Oct 15 2013 12:00pm

Short Fiction Spotlight: “Equoid” by Charles Stross

Charles Stross Equoid

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. For the past couple of installments we’ve discussed recent anthologies—a favorite source of short fiction for me—but plenty of magazine issues have been released in the interim as well. So, for this column and the next, I’d like to do a little overview of some new short fiction that’s caught my eye across various periodicals. This week, there’s only one story to chat about—because it’s a long one: “Equoid” by Charles Stross.

While generally I leave the short fiction that appears here on Tor.com for the readers to enjoy on their own, the appearance of a Laundry Files novella proved too tempting to resist. In the past, I’ve written about the Laundry Files books under the umbrella of genre investigation here; I’ve also reviewed the most recent installment in the series, here. Needless to say, I’m a fan. The books do quite a lot of things I enjoy, and they’re also darkly entertaining. This story was perhaps more on the “dark” side than usual—I’d go so far as to say gruesome/deeply icky—but it also had its compulsively-readable quotient in play.

Unicorns, and also old Lovecraft, are the central figures of this novella. Bob Howard is sent off to investigate a potential unicorn infestation in the countryside, learns from certain Laundry-Files-only letters of Lovecraft’s that unicorns are deeply disgusting bad news, and ends up helping to “save” the day. (But it’s not very saved, except from one particular instance of a unicorn. Most of the people involved die, and the implication is that the unicorn itself is smart enough to keep reincarnating its hive mind. Possibly through bureaucratic methods. Which is supremely clever as a little device sprinkled through the story.)

The droll business of daily paperwork at the Laundry gets its brief showing for humor—as does Bob’s tendency to assume the best of a situation that we, the reader, knows is going to turn out totally fucked. Because that’s what we’ve seen Bob do so far: unfuck to the best of his ability terrible incursions into our reality, etc.  The investigation unravels with a well-managed sense of crowning horror, particularly as Bob—having read the disturbing letters—knows what he’s probably going to find and really doesn’t want to find it. The conclusion is breathless and frightening; that sort of thing, Stross excels at, particularly in these stories.

And then there’s the matter that more or less every commenter on the story was compelled to discuss—so, yeah, me too.

I was curious at first to note that this story had a trigger warning in the introductory paragraph, the first of which I’ve noticed with a Tor.com piece—though I’m sure there’ve been tagged stories before. I was especially curious because, despite their occasional skin-crawling creepiness, the Laundry Files tales don’t tend to require trigger warnings. Bad things happen, certainly, and bad things happen to good people; rarely would I classify it as so awful that I’d need to warn somebody.

And yet, there’s always room for something new in a familiar fictional universe. Because “Equoid” did in fact deserve that innocuous little warning in the introduction.

This perhaps makes more sense given the context—which Stross himself links in the comments—of this story coming out of a sort of terrible challenge: it certainly does achieve its goal of making unicorns a nightmarish, grotesque thing (prone to do some nightmarish, grotesque stuff to their “hosts,” those young girls of fairytale with their sparkly horses). The material Stross was working with lent itself to a certain level of stomach-turning sexualized horror, sure; most of the stories I’ve seen that can be classified “bad unicorns” play with similar tropes. The only difference is Stross’s grasp of how to be as graphic and upsetting as possible in as little a space as necessary: highly effective deployment of research into similar horrifying nasties in the biological realm.

Of course, the worst of it is in Lovecraft’s letters—the most gratuitous description, at least—and on that note, Bob himself notes the over the top nature of the tale: “Even making allowances for Hipster Lovecraft’s tendency towards grisly gynophobic ranting, Freudian fever-fantasies, and florid exaggeration, we’re clearly about to meet something deeply creepy.” So some of the horror is dismissed, all right. But then there’s the last thing Bob sees in the barn, and ick—firmly ick. That’ll be sticking around behind my eyeballs for a long while. In the end I don’t know what to make of that; it’s the sort of confounded feeling I get when I’m sure that a writer was trying to gross me out on purpose with some problematic imagery and succeeded, yet I’m not sure that the depths gone to were necessary in the story. (I call it the Palahniuk Effect.) Then again, that was—sort of the point of the story? So. Perhaps I'm just the wrong damn audience for that sort of thing.

Regardless of the question of the Effect, it was still a Laundry story and I did still for the most part enjoy it, for various measures of the word enjoy. I can’t say that I’m sure all the usual fans will also enjoy it, though—bit of a different tale, this. Heed the warning, and if you’ve got the stomach, go on ahead; it is still Bob Howard.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
I enjoyed the story a lot and was skwicked out a lot at the same time. Right now, this story is high on my potential nomination list.
The Lovecraft letters and the procurement forms (recall Shub-Niggurath (The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young) as a reason for those forms reappearing) played off each other and the story and served to ramp up the story tension in a way that was really well done (I thought). The "Unicorn" and some of the Lovecraft letters were horrifying but they also work rather well with the mythos of Lovecraft himself. As "Case Nightmare Green" draws closer, it would seem that Bob's world is going to get more horrifying.
In addition to sparkly unicorns, the story draws upon "Cold Comfort Farm", a novel by English author Stella Gibons published in 1932.
Also note that the story takes place prior to "The Fuller Memorandum, so Bob is still working for Iris. And, it is Iris who sends him on this adventure ...
Nick Rogers
2. BookGoblin

I discovered the Laundry Series by reading "Down on the Farm" on TOR.com years ago. I've bought all the novels on both my ereader and in physical form, and I've bought all the ebook shorts from tor as well.

