vision of the reality of things.   As Dante's hero worship of Eliot begins to slowly turn to disillusion, as Hart's research leads him to a discovery that lands him in the thick of things, as seemingly normal people begin to take on more sinister overtones, it becomes all too clear that there is something menacing and malignant which has "arrived to disturb the calm" of this town. 

Other readers have complained about the repetition of the night-terror scenes, but I thought they were necessary for raising the tension level right off the bat.  Some have noted that Dante makes some really stupid decisions, and that is true, but my take is that in his growing state of disillusionment, he's kind of slow or maybe unwilling to grasp what's really going on.   My issues with this book are in some of the characters: first  Tom -- while you could argue that he had to be included as the first link in a chain of cause and effect as to Dante's current predicament,  we really only see  him through Dante's eyes without any real fleshing out,  so when he comes to a bad end it's not as horrific as it might be, leaving the reader unsympathetic as to what actually happens to him. And when he and Dante have a fight and Dante begins to think about their relationship, the book gets a bit draggy while we have to go through the sordid backstory that I really didn't think added to the tension of the main story.  Second is Hart and  the way he speaks -- it  is so stupid, having him refer to the women as "honey" -- sort of unrealistic for most modern American men. But on the whole, I found Banquet of the Damned  to be  a disturbingly good occult horror read.  There are no gimmicky creatures, the terror is manifested at times but for the most part cerebral, and the tension is sustained throughout the story, keeping you alert and ready for what might happen next.  Nevill writes without going overboard in the telling, and if the object of writing horror is taking the reader briefly into the zone of  the worst that  might possibly happen and letting him or her experience the fear, panic and hopelessness that abides in that space, well, he's done a great job.  The setting is inexorably linked to its already-charged historical atmosphere -- St. Andrews  was once a place of religious martyrs, witchcraft and the cleansing of heresy ; Nevill has just added a new dimension to the already-existing history of darkness there.  It works perfectly, from the dunes on the beaches to the dark Tentsmuir forests.  Highly recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones

St. Martin's Griffin
first US edition, September 2012
448 pp
(published previously in the UK, Quercus, 2011)
advanced reader copy (thank you, LibraryThing early reviewers program!)

 oh's been a while since I've read any horror/sci-fi/fantasy or other novels in the strange/weird zone, but I've recently finished A Book of Horrors, a new volume of horror edited by Stephen Jones, who has edited a number of books I have in my library.   The problem with anthologies is that you have some pieces that are really, really good, some that are sort of so-so, and some that you just plain don't like, and this book pretty much follows the same pattern.  On to the book discussion now.

In the introduction to this book, editor Stephen Jones notes that "The time has come to reclaim the horror genre for those who understand and appreciate the worth and impact of a scary story."  Lamenting the fact that the traditional horror market is being "usurped" by publishers and booksellers who are aiming "horror-lite" fiction at the "middle-of-the-road reader," -- including   'paranormal romance', 'urban fantasy', 'literary mash-up' or even 'steampunk' in that category -- he offers this collection of stories as a return to the scary.

Personally I think it's entirely possible to enjoy both "horror-lite" and  the really creepy, hair-standing-on-end type of horror that Jones is talking about.  Take me as an example.  I can scare myself wide awake with a Lovecraft story or something totally evil from Ramsay Campbell [horror] while enjoying a  laugh at the further adventures of Bob Howard in the Laundry Files by Charles Stross [horror lite].  While I don't care for paranormal romance, undercover werewolves or zombies, let's don't be slamming the "middle-of-the-road reader" or people who really love that stuff --  if it weren't for  all of the people who love  "horror lite" and buy the books that keep the bookstores open and the publishers in business, well, enough said;  it's also sort of demeaning to turn up one's nose at others' reading choices.

