Comic Fantasy, Comic Science Fiction, even Comic Detective Stories, these we understand. What is less easy to anticipate is Comic Horror. Nevertheless, there is at least one series on the shelves that excels in it.
The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth installment of Stross’s Laundry Files novels, featuring Bob Howard, a geeky technician and ‘computational demonologist,’ working for the Laundry, the secret arm of British Intelligence tasked with protecting humankind from supernatural alien horrors.
In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is confronted with an apocalyptic plot left over from the occult machinations of the Third Reich, and must struggle against the mind-racking torment of matrix management.
In the sequel, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is sent to the Caribbean to infiltrate the inner circle of a charismatic billionaire and find out the nature of the eldritch wreckage at the sea bottom that so interests him.
In the Fuller Memorandum, Bob’s adventures take on a bleaker tone as the event codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is finally at hand, and conspiracies hatched in worlds beyond ours threaten humankind and Bob’s own nearest and dearest.
The Laundry Files take place in a Lovecraftian world. I’ll devote a special article to what that means exactly, but in summary it deals in the horror of humanity’s insignificance in the cosmic scale of things. Indeed, it is actually known as Cosmic Horror. It’s a genre haunted by the unknowable and the unseen, stressing the horror of being caught in the gaze of something so vast and alien that it could be standing right behind you in a totally empty room.
This is not, you’d think, a natural habitat for humour. Stross, however, manages to mesh the two. His secret, it seems to me, is the juxtaposition of the monsters that the Laundry exists to fight, and the fact that however bizarre its function, it’s still a civil service branch with all the paperwork, IT infrastructure and committee oversight that necessarily entails. Because of the unique nature of the work done by the Laundry, the banal bureaucracy and eldritch sorcery also have to collide in unexpected ways regarding things like security and procedure. The fact that paperclip audits, much joked about, turn out to be immensely critical in the Fuller Memorandum is a good illustration of this.
Stross, like Terry Pratchett (of whom he is an ardent fan) also derives humour from sendups of the customs of the kinds of stories he tells. The Jennifer Morgue in particular makes light of many of the tropes of spy thrillers. The difference between what real spywork is like versus the romanticized idea of it (a la James Bond) is a running gag.
Geek culture is the third prong of the comedy pitchfork, with references to Discworld, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Apple and others peppering the text.
For all of this, however, the fact that Bob is a geeky computer guy faced with forces powerful enough to devastate humanity or even the entire universe also manages to be genuinely scary. The sense of some unseen dread constantly at hand makes Bob’s comedic dithering also serve as his coping mechanism, and some of the things he and his combat epistemologist wife have to take on are gut-twistingly horrific. In this context, their happy domestic life is both heartwarming and deeply tragic. This peaked with the Fuller Memorandum, although it has by no means gone away in the Apocalypse Codex.
In this new installment, Bob is still recovering from the previous book’s ordeal, even as he’s sent into the field against another cell of the same forces that nearly got him killed then. His, and the Laundry’s, worst fears are realized, that the forces of darkness may have infiltrated into the highest echelons of government, and Bob is forced into a line of black ops outside even the Laundry’s usual realm of plausible deniability. Put in oversight of two ‘outside contractors,’ something which, by definition, the Laundry isn’t supposed to have, he’s sent to the USA to investigate the abnormal influence an evangelical preacher seems to have even among the great and the good of Whitehall.
This is the first time Stross has carried an arc through more than one book. We’ve entered a ‘mythology episode’ phase here, in much the same way that J.K. Rowling eventually dropped the episodic, start-from-scratch storytelling of Harry Potter from roughly book five onward, getting directly to the heart of the matter. Like Harry Potter, there’s always been a Big Bad informing events, but rather than a person, it’s an event, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is growing increasingly imminent with only the past two books dealing with it directly. It is, in brief, the apocalypse, and because it is drawing nigh, it looks as though the stories are going to be built around it from here on out.
The introduction of an ongoing arc was well-timed. Any more standalone adventures would have seemed dull at this point. I think that the Apocalypse Codex is suffering from a mild case of middle-chapter-ness, though. It’s much more plot-driven than character-driven. Stross seldom broke away from the point of view of Bob in the first books. Even when he did, he seldom went beyond those close to him. In this one, perspective rotates between him, his two contract agents, his managers and even the villains. It smacks of the same trend David Weber has been exhibiting with the Honor Harrington novels, spending progressively less time with the main character in the pursuit of a bigger scope. It’s impressive in terms of storytelling, but it’s harder to connect with when we seem to be losing sight of the people we’ve been following up ‘til now. The core cast of the first books was Bob, his wife Mo, and their cheekily sinister boss Angleton. In this book, Mo is barely present, as are Bob’s personal gadget-meisters, Pinky and Brains. Angleton takes quite a while to commence his usual puppeteering of events, and Bob spends a lot of the story in a passive role while new characters do the legwork. Indeed, given their record to date, I can’t quite understand why this couldn’t have been a husband-and-wife mission with Bob and Mo in the front lines together. I also feel that giving the villains POV time dinged the mystique critical to this style of horror a little bit.
Nonetheless, the new characters were pretty interesting people in their own right, and while Mo was in the background, certain moments suggested groundwork being laid for big payoffs down the line. The tone of the story is definitely grimmer since the Fuller Memorandum, but the humour is still there, albeit dried out a bit, and this story dialled the horror back down to merely ‘spooky.’ The actual story had a back-to-the-wall, fight-the-bad-guys vim to it that made it satisfying to read, and the suspense factor held my attention raptly. I didn’t like it as much as the others, but it was by no means bad and it’s still well worth sticking with the series.
I read the first three books in exactly the reverse of their publication order, so feel free to pick them up as they come, although the Apocalypse Codex is probably best appreciated if you read the Fuller Memorandum first. The Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue also have novellas published with them and there are more of those besides. They’re all great. I don’t think there’s any series I’ve reread as many times as I have the Laundry Files. Some background in Cosmic Horror is useful but not necessary. The first two books and the novellas especially will be more accessible if you have at least a basic grasp of computer and business jargon. Regardless, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shudder in dread, and you’ll have a damned good mystery to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.