there’s a worm of truth at the heart of every fictional apple
Len Deighton was not an author of spy thrillers but of horror, because all Cold War–era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation to supply a frisson of terror that raises the stakes of the games their otherwise mundane characters play. And in contrast, H. P. Lovecraft was not an author of horror stories—or not entirely—for many of his preoccupations, from the obsessive collection of secret information to the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien, are at heart the obsessions of the thriller writer.
This volume contains a brief novel (Stross’s first to be published) and its longish short story sequel. Of the two, I preferred the first with its more leisurely pacing. Also, there was a major plot-twist in the short story that I was able to spot about thirty pages in advance. The meat of both is a very artful hybrid of exo-horror and spy-thriller, with a sardonic take on postmodern bureaucracy and a generous helping of hacker culture. The characters are well-drawn and their context is a UK occult intelligence organization called the Laundry. I found myself often resorting to the appendix which decoded the alphabet soup of (mostly non-fictional) abbreviations, acronyms, and organizations; and I laughed out loud when I had to look up TLA and find it explicated as “Three Letter Acronym.” Other features I appreciated: misfiring demonic evocations, inside references to weird literature, a romantic dinner in Amsterdam, and cow jokes.
As it turns out, the book is far from unique, not even counting Stross’ own sequels. In his afterword, he points to Tim Powers’s Declare and the gaming supplement Delta Green as evidence that the early 21st century was steam engine time for this sort of story. (The Torchwood television series was late to the party, and thus quite possibly inspired by Stross’s own work–a thought that would probably be unwelcome to him, since he has repeatedly expressed in his blog his contempt for recent SF television generally, and Russell T. Davies’ work in particular.)
There’s no need to discuss Stross’s sources or literary influences here, because he does so himself with verve and candor in the aforementioned afterword. He also shares some interesting thoughts about the construction of spies and hackers as fictional protagonists. At all events, this book was a lot of fun, and I expect to read more of Stross’s stories about the Laundry.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devourer Below [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, cover by John Coulthart, book 5 of the Arkham Horror series.
The Devourer Below is the fifth volume of Arkham Horror fiction to be issued under the Aconyte imprint. While the previous four have been novels, this one is a collection of short stories by various authors. I was thus expecting a wide assortment of tales, joined only by their early 20th-century Arkham, Massachusetts setting and the involvement of assorted investigator characters from the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games. I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that these stories are far more interrelated than that.
Players of Arkham Horror: The Card Game may recognize “The Devourer Below” as the title of the third and final scenario of “The Night of the Zealot,” the campaign included with that game’s core set. All of the stories in this book relate to that starter campaign, featuring the servitors of the Great Old One Umôrdhoth. (Umôrdhoth is based on Mordiggian, from Clark Ashton Smith’s story “The Charnel God.”) Such servitors are largely a mix of ghouls and human cultists.
Specific enemy characters from the card game campaign figure in the stories, as do the important investigator allies Leo De Luca and Lita Chantler. Investigator protagonists include Tony Morgan, Carolyn Fern, Joe Diamond, Daisy Walker, Agnes Baker, Wendy Adams, and Finn Edwards. On the whole, I found the enemy-focused stories more satisfying than the investigator-centric ones, but I liked both and appreciated the variety.
As a suite of connected tales of yog-sothothery, The Devourer Below is just fine. As a supplement to the Arkham Horror games, it is good. As an amplification of the core set adventure cycle in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it is very good.
This book appends a “tease” reprint of the opening chapter of Ari Marmell’s Arkham Horror novel Litany of Dreams, oddly included in the table of contents as if it were one of the stories written for this volume. It also sports the third Arkham Horror fiction cover art by John Coulthart. I like these highly detailed multi-panel covers a lot.