Now having got that out of the way, there are a number of stories in this collection that are pretty creepy and edgy, as well as some that are just kind of so-so, and all of the stories in A Book of Horrors include a short piece by each author where he or she talks about the inspirations behind his/her work.   There are five which managed to give me a case of the willies and produced that growing sense of agitation and unease while I read them:

Ramsey Campbell's "Getting It Wrong",  the tale of a mysterious radio quiz show, where a contestant  on this bizarre show reaches out for a help from a co-worker by phone, à la "Who Wants to be a Millionaire,"  but as it turns out, the contestant's need for a   "lifeline" is not just for help winning money;

John Ajvide Lindqvist's "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer," seriously creeped me out.  It's about a father and son who live in an isolated house in the woods and accidentally summon something that threatens to tear them apart;

"The Man in the Ditch" by Lisa Tuttle (who is an excellent storyteller, by the way) is one of those story where the sense of unease starts at the beginning and doesn't let up.  A woman's visions and feelings of apprehension are ignored by her husband and build to a crescendo as they move into a house in the Norfolk countryside that the wife is positive is the site of a long-ago sacrifice;

and finally, "A Child's Problem" by Reggie Oliver and "Near Zennor," by Elizabeth Hand, which might just be the best stories in the entire collection. In Oliver's gothic-styled story set in the early 1800s, a boy is left with a wealthy uncle by his parents on a grand estate.  He is lonely and wants the company of his uncle, and his interest is piqued by the uncle's chessboard.  When he asks if the uncle would consider playing chess with him, the uncle instead sends him on some mysterious riddle-solving quests.  As the boy roams the grounds in search of the answer, he uncovers something  horrific connected to his uncle's past.  "Near Zennor" takes place mostly in Cornwall, and also deals with the revelation of past secrets that reach out into the present in a most creepy, eerie and extremely satisfying way.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed here; out of fourteen short stories only five managed to actually get under my skin in any significant way, but then again, that's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with anthologies.  As far as recommending it -- well, everyone has their own idea of what's scary, so I'd say if you're a horror fan of the type who likes the feel of the hackles going up on the back of your neck, give it a try. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross

There's something to be said about a guy who can combine HP Lovecraft, various writers of spy fiction, computer geekness and a little of the management nitwitnedness of Office Space and come up with a series of consistently good novels that incorporate all of the above.  After all, as he notes in the afterwords of his first series novel, there are a lot of similarities between Lovecraftian horror and spy fiction, especially the espionage novels set in the Cold War.  Along  the way he throws pointed barbs at iPhones, cults, Power Point presentations, evangelical Christians, handguns and other sources of irritation -- all of which come off as funny, but only because you realize that some of the things he pokes sarcastic fun at resonate with your own fears, peeves, and annoyances.  This guy is Charles Stross, who is the author of four books that comprise The Laundry Files, one of my favorite series of novels ever written.  If you'll pardon the expletive, I don't know he manages to keep coming up with this amazing shit -- each book is different, sending the main character Bob Howard, computational demonologist,  into perilous adventures as he and the Laundry, the super-secret civil service organization  Bob works for, prepare to save humanity from the onslaught of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN -- an apocalypse arriving from the multiverse.   The people at the Laundry have developed some very modern and secret technologies that combine the most high-tech electronics with the occult to keep Bob and others like him safe to defend the world -- all based on magic as a form of mathematics.  These novels remind me of old-time adventure stories with a hopped-up occult/geek/horror twist that for some reason unknown to myself I just can't seem to get enough of.

These books are perfect for someone like me -- I never did jump on the Twilight bandwagon, I don't do talking werewolves or other stuff like that, didn't swoon over the zombie phase and actually waited for it to die down before venturing back into the world of fantasy/horror because this kind of stuff seemed to dominate the bookstores forever.  Tons of people like that sort of urban fantasy/paranormal romance stuff -- and that's great, but it's just not my thing.  So I ran across my copy of Atrocity Archives at home while reorganizing my bookshelves and decided to give it read, and within a couple of weeks, completely finished the Laundry series, finishing one book and picking up the next right away.  I can definitely recommend each and every novel to anyone who is a) into HP Lovecraft; b) likes irreverent humor and sarcastic wit; c)  likes occult fiction; d) enjoys the old Cold War-type spy fiction and e) looking for something entirely different.   I'm hooked on these books now, and sadly, having just finished the last one, I am not looking forward to having to wait for a while to get back to the Laundry and Bob Howard's latest adventures. 

