Equoid

Equoid

illustration by dave palumbo

Winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Charles Stross’s “Equoid” is a new story in his ongoing “Laundry” series of Lovecraftian secret-agent bureaucratic dark comedies, which has now grown to encompass four novels and several works of short fiction. “The Laundry” is the code name for the secret British governmental agency whose remit is to guard the realm from occult threats from beyond spacetime. Entailing mastery of grimoires and also of various computer operating systems, the work is often nose-bleedingly tedious. As the front-cover copy line for Ace’s edition of The Atrocity Archives noted, “Saving the world is Bob Howard’s job. There are a surprising number of meetings involved.” Previous “Laundry” stories on Tor.com are “Down on the Farm” and the Hugo Award finalist “Overtime.”

Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “Equoid” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]

This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

“Bob! Are you busy right now? I’d like a moment of your time.”

Those thirteen words never bode well—although coming from my new manager, Iris, they’re less doom-laden than if they were falling from the lips of some others I could name. In the two months I’ve been working for her Iris has turned out to be the sanest and most sensible manager I’ve had in the past five years. Which is saying quite a lot, really, and I’m eager to keep her happy while I’ve got her.

“Be with you in ten minutes,” I call through the open door of my office; “got a query from HR to answer first.” Human Resources have teeth, here in the secretive branch of the British government known to its inmates as the Laundry; so when HR ask you to do their homework—ahem, provide one’s opinion of an applicant’s suitability for a job opening—you give them priority over your regular work load. Even when it’s pretty obvious that they’re taking the piss.

I am certain that Mr. Lee would make an extremely able addition to the Office Equipment Procurement Team, I type, if he was not already—according to your own goddamn database, if you’d bothered to check it—a lieutenant in the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Jiangshi Brigade. Who presumably filled out the shouldn’t-have-been-published-on-the-internet job application on a drunken dare, or to test our vetting procedures, or something. Consequently I suspect that he would fail our mandatory security background check at the first hurdle. (As long as the vetting officer isn’t also a PLA mole.)

I hit “send” and wander out into the neon tube overcast where Iris is tapping her toes. “Your place or mine?”

“Mine,” says Iris, beckoning me into her cramped corner office. “Have a chair, Bob. Something’s come up, and I think it’s right up your street.” She plants herself behind her desk, leans back in her chair, and preps her pitch. “It’ll get you out of the office for a bit, and if HR are using you to stomp all over the dreams of upwardly-mobile Chinese intelligence operatives it means you’re—”

“Underutilized. Yeah, whatever.” I wave it off. But it’s true: since I sorted out the funny stuff in the basement at St. Hilda’s I’ve been bored. The day-to-day occupation of the average secret agent mostly consists of hurry up and wait. In my case, that means filling in on annoying bits of administrative scutwork and handling upgrades to the departmental network—when I’m not being called upon to slay multi-tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime. (Which doesn’t happen very often, actually, for which I am profoundly grateful.) “You said it’s out of the office?”

“Yes.” She smiles; she knows she’s planted the hook. “A bit of fresh country air, Bob—you’re too pallid. But tell me—” she leans forward—“what do you know about horses?”

The equine excursion takes me by surprise. “Uh?” I shake my head. “Four legs, hooves, and a bad attitude?” Iris shakes her head, so I try again: “Go with a carriage like, er, love and marriage?”

“No, Bob, I was wondering—did you ever learn to ride?”

“What, you mean—wait, we’re not talking about bicycles here, right?” From her reaction I don’t think that’s the answer she was looking for. “I’m a city boy. As the photographer said, you should never work with animals or small children if you can avoid it. What’s come up, a dressage emergency?”

“Not exactly.” Her smile fades. “It’s a shame, it would have made this easier.”

“Made what easier?”

“I could have sworn HR said you could ride.” She stares at me pensively. “Never mind. Too late to worry about has-beens now. Hmm. Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter—you’re married, so I don’t suppose you’re a virgin, either. Are you?”

“Get away!” Virgins? That particular myth is associated with unicorns, which don’t exist, any more than vampires, dragons, or mummies—although I suppose if you wrapped a zombie in bandages you’d get a—stop that. In my head, confused stories about Lady Godiva battle with media images of tweed-suited shotgun-wielding farmers. “Do you need someone who can ride? Because I don’t think I can learn in—”

“No, Bob, I need you. Or rather, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs a liaison officer who just happens to have your background and proven track record in—” she waves her left hand—“putting down infestations.”

“Do they?” I do a double-take at putting down infestations. “Are they sure that’s what they need?”

“Yes, they are. Or rather, they know that when they spot certain signs, they call us.” She pulls open a desk drawer and removes a slim folder, its cover bearing the Crowned Portcullis emblem beneath an elder sign. “Take this back to your office and read it,” she tells me. “Return it to the stacks when you’re done. Then you can spend the rest of the afternoon thinking of ways to politely tell HR to piss up a rope, because tomorrow morning you’re getting on a train to Hove in order to lend a DEFRA inspector a helping hand.”

“You’re serious?” I boggle at her. “You’re sending me to do what? Inspect a farm?”

