Tag Archives: Horror fiction

The Jennifer Morgue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Jennifer Morgue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Stross, book 2 of the Laundry Files series.

Stross The Jennifer Morgue

“The Laundry operations manual is notably short on advice for how to comport oneself when being held prisoner aboard a mad billionaire necromancer’s yacht, other than the usual stern admonition to keep receipts for all expenses incurred in the line of duty.” (167)

The Jennifer Morgue is one of Stross’ hacker-gique occult espionage books about Bob Howard, agent of Capital Laundry Services. (The initials of the organization are never written as such, so it took me until the middle of this second volume to get that BASIC joke!) Like its predecessor The Atrocity Archives, it is a terrific romp. Where Stross drew his literary spy inspiration from Len Deighton in the first book, this time around sees him looking to Ian Fleming and the Bond movies. Given the more “exoteric” — okay, crassly pop-cultural — status of the Bond material, Stross elects to make his nods to it more overt, metafictional even. Protagonist Bob is put in a position to exploit his memories of “the ritual Bond movie every Christmas afternoon on ITV since the age of two” (187), since he is fighting a supernatural opponent who is using the Bond plot formula as a magical mechanism. Stross manages to pack sardonic hilarity, genuinely stomach-churning horror, and sentimental uplift into this single novel. Oh, and weird sex. 

As with the first book, this one contains the titular novel, a bonus short story, and an essay reflecting on the espionage-adventure genre. The story “PIMPF” is a completely office-bound yarn, contrasting with the exotic travel and international entanglements of the novel, and it is funny in the nerdiest possible way. The essay didn’t seem as insightful as its counterpart in the first volume. Having chosen to place special attention on Bond villains, it seems to me that Stross erred terribly in neglecting to observe that Le Chiffre (from Casino Royale) was allegedly based on noted occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom Fleming was acquainted from their mutual employment by British intelligence services.

In the Coils of the Labyrinth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Coils of the Labyrinth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Annandale, cover art by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Annandale Coulthart In the Coils of the Labyrinth

In the Coils of the Labyrinth is David Annandale’s first full Arkham Horror novel, although he previously contributed “Professor Warren’s Investiture” to the collection The Devourer Below, and it was one of the better stories in that volume. He has a prior track record as an author of Warhammer 40,000 game milieu novels.

The circa 1925 transatlantic plot of this story features some elements of folk horror in the Scots village of Durtal and medical horror in Arkham, Massachusetts. The two are united by a gothic scheme of family degeneracy and menacing architecture, under the influence of some chthonic malevolence. Protagonist Miranda Ventham is a university English professor whose metier is 19th-century Romantic and Gothic fiction.

Professor Ventham is friends with parapsychologist Agatha Crane (one of the player-character investigators from the Arkham Files games), and the book’s lovely cover art by John Coulthart shows Agatha Crane exploring by herself in trench coat and hat. The two leading viewpoint characters are thus both women, and the novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. When Ventham is put in a sanatorium for her tuberculosis–where she remains for most of the novel–most of her interactions continue to be with women: the other patients and the nurses alike.

The god-monster and its minions in this novel are de novo, reflecting the spirit of Yog-Sothothery, but not indebted to HPL or the larger accumulated “mythos” for any details beyond the town of Arkham and Miskatonic University as settings and some use of the “elder sign.” Annandale in his acknowledgments more particularly credits the horror films of Dario Argento for some inspiration, and the character named “Daria” may have been a conscious tip in that direction as well.

Ghost Story

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ghost Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Straub.

Straub Ghost Story

Ghost Story was Peter Straub’s breakout novel in 1979, and I remember seeing it in the “new” section of my local public library at the time. The publisher flogged it as a supernatural horror book with literary merit, and it was a fair boast. Straub was an admirable prose stylist, and his monsters have come a long way from their folklore and pulp origins. I found precursor comparanda in some of Seabury Quinn’s semi-traditional creatures and most especially Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. Straub, who would eventually edit the two-volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny for Library of America, consciously adverts to his more literary antecedents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, even going so far as to name two central characters Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.