So now, to the books themselves: I loved them all, have very little in the way of negatives to say about any of them, so I'll just offer a barebones outline of each one in their publication order.   It goes without saying that you simply must read them in the same order or you'll be totally confused. 

The Atrocity Archives
Ace, 2006
originally published 2004
368 pp

Take a helping of HP Lovecraft, toss in a layer of spy fiction, add a hefty dose of computer hackers & math nerds as well as the absurdity that can exist among bureaucrats who manage a cubicle-filled office, and you've got The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross. The title of the book covers not only the main story "The Atrocity Archive," but also "The Concrete Jungle," a novella that starts with one too many cow sculptures at Maynard Keynes, as well as an interesting essay by Stross entitled "Inside the Fear Factory."

Bob Howard works for a super-secret government agency called The Laundry. He's a computer guy who does stuff like fix sick Beowulf clusters, calibrates tarot permutators and does security audits of collecting card games to ensure that "stoned artists" in Austin Texas don't accidentally come up with a "great node." A year earlier he'd applied for a job in active service, and as the novel opens, he's getting his first crack at it. His assignment is to break into a company called Memetix (UK) Ltd., where a mathematician has succeeded in duplicating the Turing-Lovecraft theorem. It's in the world's best interest that the theorem is kept under wraps -- because certain mathematical computations can rip "honking great holes in spacetime," and once that happens, those things that live in the angles of different universes can make their way into ours. His mission is successful, and some three months after a mishap during a training class lands him a suspension he is sent back out into the field again. He ends up in Santa Cruz, where he is supposed to talk to a gorgeous scientist named Mo who is not allowed to leave the United States because of the nature of her work. When she is kidnapped and Bob intervenes to help her (which is against SOP) he ends up with a head injury and a flight back home. Shortly afterwards, Bob gets a new job in the Laundry under Angleton, his new boss -- and is assigned to accompany Mo (now back in the UK) to Amsterdam -- and all hell literally breaks loose.

"The Concrete Jungle" finds our hero once again wrapped up in a job for Angleton -- where he is ordered to go to Maynard Keynes and count the cows. His findings lead to the possibility that someone is playing around with "gorgonism," and may be planning to unleash its power via hacked CCTV networks.

Both "The Atrocity Archive" and "The Concrete Jungle" are great fun. Both make fun of the bureaucratic crap people in government jobs have to deal with -- budgets, paperwork for the sake of filling in paperwork, timekeeping and managers who have nothing better to do with their time than to make life tough on the employees and demand accurate paper clip counts in case of an audit. Bob's weird roommates at Chateau Cthulhu are also a good source of laughs. Beyond the humor of it all, Atrocity Archives combines spying, the occult and Lovecraftian horror into something very geeky and at the same time very original.

If you've got a geeky or irreverent sense of humor, this book should be just up your alley, especially if you also happen to be a fan of Lovecraftian-type horror, occult fiction and the occasional Cold War spy fiction novel.  Being in tune with geek culture is also a plus, although I have to admit that it's not one of my things. Looking at several  reviews, a lot of people have commented on the long time it takes to get into the story in "The Atrocity Archive," but I didn't care -- I was highly entertained; in all honesty, much more so by "The Atrocity Archive" than "The Concrete Jungle." Don't miss the essay at the end of the book -- it's well worth spending some time on.