Needless to say, I am also a fan.

I'm also a computer nerd by trade, ex-government functionary, and lover of James Bond/Cthulhu/things that go bump in a dry-witted and largely-sardonic night. So the series feels like it was written "just for me."

I explain my Laundry C.V. mostly as justification for my claim that I'm pretty sure I'm exactly what the estimable Brit Mandelo is referring to when she cites "the usual fans."

First, the squicky stuff: roundly I found it well placed, in-universe justifiable, and overall effective. Was it a bit disturbing? Sure. Was it Palahniuk-ian in it's squick-for-squick's-sake obviousness? I didn't think so. I'm not sure why...but I didn't get hit much harder by this than by the psychotics fueling the end of The Fuller Memorandum.

And I feel it's because of the last book. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed The Apocylipse Codex...I just felt like I got a novella concept in a novel length presentation. The last book felt a little bit like the middle section of a chess match: tactical, strategic, necessary, and ultimately just about moving pieces from a-to-b with a purpose but without a ton of...oomph. Probably because I grew up in a postmillennial-dispensationalist church and I'm not really "afraid" of those people, and finding out they're actually being mind controlled by greater malevolences in the guise of lobster-demons just sounds like something I always suspected but never managed to see around the corner. So the bad guys were evil, but not EVIL...just...cartoonish. I like cartoons, that's not a criticism, it's just how it hit me from my position of familiarity.

Equoid though...that hit me right in the "I'm afraid of semi-mindless hive-intellect predators that can't be negotiated with and have an evolutionary drive to destroy me" place that lies deep in my soul.

It's the first Laundry story to make me shiver since Mo first whipped out her evil violin and snuffed the existence out of evildoers on a ship out at sea. Or the group sacrificing children at a day-care to summon bad-bad-things. Or...yeah. Series is full of creepy stuff. Did Equid squick me? Sure. As a fan, do I want that? Youbetcha.

I really have to say that my only frustration is the retcon-ing of Bob's missing months with more and more ReallyCoolThingsTM. This story is set before Bob really inherited the kickass, but he does something with a rifle that screams kickass and feels a tiny bit out of place. Bob wasn't much for solving problems with things that go boom at that point, and that's the only part that left me surprised. It seemed a bit odd that of all the ways in the multiverse he could have dealt with that threat, he chose A Really Big Gun.

Overall, I liked it. A lot. Enough to buy the ebook to keep my collection complete, and I'll be buying the printed Subterranean Press volume as well. I can't wait for more in this universe. I can't wait for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN and the end of the universe. I really just can't wait.
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo

"Also note that the story takes place prior to "The Fuller Memorandum, so Bob is still working for Iris. And, it is Iris who sends him on this
adventure ..."

True, very true.


Thanks for the input--and a totally valid reading. I'm still iffy on how I felt about the story, though that's not to say I didn't like it.
Mouldy Squid
4. Mouldy_Squid
I am a big Laundry fan; I frequently recommend the books to friends looking for something fun and sort of scary to read. Personally, I always found that the horror elements of the Laundry to be a bit too cerebral. Yes, they are great at scratching the itch, but sometimes I think Stross is holding back.

I am glad to see that a Laundry story can be truely, horribly, viscerally frightening. "Equoid" hit all the buttons. Some of those images are going to stick with me for a good long while, and that is what proper horror fiction should do (try Conrad Williams The Unblemished to see what I mean). I will never look at My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic the same way again.

Kudos, Mr. Stross. You have done a yeoman's job with "Equoid". It had all the dark humour and action of a typical Laundry story welded to true horror.
Michael Grosberg
5. Michael_GR
I've seen the "evil unicorn" trope before. Tanith Lee had scary, nasty, hooves-soaked-in-blood unicorns in her Flat Earth series. There was the brief, though memorable, unicorn scene in Cabin in the Woods. And who can forget Charlie the unicorn and his organ-stealing friends?
But nothing prepared me for this story, which probably ruined unicorns for me, for ever. What I "saw" in Equoid cannot be unseen, and from now on, every time when I look at a picture of a unicorn, I will see Stross's ingenious take on the subject. It's one of those things that seem obvious in retrospect. Just look at that horn. How can a unicorn be anything else? Thank you, Mr. Stross, for sharing the contents of your twisted imagination with us!

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