It’s a big book, with the storytelling heft of, say, a full season of the Stranger Things television horror drama. Like that show, it is multigenerational in scope, although Straub’s key ensemble is geriatric rather than adolescent. And Straub’s imagined town of Milburn, New York provides the Hawthorne-to-HPL New England sense of a lost frontier buried deep in the unconscious, rather than the vulnerable bucolic Midwestern sensibility of Hawkins, Indiana. All sorts of characters are powerfully drawn, with relationship tensions extending in every direction.

The body of the book provides several layers of background for the frame story focused on the horror novelist Don Wanderly. There is naturally some metafictional positioning that results, both from Wanderly’s metier and from the ghost-storytelling preoccupation of the Chowder Society, the clique of old friends around whom most of the novel is constructed. The climax takes place in late December, thus attaching the book to the English tradition of the Christmas ghost story, for which those of M.R. James are paragons. While there was less metafictional meat here than in Straub’s later book The Hellfire Club (i.e. Wanderly’s The Nightwatcher is neither so well-developed nor so pivotal to the story as Hugo Driver’s Night Journey), it still put a shine on the writing.

I have not yet seen the 1981 movie which was “loosely based” on the novel, but the book itself gives more than a little attention to cinema. Attorney Ricky Hawthorne is a movie aficionado given to describing people in terms of old screen icons, and he is friends with the proprietor of the local picture show. A key background character Eva Galli was a film actress, having appeared in a single silent film China Pearl (1925), and there is also important business involving a more recent actress Ann-Veronica Moore. The film of Ghost Story turned out to be the final screen appearance of Fred Astaire (in the role of Ricky Hawthorne), and Astaire is actually name-checked in the novel: “… Clark Gable in a bush jacket turning into Dan Duryea in a gangster’s nipped-in-suit turning into graceful, winning Fred Astaire in a Chowder Society tuxedo” (465).

My copy of this book is the first edition, which has a feature of interest extirpated from later re-issues. The chapter “Alma” (181-221) details Wanderly’s previous marital engagement during a brief university gig in Berkeley, California. By way of making the Alma character mysterious and creepy, Straub associated her with something presented as more dreadful than “California lunacy at its worst,” to wit: “O.T.O. … Ordo Templi Orientis … raw material for nightmares” (194-5). Some incidental details demonstrate that Straub’s awareness of O.T.O. was almost certainly based on press coverage of the Solar Lodge pretender organization. In any case, he never presents any specific characters or activities as being part of O.T.O., he just uses the allusion for nebulous menace. Since the actual O.T.O. was operating in Berkeley in 1979, they felt a bit slandered and reached out to Straub, who graciously apologized and made an edit for later printings to change the name to an occult order of his own invention: Xala Xalior Xiati.

The rich character development in this book is the feature that makes it most effective as supernatural horror, in my opinion. You can’t be very afraid for people you don’t care about. On the other hand, there are doubtless adrenaline junkies for whom the pace of this novel with its nested retrospection is just too slow to keep them engaged. (I’ve certainly read complaints to that effect online.) It continues to find a place in “best of” horror indices, and it deserves one.

CUTHBERT: Ashton, I’m an adult. I should be treated like an adult. And this is religious intolerance.

ASHTON: Come on!

CUTHBERT: I didn’t attack you when I found you performing your ritual to Atlach-Nacha.

ASHTON: (Pause) You know I don’t like talking about religion.

Alan Ryker, When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha [Amazon]

Hermetic quote Ryker When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha adult religious intollerance attack performing ritual don't like talking about religion

The struggle is so (beat) pointless. We live exactly as insects, and yet we look on them with horror, because they are us without justification, without the endless need to do things. The conscious mind is a freak accident, a program for double-checking cause-and-effect logic extended far beyond its purpose, an anti-virus program gone out of control.

Alan Ryker, When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha [Amazon]

Hermetic quote Ryker When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha struggle pointless conscious mind freak accident

ASHTON: I don’t chastise you for your involvement in your little cult. CUTHBERT: Come on! You just helped to bring about a holy war and you’re going to pretend to be offended that I’m invading your privacy?

Alan Ryker, When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha [Amazon]

Hermetic quote Ryker Cthulhu met Atlach-Nacha chastise your involvement cult holy war pretend offended invading privacy