The Jennifer Morgue
Golden Gryphon Press, 2006
313 pp

Bob Howard and the Laundry return, this time in an adventure with a very James Bond flair. The geek culture and Lovecraft influence are still there, but this time Bob is lifted out of his office chair and smack into a case where once again the fate of the world hangs in the balance.  Back in the 1970s, the CIA was eager to retrieve a Soviet submarine that had gone down in the Pacific Ocean in a mission known as Operation Jennifer, located at Jennifer Morgue Site One.  They finally lock onto it, but as the sub begins to rise, suddenly something down below starts stirring; at 3,000 feet below the surface it is suddenly pulled back down. The CIA is in violation of the Benthic Treaties made with the Deep Ones (codename BLUE HADES), and in accordance with Article Five, Clause Four of the treaty, the Deep Ones decided to exercise their salvage rights and to claim the sub.  Flash forward to the 21st century:  Bob Howard, newly promoted,  is in Darmstadt, Germany after a harrowing ride on the autobahn.  He's supposed to attend a joint meeting with his international counterparts and he meets Ramona, an agent from the Black Chamber (America's "superblack agency dealing with occult intelligence.")   Together they are tasked with cozying up to  a rather nasty billionaire named Ellis Billington, who has acquired a CIA spy ship with plans on invading a section of disputed BLUE HADES and DEEP SEVEN (the Cthonians)  territory in the Caribbean at Jennifer Morgue Site Two.  Bob's boss, Angleton, wants to know what exactly Billington's going to do there, so that he can work necessary action to keep Billington from "pissing off" DEEP SEVEN and BLUE HADES.  If that happens, well, let's just say humanity is in for a load of trouble.  Angleton would prefer not having to worry about how he's going to have to tell the powers that be.   All of Britain is now depending on Bob, and Angleton warns him not to make his "usual hash of things."   From that moment on, our erstwhile hero (and Stross' novel) goes into James Bond mode, complete with weapons that would make even Q proud, the secret-agent car (here a Smartcar rather than an Aston Martin), casino action and Bond girls, and even code names like BROCCOLI-GOLDENEYE. 

What I love about this book (and the others as well)  is that it really doesn't take itself very seriously and it's hard to keep the laughs away.  There are so many jokes in here (Power Point presentations, bad-guy monologuing and suits are at the root of many) -- my only problem is that I'm not very much into geek culture so I'm probably missing a lot.   But the story is so much fun to read that it's really hard to stop until it's all over. Yet, with all of the positives, the thing I didn't like much about it is that Bob gets sort of lost in this one to the other characters -- there's a reason why but I can't spill it -- while the book loses something taking the route Stross decided on.  The second story in the book, "Pimpf",  is not nearly as good as Jennifer Morgue or its predecessor Atrocity Archives -- but it does introduce a character who will show up again in The Fuller Memorandum.  My advice -- try the Atrocity Archives; if you like it, you're going to like this one.

The Fuller Memorandum
Ace, 2010
310 pp
"It's Bob Howard vs. Evil -- and Evil cheats."

Third in the Laundry series, the story behind The Fuller Memorandum is related via Bob Howard's memoir of some pretty harrowing events.  Two years prior to the events of this book, his boss Angleton had suggested to Bob that he write his memoirs.  When Bob wonders why a 30 year-old should even start thinking about an autobiography, he discovers that it's in the book of rules that officers above a certain rank keep a classified journal or update their memoirs.  The info will be classified and used as a part of the Laundry's "institutional memory." If something ever goes awry while Bob is out keeping evil at bay, at least the knowledge in his "thick little skull" will have been preserved.  The Fuller Memorandum is one section of Bob's memoir that covers his story of "the beginning of the end of the world," among other things. 

It all begins with Bob's assignment at RAF Cosford, where he is supposed to take a look at an aircraft that is the site of some strange incidents.  He's also supposed to try to stop these weird things from happening, and while he's there, he needs to take a look in Hangar Six, part of the RAF Museum annex. His contact is Hastings, who tells him that the plane is from Squadron 666, a plane that did duty for the Laundry, logging some 280 hours on the "other side, escorting the white elephants." Just what that means isn't clear at the moment; Angleton had said something about white elephants but now Bob needs to take care of the problems. A forgotten ward leads to an explosion, survived by both Bob & Hastings, but the lady at the front desk, now bringing tea to the hangar, is caught up and killed.  Under orders to take time off from the Laundry while he awaits any further action, Bob picks up his wife Mo (who also works for the Laundry) from the airport to find that Mo is in pretty bad shape, "two millimeters away from a nervous breakdown."   But because Bob is not yet cleared, Mo can't talk to him about what happened to her.  Expecting a messenger with a Letter of Release, what shows up at his doorstep instead has followed Mo home from Amsterdam, an Uncle Fester lookalike wearing the "mortal skin of a dead man walking," bringing Bob into CLUB ZERO, involving a cult called The Free Church of the Universal Kingdom, a nasty bunch of groupies of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the end of the world.  To make matters worse, Angleton has disappeared, and Bob is left to try to figure things out for himself. At the same time, The Free Church of the Universal Kingdom (oh! I just noticed their acronym would be FCUK!), the Americans and the Russians are all looking for something called the Teapot as well as  the Fuller Memorandum, a document that will help to awaken the "Sleeper," a first step toward a chain of events leading to the end of humanity.   As Bob's investigation proceeds, he enters into what may be the weirdest case in which he's ever been involved, one that could very well signal the beginning of the end.

