Equoid is a novella set in Charles Stross’ LAUNDRY FILES world. It isn’t necessary to have read any of the LAUNDRY FILES novels, but you’d probably get a little more out of Equoid if you first read at least the first two novels, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. This story takes place after the events of the fourth novel, The Apocalypse Codex, and before the events of the fifth novel, The Rhesus Chart.
Bob Howard is a computational demonologist who works for the Laundry, the secret British agency that helps keeps the world safe from the eldritch horrors that lurk in another dimension. When curious mathematicians and physicists start messing around with the space-time continuum, the Laundry steps in and puts a stop to it before it’s too late for humanity.
In this story, Bob is sent to Edgebaston Farm to investigate the possibility of a unicorn outbreak. You might think that a unicorn outbreak sounds like a delightful thing, but let me just tell you that in Charles Stross’ universe, unicorns do not gleam, or sparkle, or fly, or carry sweet little girls on their backs. They eat people and they do terrible things to those sweet little girls. So terrible, in fact, that I had a look of utter disgust on my face during a couple of scenes. (Let me warn you that this story involves traumatic sexual violence to children. For that reason, it’s quite a bit different in tone than the LAUNDRY FILES novels. I would call Equoid a horror story.)
Anyway, the case file that Bob’s been given by his manager contains a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to his protégé and friend, Robert Bloch. This letter, which Bob reads to us throughout the story, and which is written in the same ornate and overblown style as Lovecraft’s stories, describes the author’s encounter with a unicorn that had enchanted the girl who Lovecraft had a crush on as a teenage boy. When Lovecraft is seduced by the girl, he discovers the truth about the unicorn life cycle. It involves virgins (surprise) and cone snails which, if you didn’t know, have poisonous tentacles. The experience with the girl, the unicorn, and the snails explains Lovecraft’s mental instability and his obsession with “eldritch horrors.” (Now that they’ve been so vividly incorporated into Lovecraft’s mythos, cone snails and unicorns have become creatures of horror to me — thank you very much, Mr. Stross.)
Stross has great fun emulating “old purple-prose” and it’s one of the most entertaining aspects of Equoid. Another is the characterization. For such a short novel, Equoid features one of the most memorable side characters in the LAUNDRY FILES. Greg Scullery, the large boisterous extroverted man who called the Laundry for help with the unicorns, is hilariously rendered. Scullery’s beard has its own personality and is practically a character in its own right.
Equoid wouldn’t be a LAUNDRY FILES story if it didn’t make fun of British bureaucracy. In this case, the unicorn outbreak is related to unfair budget cuts in a local police force. The text includes a few memos from government agencies submitting proposals for unconventional tools to help them do their jobs. These are really funny. (It’s just like Stross to make his readers want to both laugh and vomit on practically the same page.)
You can read about how Stross got the idea for this story (it involves Lou Anders and John Scalzi in a bar) and its interesting publication history at Stross’ blog. I read the lovely print edition produced by Subterranean Press (shown above), but you can get a Kindle version of Equoid for $1.99 or even read it for free online at Tor.com where it was originally published. Equoid won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
I know I should read it — award winner and all but— EEUUWW!
Yeah…. If you read it, let me know what you think, Marion.
The more you write about Stross’ Laundry Files, the more I want to read them. (Even the idea of severe ickiness is a little compelling!)