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.