According to Wikipedia, where The Jennifer Morgue was written as a sort of pastiche send up of Ian Fleming's James Bond, The Fuller Memorandum is written as an "homage of sorts" to the work of Anthony Price, author of a series of spy novels featuring Dr. David Audley and Coloner Jack Butler.   Lovecraft's influence is still alive and kicking in this book, along with occult conspiracies and some more earthly horrors.  The same cynical, sarcastic humor and asides  (this time directed at Iphones, cultists, workers' rights and handguns among other things) in the other two books are still here, as are the author's excellent characterizations.  Also in common with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, while the action is definitely over the top,  I loved it -- I absolutely can't get enough of The Laundry or of Charles Stross' writing.   I hope this series lasts a good, long time.

The Apocalypse Codex
Ace, 2012
326 pp
 "Bob Howard may be humanity's last hope. Start praying..."

Still recovering from the hair-raising events of The Fuller Memorandum, Bob now finds himself on the Fast Stream track for promotion, and his superiors have decided that he needs to attend some Professional Development training with regular civil servants who don't work for the Laundry.  Bob of course, doesn't want to go -- he'd rather audit some courses at the Dunwich facility that would improve his prospects for survival for "when the tentacles hit the pentacle." But of course, he has no choice, and after the first "four hours of soul-destroyingly banal tedium," meets Gerald Lockhart, who is in charge of external assets.  Lockhart wants Bob to join forces with Persephone Hazard, code name BASHFUL INCENDIARY, who has been hired to investigate why an American televangelist has all of a sudden taken an intense interest in the people surrounding the Prime Minister.  The Laundry is not allowed to snoop on Number 10, but the activities of the televangelist, Ray Schiller, have whetted the organization's curiosity.  It's off to America for Bob, where he follows BASHFUL INCENDIARY to a retreat in the Rockies, where she will be poised to discover exactly what Schiller and his disciples are getting up to -- and it's definitely not pretty. 

According to Howard's own blog, he wrote The Apocalypse Codex with Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise in mind.  But you'll also find a lot of Lovecraft, as well as some "Wrath of Khan" moments as Bob tries to prevent a group of evil and somewhat misguided members of the Golden Promise Ministries from ushering in the Second Coming that could launch NIGHTMARE CASE GREEN before its time. That would be very, very bad indeed. 

In The Apocalypse Codex Stross has created a plot that starts out like a light tap on the gas pedal and then accelerates in increments to some stomach-tensing action as you wonder how the heck they're going to make out of this one before the apocalypse erupts. Although a great deal of the action is told from the perspectives of two of the other characters, it fits together well considering this story is coming from Bob Howard's memoirs. It also seems like the Laundry series is getting a bit more serious now as events are moving toward the inevitable fight between humanity and what's laying in wait inside the edges and angles of other universes, but I hope it doesn't ever lose its sense of humor and geekness that these books are noted for and that is part of the reason I love this series.   It's another excellent and fun installment of the Laundry series, but don't read this if you're a very religious Christian unless you have a sense of humor.  It's obvious that Howard has issues with fundamentalist Christians in the way he throws those pointed barbs around -- the arrows don't bother me, but some people might take his humor the wrong way.  If you can get past that, you'll be rewarded with a fun adventure that takes you deeper into the heart of the strange and mysterious Laundry. 

and now, the long wait before the next book....aaarrghh!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Lovecraft's Library: Sinister House, by Leland Hall and Cold Harbour, by Francis Brett Young

