Tag Archives: Charles Stross

Dead Lies Dreaming

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dead Lies Dreaming [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Stross, book 10 of the Laundry Files series.

Stross Dead Lies Dreaming

The title should tip off readers of the earlier Laundry Files books by Charles Stross that this newest installment is something different. Unlike the nine volumes to precede it, Dead Lies Dreaming does not seem to be named after a document. [ . . . . . . . . . Spoiler (Hover over to see) . . . . . . . . . . ] The story transpires in just the setting established in the last couple of Laundry novels The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index. This twenty-first-century England ruled by the New Management (i.e. the Black Pharaoh and his minions) is only a little different from our “real” world. They have sorcery and superpowers while we have novel coronavirus, but the economics and politics of the thing look familiar enough. Given the theories of time travel and onieromancy set forth in the book, the Laundry universe may simply be a dream of ours, or ours a dream of theirs.

Dead Lies Dreaming is not narrated by a character identified with the UK occult intelligence bureau the Laundry; in fact, Stross drops the first-person approach altogether, in favor of a conventional third-person omniscient voice. This choice allows him to jump around among several principal focus characters, and readers might be forgiven for wondering which if any of them is the protagonist. He picks up and develops a couple of themes that he had first established in The Annihilation Score. The philosophy of public policing is a concern for the ex-cop and newly-minted magical “thief taker” Wendy Deere. And the emergence of vernacular superpowers is explored in the capers of Imp and his gang.

There are many allusions to the earlier Laundry series, of course, and to the ritual literature of H.P. Lovecraft, but also significantly to Peter Pan and to A Christmas Carol. Like previous Laundry books, this one was released on Hallowe’en, and the bulk of initial readers are thus digging into our copies during the winter holiday season. Stross cleverly capitalizes on this fact in the book’s opening sentences:

Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop. “Now that’s not something you see every day,” Doc drawled shakily. His fake bravado didn’t fool anyone.

Readers of previous Laundry books will quickly understand the genuine plot points established here in what a novice reader might take for mere sadistic surrealism. The engagement of the later parts of the novel with Victoriana in “some eldritch continuum of crapsack dipshittery stalked by the ghosts of maniacal serial killers and adorable Dickensian street urchins” (321) solidifies the black cheer of Xmas in the shadow of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

In my review of The Delirium Brief, I remarked, “I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.” Right on schedule, the series has pivoted from a diachronic advancement of Lovecraftian Armageddon to a more synchronic recounting of episodes and adventures in a given period of peak weird. I do miss the Laundry operatives, but I still enjoyed this “Tale of the New Management,” and I will continue to follow the series.

This is my fault for being the departmental computer guy: when the machines break, I wave my dead chicken and write voodoo words on their keyboards until they work again.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives

Hermetic quote Stross Atrocity voodoo

The Labyrinth Index

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross.

Stross The Labyrinth Index

“We fight on so that something that remembers being human might survive.” (199)

The ninth of the Laundry Files novels allegedly begins a new plot arc, and it does conspicuously shift focus to characters that have previously been more peripheral to the series. But its enjoyment is still highly dependent on prior familiarity with the concepts and broad narrative that Stross has worked up in the previous volumes. Some exposition in the opening chapter is pitched just about right for returning junkies like me, who haven’t had a fix since The Delirium Brief was published a year earlier, but it’s not sufficient to ramp up real appreciation for the setting and character motivations here.

Without serious spoilering, since all of this is clear in the opening chapter, I can say that this book delivered two unexpected features right off. First, the narrating character switches to Mhari Murphy, who was introduced in the very first book, but has never before occupied the role of storyteller-diarist. Second, most of The Labyrinth Index takes place in the United States. I doubt Charles Stross has read The Last Days of Christ the Vampire (and I’m not sure whatever became of my copy, read back in the 1980s), but there are some interesting points of conceptual contact between the two books.

As a commentary on the current state of American politics, the Stross novel is a bit oblique. In the contemporary Laundryverse USA under conditions of ongoing Nazgul-based coup, it is magically forbidden to think of the American Presidency, whereas in the “real” Trumplandia it is required that we think about it all the time. In any case, he still manages to highlight the extent to which the Imperial Presidency of the 21st century has all of the power and most of the institutional and cultural vices of an actual monarchy.

