“No offense, man, but you’re a fucking idiot.” “I’m aware.” “Fucking,” Anil says, ticking it off on his thumb. “Idiot,” he concludes, ticking this one off on his pointer finger.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Season of Skulls [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Stross, book 12 or 13 (depending on who you ask? Amazon or Tor, respectively) of the Laundry Files series, and the third book in an internal trilogy starting with Dead Lies Dreaming and Quantum of Nightmares.
A.k.a. “The Dream-Quest of Evelyn Michelle Starkey.” This third novel of the New Management trilogy dependent from the Laundry Files series is focused fully on Eve, who had been drawn conspicuously to center stage in the previous book. I have grown to like her, but I don’t know if this book is a suitable point of entry to the Tales of the New Management, in part because it picks up so late in her character arc. Imp and his team are decidedly on the fringes of this story.
For the children’s literature angle developed in the previous two books (which riffed on Peter Pan and Mary Poppins respectively) this one exploits Through the Looking-Glass. The Black Pharaoh and Prime Minister of England N’yar-lat-hotep effectuates more of his aspect as the intelligence governing dreams, when Eve takes on the role of Alice.
For subject matter, it includes a foray into Regency gothic, a highly articulated historical romance sub-genre. It may thus appeal to fans of the supernatural Regency hit Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but as contrasted with Clarke’s book, Season of Skulls indulges in a great deal of pointed anachronism. Besides Eve’s own 21st-century perspective, the chief oopart is the Village, from the Patrick McGoohan television series The Prisoner. In looking-glass fashion, people from Eve’s world have counterparts reflected into 1816.
The whole story was strikingly similar to the author’s previous novel Glasshouse, which involved a carceral theme and “time travel” via simulation. In both books, the protagonist gets to experience the patriarchy of an earlier age as a woman. In Glasshouse she is previously male. In Season of Skulls she is previously a frigid girlboss.
I could tell that Stross did a lot of historical research to tell a story that he passes off with his usual glibness. This book may have spent the longest time in composition of any of the Laundryverse tales. I did enjoy it, and I wonder what has happened since 2017 in that world.
“The City of Lights was nice and all, but Arkham was Arkham. Her father had told her that once you were in Arkham’s shadow, you couldn’t escape it” (40-1). Although Shadows of Pnath is set in the Arkham Horror game milieu, none of it takes place in the Massachusetts city of Arkham, only in “Arkham’s shadow” at various locations around France. This second novel written by Josh Reynolds for the Aconyte Books series continues the adventures of his elite thief character Countess Alessandra Zorzi and her apprentice Pepper Kelly. It furthermore introduces the involvement of Arkham Files investigator Trish Scarborough, a spy for the US “Black Chamber” Cipher Bureau.
While Shadows of Pnath is most overtly a sequel to Reynolds’ previous book Wrath of N’kai, it also draws on threads begun by Reynolds with his contributions to the recent Arkham Horror anthology volumes The Devourer Below (“The Hounds Below”) and Secrets in Scarlet (“The Red and the Black”). The initial arc of the novel is focused on the recovery of a copy of Cultes des Goules, and it bears a certain resemblance to The Club Dumas–or more precisely to its cinematic version The Ninth Gate. This plot also brings into play Zorzi’s peer “acquisitionist” Chauncey Swann, an American connected with the Silver Twilight Lodge.
The titular Pnath is a reference to the Vale of Pnath in the Lovecraftian Dreamlands, which also featured in Brian Lumley’s Ship of Dreams. In a piece of weird horror set in interwar France, it is not surprising to encounter a few traces of jauniste mythemes regarding the “pallid mask” and ominous glimpses of yellow. These are undeveloped and may be seeds sown for a further sequel.
Alessandra and Pepper are separated early in the course of the story, and most of it consists of short, fast-moving chapters alternating between their two viewpoints. Reynolds has succeeded in cultivating my affection for his heroine to the point that I hope game publisher Fantasy Flight will eventually issue a set of Countess Zorzi investigator cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Deals with the Devil (Abridged): Twelve Terrifying Tales About Men Who Made Pacts With the Devil [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] ed Basil Davenport, with stories from, I had trouble finding the list, so this may include sombunall from this abridged volume and may include some from the prior unabridged edition, in no particular order: J Sheridan LeFanu, Max Beerbohm, Lord Dunsany, Anthony Boucher, John Collier , John Masefield , Henry Kuttner, Theodore R Cogswell, Ford McCormack, Arthur Porges, Isaac Asimov, Guy Maupassant, Stephen Vincent Benét, and L Sprague De Camp.