Hippocampus Press, 2008
269 pp

Two books in one volume isn't so odd, but two books in one volume where the books are upside down from each other is a bit of a weird setup.  It works; it's just a bit disorienting.  The two books in this particular volume, Sinister House, by Leland Hall and Cold Harbour, by Francis Brett Young, are from a series by Hippocampus Press called "Lovecraft's Library" which features nine volumes -- three doubles, like this one, and six novels -- all of which, according to the Hippocampus website, offers "the modern reader a selection of works that Lovecraft himself read and admired, and that he commented upon in his letters or elsewhere."   This is my first foray into the series, and it was a bit of spooky, creepy fun -- best suited for reading after dark or during a night when you're all tucked up in bed and thunder, lightning and rain are all rampaging outside.

Up first is Cold Harbour, by Francis Brett Young.  Originally published in 1924, most of this haunted-house story takes place in the West Midlands area of England.  As the story opens, a group of friends are together on a terrace somewhere on the Italian Island of Capri. While they are enjoying the night, two of the guests, Ronald and Evelyn Wake, reveal their strange adventures at an old house in England's Black Country, keeping their friends spellbound with their eerie tale. 

The Wakes are on their way home from a short vacation and while in the Black Country, in the middle of a thunderstorm something goes wrong with their car and they find refuge at a nearby inn.  While they are there, Evelyn is waiting for Ronald to do some repairs, and she meets Mr. Humphrey Furnival, owner of a house called Cold Harbour.  He makes note of some writings he owns from one of Evelyn's favorite poets, long forgotten now, and invites her to come see them for herself.  Evelyn senses that something is not quite right about Mr. Furnival, and she and Ron really should be getting back home, but the two decide to visit the house on the following day.

During their visit to the house, Ron is taken around the place by their host.  He is shown Furnival's library which comprises many volumes on witchcraft as well as research into madness; he also has quite a collection of artifacts dating back to the Romans he's dug up around the grounds of the house.  One of his prize possessions is a dagger that he discovered was  used in sacrificial worship of the goddess Astarte. As Wake gets the tour and his uneasiness and fear grows,  Evelyn is left with Mrs. Furnival.  Evelyn's time is spent listening to the woman talking about all of the eerie occurrences that she, her children, visitors and the servants have all experienced since they came to Cold Harbour.  Ghostly screams, a poltergeist, manifestations of blood and other phenomena are all part of her story, as well as the revelation that Mr. Furnival considers his wife to be delusional.   As the last vicar left in fear of his very soul, Mrs. Furnival turned to Catholicism, building a small altar and retreating to it as her only source of peace in this house of torments.  It isn't long until the Wakes have had enough and take their leave, but they do so with the  feeling that "they’d been thrust out of their normal, peaceful orbit by a blow from something dark and invisible whirling out of space.” 

An old-fashioned and atmospheric haunted house story with a chilling twist,  Cold Harbour might seem pretty tame to today's horror readers who thrive on gore and grossouts, but for an old-fashioned tale of hauntings, it's pretty scary -- especially when all is finally revealed. 

Coming now to Leland Hall's Sinister House,  this book is another haunted house story, which takes place in an old house on a cliff.   Published originally in 1919, it is the story of two young newlyweds who have come to live in the Hudson Valley.  Rather than follow the lead of their very good friends  Pierre and Annette Smith who have settled nearby in a more modern housing development built especially for commuters,  Eric and Julia Grier decide to take residence in an eerie old house in the woods that stands on a cliffside.  Eric has to commute for work; when he is away he can't stand being apart from his wife; while she misses him when he's gone, she is more worried about him returning.  It isn't long until Pierre realizes what's going on -- there's some sort of force within the house that wants to separate Pierre from anyone who cares about him, making them feel uneasy in his presence, and this includes his wife Julia and his friends.  Pierre's little son is hypersensitive to these haunted goings-on, so much so that  before long Pierre must tell Eric he can no longer come to the Smith's home.    But there's more to this presence than just its isolation of Eric -- and soon Julia realizes that her very life is in danger. 