It was no surprise that I wolfed this book down in a couple of days. The story is consistent with the level of increased gloom established in the immediately previous volume, and it is dedicated to the author’s father, who seems to have died while it was being written. The bleakness is not completely unrelenting, though. As usual, there is some real wit in the writing, and in the end the state of affairs is not markedly worse than the beginning. Indeed, under some definitions of the word, the book would qualify as a “comedy.”


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Overtime by Charles Stross.

I would say this free short story on the Tor.com site is the least of all the Laundry Files stories I’ve read, truly a mere “stocking stuffer” compared with the gifts Stross usually delivers in the novels of this series. Still, it’s a nice little holiday card, and converting Santa into Cthrampus is a neat trick. If my daughter were a little younger, I’d be tempted to menace her with warnings about the Filler of Stockings. No, it’s best that she’s older–old enough to get the joke, even.


The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross is the first book in the ongoing Laundry Files series, for which there’s also several short stories to be found not listed with the series. I read this in conjunction with The Atrocity Archives audiobook, read by Gideon Emery.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Charles Stross, and I’m slightly in shock by how awesome the first story in the book was. The book contains two separate stories, and the first, “The Atrocity Archives”, for which the volume is named, is a just smashed full of a perfect storm of geeky and nerdy nostalgia for my late 90s self, deeply mixing references to technology, Illuminatus!-style paranoia, magic, and eldritch otherworldly Cosmicism horror. The second story, “The Concrete Jungle”, was good, but not quite as awesome.

Wow. What a start! I’m still blown away by how I hadn’t read this before given how perfectly related the first story feels to so many of my interests, both when it was first published and even still. Then again, maybe the 2006 publication date was a little late to catch me in my 90s Internet-professional phase and too early to elicit the hyper-nostalgia I felt while reading it now. Well, I may have missed it then, but I’ve read it now, by damn.

I made 49 highlights.

Originally posted on my personal blog at The Atrocity Archives

The Delirium Brief

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Delirium Brief: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross

This book confirms the transformation of the Laundry Files from a series of novels into a set of book-length episodes within a multi-volume work. I would not recommend either this latest or the previous book (The Nightmare Stacks) as a point of entry to the series, and as a free-standing novel, I expect it would fail. However, as an extension of what has come before, it is extremely effective. It picks up threads left lying in every one of the previous seven volumes and their interstitial novellas, and weaves them into a truly horrifying fabric. To switch metaphors, it is very successful at leveraging the reader’s investment in the curious cast of characters that Charles Stross has developed over the course of the series.

The inconclusive finish of the previous volume involved the forced disclosure of the super-secret occult intelligence agency nicknamed “The Laundry,” as a result of northern England being invaded by an army of elves. The stakes in The Delirium Brief are certainly higher for the Laundry, and perhaps for England as a whole, while incidental remarks throughout the book suggest that in the US and elsewhere in the world, events are spiraling toward global magical catastrophe. I know at least one more book is projected for this series, and it certainly needs it, with precious little closure in this one. But I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.

The sardonic office humor of the earliest Laundry stories has grown in scope, to the point where what were pithy observations about bureaucratic organizational culture have grown into satirical critiques of neoliberalized Western polity. At one point, narrator “Bob Howard” disingenuously says he’s “not bitter or anything” about the corrupt privatization of government agencies and functions in general, since “The worst case … is that parcels don’t get delivered, buildings burn down … Stuff breaks, people die, maybe there’s a small nuclear war, boo hoo.” This flippancy is by way of stressing the comparative gravity of such corruption impacting the operation of “the Laundry or an equivalent agency” (121).

Bob has some relief in this episode, in that there is some progress in rehabilitating his hexed-and-vexed marriage to fellow Laundry employee Dominique O’Brien. However, the theme of instrumental dehumanization and compromised morals that has dogged all the protagonists throughout the series gets turned up to eleven here, and by the book’s end, while the reader may still like the characters, it’s no longer clear than any of them especially like themselves.

Despite (and sometimes because of) the grim context, there are many funny moments in The Delirium Brief. The combination of my interested familiarity with the Laundry Files and Stross’s zippy contemporary prose made this book read at a breakneck pace. The amazing thing is that it really doesn’t introduce any new threats or concepts. It’s just working out interactions and consequences from what has come before, and if you’ve enjoyed the earlier books, this one is necessary. [via]

Sympathy for the Devil

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sympathy for the Devil edited by Tim Pratt.