The abridgment of this volume consists in the omission of some stories from a larger earlier edition; the remaining stories are intact. Davenport’s chatty introduction is an admirable overview of the history of diablerie, given its brevity. The tales are an entertaining assortment, more given to the topics of riddles, trickery, gambles, and bargains, than to matters of metaphysics, demonology, or diabolism. I was especially interested in the Dunsany story “A Deal with the Devil,” and while I did enjoy it, it was far out of the orbit of the high-fanastic Dunsany that I relish. Two selections are preoccupied with betting on horse races, and many involve a three-wishes mechanism little different than yarns that might feature djinni or leprauchans. On the other hand, a few do emphasize gruesome punishments which the central characters want to avoid, or — in more than one case — to administer. Some of the later stories in the book tend toward the science-fictionally satirical, and remind me a little of the work of James Morrow.
Within the larger franchise of Arkham Horror fiction, S. A. Sidor’s novels have established their own serial continuity, starting with The Last Ritual and developing in Cult of the Spider Queen. Daniel Strange’s cover art of this third installment Lair of the Crystal Fang shows three characters from the second book: Maude Brion, Jake Williams, and Andy Van Nortwick. These three are reunited in this tale, but they are not its only heroes. Returning the setting to Arkham allows Sidor to bring in a surfeit of other “investigators” from the Arkham Horror games. Urchin Wendy Adams, mayor Charlie Kane, and psychologist Carolyn Fern are also central to the story, and reporter Rex Murphy and researcher Mandy Thompson have important roles. Sidor seems to have realized that each such character appearing is a selling point in a piece of literature like this one.
A more general concept that this novel seems to have carried over from the Arkham Horror card game is the basic emphasis on trauma. Jake’s physical trauma from the South American adventure of the previous book includes what would be a Weakness card in the game: Leg Injury. Maude is definitely suffering from mental trauma.
Stylistically, this volume was a bit inferior to its predecessors. “Unpindownable” (50) would be all right in contemporary 21st-century humor, but it’s a clinker in pulp era horror. I was similarly put off by “torpefy” (131) and several other word choices and phrasings in the course of the book. As before, Sidor managed to strike a mid-point between weird horror and pulp action that is consistent with the mood of the games (as contrasted with Yog-Sothothery more generally).
The Lair of the Crystal Fang plot centers on the Arkham sewers, and it features a serial killer, witches, and gangsters. It moves along at a brisk pace with short chapters and frequent changes of focus. I wasn’t blown away by anything here, but it was an adequate addition to this now-sprawling set of game-based horror books.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Birthgrave [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tanith Lee, introduction Marion Zimmer Bradley, book 1 of the Birthgrave trilogy, 80s cover by Ken Kelly.
The Birthgrave was Tanith Lee’s first published novel for adult readers, and the first novel of hers that I’ve read. The Publishers Weekly review excerpt in the jacket copy stresses its size, and compares the protagonist to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. But it’s not such a very big book by today’s fantasy standards. At just a little over 400 pages, it’s fairly modest among the doorstop novels the genre has come to produce.
The acute storytelling might justify the comparison to Conan, but the central character actually couldn’t be more dissimilar. A much closer comparison would be Moorcock’s Elric, who is in many ways a schematic anti-Conan. Lee takes that reversal one step further with the change of gender. For style, pacing, and mood, I found myself more reminded of Gene Wolfe’s multi-volume fantasies — but it appears that Tanith Lee got there first, so I can wonder if she influenced Wolfe.
The protagonist is a nameless survivor of her own cruel, sorcery-wielding race, who adopts different identities in the course of her interactions with humanity. She is obscurely cursed, and brings misery and death to her casual and intimate contacts alike. There is an allegory here, for those who want to read on that level, made especially plain in the anagnorisis of the final twenty pages. (Feuerbachian philosophy, Freudianism, and feminism can each be useful to interpret the message of the story.)
There are a number of passages of hallucinatory vividness, and I found the entire novel quite engaging. The ending is almost too tidy, and I can see why some readers resented its deus ex machina qualities, along with what might seem like an abrupt shift in genre. But at the same time as it imposes that dislocation, the book returns to the business of its beginning in a way that makes it whole.
Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.” “Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.” Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.
“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.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)
This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.
The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).
The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”
In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.
These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.