Sinister House has it all -- a creepy old house with a locked room where no one dares to go, dark woods that hide it from the outside, and an ongoing sense of impending doom that creeps under your skin.  It also holds a core mystery centering on the nature of the evil forces that inhabit the house as well as a truly horrifying story that unfolds after all is revealed, one that will chill you to the bone.  At the same time, the book is also a product of its times --  while the author is great at building and maintaining a chilling atmosphere, sometimes the story heads off in a direction reminiscent of a romantic melodrama.   There are also a few issues about his ghosts that make no sense if spirits are the ethereal creatures they're supposed to be -- can ghosts really trip and stumble over each other? 

In spite of a few misses, Sinister House is a fun read; together with Cold Harbour there are a few hours of hair-raising entertainment to be found.  If I had it to do all over again I'd save both stories for the quiet and the darkness of night -- the chills would be a lot more effective.  If you're into old ghostly tales that depend heavily on atmosphere, you'll like this book; if that's not your thing and you prefer brain-eating zombies or other more in-your-face kind of horror, you'll definitely want to pass.  I liked it, but I'm much more into creating scary scenes in my head than having them already splashed all over the pages with not much left to the imagination.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran

Prime Books, 2011
520 pp

"...I figure there's things I don't want to find out about. And if we go looking down there, we'll see things we don't want to know about."

In the introduction to this book, the editor quotes a statement from China Miéville's intro to Lovecraft's  The Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition, where he notes the following:

 "Traditional genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo -- one which the protagonist scrambles to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft's horror is not one of intrusion, but of realization.  The world has always been impeccably bleak; the horror lies in us acknowledging the fact."

And for the most part, that's a great way to describe what's happening in most of the stories in this book, which I'd rate as an above-average collection of cosmic horror tales.  Some of the stories are very much geared toward true Lovecraft fans, while some are tinged with eldritch horror and updated for the modern reader.   There are others that are not as creepy and some that tend toward the humorous.  As I've noted previously, the problem with these sorts of anthologies is that sometimes you read through a number of stories and when all is said and done, there are a few really good ones that stand above the rest, leaving you with some that are okay, and some that you just plain don't like.  That also happens in this book.

There are some really good ones in here; the ones I like best include Cherie Priest's "Bad Sushi," about an 80 year-old sushi chef who susses out a bad smell and other horrors;   John Shirley's "Buried in the Sky" is also very well done, with appeal not only to the classic Lovecraft fan, but also to more modern readers of the weird.   "Take Me to the River," by Paul McAuley is set in Bristol, and is delightfully eerie; by far one of the more cerebrally-creepy stories comes from China Miéville in "Details," the story of a young boy who gets caught up in the madness of a woman who will not come out of her room.   I also had fun with "A Colder War," by Charles Stross, where the discoveries made in Antarctica in Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" become the ultimate war technology.   "The Oram County Whoosit," by Steve Duffy is also deliciously creepy, a story that takes the reader back to the gold rush days and should teach you not to play with things that are better left alone.  Michael Shea's "Tsathoggua" and Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Pickman's Other Model" are very well done, and  I also liked Don Webb's "The Great White Bed."  Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" is also found here, a Sherlockian tale that  takes place in an alternative Victorian world.  And although I liked Langan's "Mr. Gaunt," it seemed a bit out of place in the context of this collection.

There are other good ones as well, but there are also some that I could take or leave, among them "The Vicar of R'lyeh," which others will probably love due to its gamer setting; I wasn't all that impressed with Kim Newman's "Another Fish Story" where the Devil meets Charlie Manson and his family, and "Mongoose," by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette didn't do anything for me either.

 It's your usual collection of  yeah!, okay, and no; but within the first two categories, you will find hours of creepy entertainment. If you are a Lovecraft purist, I'd stick with the older stuff, but there is enough cosmic horror and modern weird in here for everyone else.  My overall assessment of this book is that it is really good, not great, but as good as you can hope for in such a wide range of authors and stories.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Wm. Morrow, 2012
403 pp
(hardcover ed.)

 "What is the standard when you are doing something that's never been done? What kind of muse inspires that? Exactly."