Tim Pratt Sympathy for the Devil

I found this book by chance at the public library, being interested in a few of the included authors. It’s one of those monster theme collections, gathering thirty-six stories in which “the Devil” features as a principal character, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. (Longfellow’s translation of the thirty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno is the oldest item, and concludes the book.) Six stories I had read prior to their appearance here. “Thank you, Satan!” quoth the editor, introducing his first effort at anthology. Despite the title, most of these stories don’t portray the Devil as sympathetic.

Charles Stross’s story “Snowball’s Chance” was a major attraction, and did not disappoint, other than its clumsy misquotation of the Law of Thelema. I suppose any 21st-century Big Book of Beelzebub is likely to include some content touching on the Great Beast who heralded the New Aeon. Nick Mamatas’s fictional protagonist in “Summon, Bind, Banish” may be a full (i.e. Ninth Degree) initiate of O.T.O., but Mamatas himself obviously isn’t. His pretended exposure of the Order’s sovereign secret is overshadowed by the way that he vilifies Crowley with an impressionistic biography of mostly-true episodes.

Elizabeth M. Glover’s “MetaPhysics” was cornball, but some of these pieces were genuinely funny. In particular I was delighted with the one-act comedy “Faustfeathers” by John Kessel, which casts Groucho Marx as the paradigmatic sorcerer. Jeffrey Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt” was a key inducement to my reading the book, and turned out to be hilarious.

Some of the creepiest stories were the most questionably related to the book’s espoused theme, and these were often among the ones I had already read, such as China Miéville’s “Details,” “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon. Probably the most horrific story in the book that was new to me on this reading was “The Goat Cutter” by Jay Lake. The most surreal story was either “Lull” by Kelly Link or “The Heidelberg Cylinder” by Jonathan Carroll, and both of these get high marks from me.

Older selections included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (still excellent), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bottle Imp” (how had I missed this one before?), and Mark Twain’s “Sold to the Devil” (justly neglected by a mass readership). “Big names” likely to appeal to genre fans include Stephen King (“The Man in the Black Suit”) and Neil Gaiman (“The Price” and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”).

The book is a fairly mixed bag on the whole, as one might expect with such a large number of stories and such a narrow criterion for inclusion. Still, it was definitely worth the bother. [via]

The Nightmare Stacks

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross.

Stross The Nightmare Stacks

At the outset, the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross consisted of a latter-day mash-up of two well-defined genres: Cold War espionage and Lovecraftian weird horror. And for several volumes it continued thus. As the focus has shifted off of the original protagonist Bob Howard, elements of other genres have been introduced. For example, the vampires of more traditional gothic horror were the crux of the last book Bob narrated, The Rhesus Chart. When Bob’s wife Mo took over as the narrator for The Annihilation Score, the caped superhero genre contributed to the central plot. In this seventh book, narrator duties have passed to junior recruit Alex Schwartz, and it is the high fantasy genre that gets tapped for its oddness. A chief character in this book is in point of fact the King of Elfland’s daughter (in quiet homage to Dunsany among many others), so that Alex/Alveric’s romancing of the unearthly “princess/assassin of the Unseelie Court” sits in a rich inter-textual tradition, complete with frequent references to the works of Tolkien and a Laundry operative named the Dungeon Master (or DM).

The return of vicar Pete in a more conspicuous role was something I already expected, and it’s a neat fit somehow to make him Alex’s mentor. However, I did not imagine that Pete would turn out to be [Spoiler! Hover over to see . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Despite foreshadowings regarding bureaucratic fallout, as well as family and public comeuppances, this book is entirely bereft of denouement. It gallops to the climax and then stops. I guess that’s a little more forgivable for the seventh entry in a series, inasmuch as readers can expect to get some resolution of loose ends in the now-assured further installment.

I did enjoy this one very much, laughing out loud at it repeatedly, despite the frequently macabre events described—all of which is par for the course in this series. I’m not sure how well it would hold up as a point of entry, but with the benefit of all the foregoing books, I found this one to be among my favorites so far. Like the others, the fast pace of the action makes it a compelling read, and the character chemistry was quite endearing from my perspective. [via]