YYou might recognize the title of this book as one of those mild French oaths that is up there on par with such others as Mon Dieu! or Zut alors!, but in this book, Sacré Bleu is the name of a deep blue, ultramarine paint most closely associated with the Virgin Mary.  But after you've finished the novel,  "Sacré Bleu!" as an expression for describing how you feel after what you've just read  isn't so far off the mark. While Sacré Bleu (the novel) has its own quirkiness and its own original feel,  if you didn't know who wrote it, it wouldn't be long before you realize that this twisty-odd writing style could only belong to Christopher Moore.  There were three reasons I bought this book: 1)  it's another novel by Christopher Moore; 2) it takes place within the Paris/Montmartre art world of the 1890s;  and 3) one of the main characters is  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.  For those three reasons, I reasoned that it had to be a book of witty craziness, and I wasn't wrong.  What I didn't expect is an upended and off-kilter history of Impressionist art to go along with all of the rest of Moore's whimsical zaniness.   If you don't have a sense of humor, pass this one by; if you do, and you also happen to enjoy art, you might want to give it a go. 

 The book begins with the murder of Vincent van Gogh.  Okay, we all know that in real life he killed himself, but remember,  this is Christopher Moore's version of events.  His murderer is known only as the Colorman, who threatens van Gogh with "no more blue," unless he reveals what he did with a picture he'd painted. The artist refuses to comply and he's shot.  van Gogh makes his way to his doctor; the next day he begs brother Theo to hide a painting, "the blue one" from "the little man".  From there, the story goes to Paris in 1890, to a baker's son named  Lucien Lessard,  a friend of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The two soon begin to wonder how it is that a man who shoots himself trying to commit suicide would walk nearly a mile to get help, and think it's a matter worth looking into. Lucien, however, gets a little sidetracked. His father, who had fed the proverbial "starving artists" with bread from his bakery, had always hoped his son would be a painter, and Lucien, who studied painting under some of these Impressionist painters, becomes more inspired to greatness when he is reacquainted with a beautiful woman named Juliette who begs him to paint her. Both Juliette and finishing the painting become Lucien's obsession, much to Lucien's detriment.  As he begins to regain his senses, he and Toulouse-Lautrec continue their quest to discover the truth behind van Gogh's death. Part of their search involves visiting several painters who all share a similar story involving the Colorman, a beautiful woman, and a most extraordinary shade of blue paint.

Surrounding the mystery of the Colorman and van Gogh's death are some delightful moments of oddity in a world that only Christopher Moore could produce. Among other delights that often range into the supernatural, there are a few "interludes" that make up part of Moore's tribute to the color blue, beautiful but humorously-captioned color reproductions of paintings by artists who are characters in this book; there's Paris, Montmartre and the art scene, the brothels and hangouts of the era; trips back and forth through time, and of course, humor that ranges from stupid penis jokes and a lot of bonking references to a professor who is trying to teach his rats to re-enact the chariot-race scene from Ben Hur. Crazily ambitious, and just crazy in general, Sacré Bleu is like a history of Impressionist art turned on its ear -- most of all it's a lot of fun. The characters inhabiting this novel include (of course) Impressionist painters like Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Manet and others; post-Impressionists also have their parts to play, and there's even a scene with Michelangelo as he's beginning his David. You don't have to know who these people are to appreciate the book, nor do you need to be familiar with their art.  The characters don't always necessarily engage in the argot of the time. Instead, Moore has them using more modern parlance -- sometimes to the point where you think you're reading about little boys who haven't made it past the toilet humor and sex jokes stage. While that sort of humor isn't necessarily side-splittingly funny (and sometimes it gets really old), you really  can't help but laugh.

It is a bit slow-going in a few places, and some scenes are repetitive (especially the sex-oriented and goofy penis jokes), but when all is said and done, it's a lot of just plain fun. The mystery at the novel's core will keep you turning pages, as will the characters and the action surrounding them. And in answer to Moore's "worry" expressed in the afterword about ruining art for everyone, no way -- reading this book might just lead to more of an interest in  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art!

Definitely recommended, perhaps not for everyone, but people who enjoy Moore's books should not miss this one.