“I don’t want to prejudice your investigation. There’s a livery stable. Just hook up with the man from The Archers, take a look around, and phone home if anything catches your attention.”

She slides the file across my desk and I open the flyleaf. It starts with TOP SECRET and a date round about the battle of the Somme, crossed out and replaced with successively lower classifications until fifteen years ago it was marked down to MILDLY EMBARRASSING NO TABLOIDS. Then I flip the page and spot the title. “Hang on—”

“Shoo,” she says, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Have fun!”

I shoo, smarting. I know a set-up when I see one—and I’ve been conned.

 

To understand why I knew I’d been tricked, you need to know who I am and what I do. Assuming you’ve read this far without your eyeballs boiling in your skull, it’s probably safe to tell you that my name’s Bob Howard—at least, for operational purposes; true names have power, and we don’t like to give extradimensional identity thieves the keys to our souls—and I work for a secret government agency known to its inmates as the Laundry. It morphed into its present form during the Second World War, ran the occult side of the conflict with the Thousand Year Reich, and survives to this day as an annoying blob somewhere off to the left on the org chart of the British intelligence services, funded out of the House of Lords black budget.

Magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and I started out studying computer science (which is no more about computers than astronomy is about building really big telescopes). These days I specialize in applied computational demonology and general dogsbody work around my department. The secret service has never really worked out how to deal with people like me, who aren’t admin personnel but didn’t come up through the Oxbridge civil service fast-track route. In fact, I got into this line of work entirely by accident: if your dissertation topic leads you in the wrong direction you’d better hope that the Laundry finds you and makes you a job offer you can’t refuse before the things you’ve unintentionally summoned up get bored talking to you and terminate your viva voce with prejudice.

After a couple of years of death by bureaucratic snu-snu (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT admin jobs) I volunteered for active duty, without any clear understanding that it would mean more years of death by boredom (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT jobs) along with a side-order of mortal terror courtesy of tentacle monsters from beyond spacetime.

As I am now older and wiser, not to mention married and still in possession of my sanity, I prefer my work life to be boringly predictable these days. Which it is, as a rule, but then along come the nuisance jobs—the Laundry equivalent of the way the US Secret Service always has to drop round for coffee, a cake, and a brisk interrogation with idiots who boast about shooting the president on Yahoo! Chat.

In my experience, your typical scenario is that some trespassing teenagers get stoned on ’shrooms, hallucinate flying saucers piloted by alien colorectal surgeons looking to field-test their new alien endoscope technology, and shit themselves copiously all over Farmer Giles’ back paddock. A report is generated by the police, and as happens with reports of unknown origin, it accretes additional bureaucratic investigatory mojo until by various pathways it lands on the desk of one of our overworked analysts. They then bump it up the management chain and/or play cubicle ping-pong with it, because they’re too busy working to keep tabs on the Bloody Skull Cult or cases of bovine demonic possession in Norfolk or something equally important. Finally, in an attempt to make the blessed thing go away, a manager finds a spare human resource and details the poor bastard to wade through the reports, interview the culprits, and then tread in cow shit while probing the farm cesspool for the spoor of alien pre-endoscopy laxatives. Nineteen times out of twenty it’s an annoying paper chase followed by a day spent typing up a report that nobody will read. One time in twenty the affair is enlivened by you falling head-first into the cesspit. And the worst part of it is knowing that while you’re off on a wild goose chase so you can close the books on the report, your everyday workload is quietly piling up in your in-tray and overflowing onto your desk . . .

Which is why, as I get back to my office, close the door, light up the DO NOT DISTURB sign, and open the folder Iris gave me, I start to swear quietly.

What the hell do the love letters of that old fraud H. P. Lovecraft have to do with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

 

Dear Robert,

 

I received your letter with, I must confess, some trepidation, not to mention mixed feelings of hope & despair tempered by the forlorn hope that the uncanny and unpleasant history of my own investigations & their regrettable outcome will serve to dampen the ardor with which you pursue your studies. I know full well to my great & abiding dismay the compulsive fascination that the eldritch & uncanny may exert upon the imagination of an introspective & sensitive scholar. I cannot help but be aware that you are already cognizant of the horrible risks to which your sanity will be exposed. What you may not be aware of is the physical damage that may fall upon you pursuant to these studies. It took my grandfather’s life; it drove my father to seek redress by means of such vile & unmentionable acts that I cannot bring myself to record their nature for posterity—but suffice to say that his life was shortened thereby—and it has been grievously injurious to my own health & fitness for marriage. There, I say it baldly; but for the blessed Sonia I might have been a mortal wreck for my entire life. It was only by her grace & infinite patience that I regained some modicum of that which is the birthright of all the sons of Adam, and though we are parted she bears my guilty secret discreetly.

I confess that I was not always thus. My childhood was far from unhappy. I grew up an accident-prone but happy youth, living with my mother & my aunts in reduced but nevertheless genteel circumstances in Providence town. At first I studied the classics: Greek & Roman & Egyptian were my mother tongues, & all the rhapsodies of the poetic calling were mine! My grandfather’s library was the orchid whose nectar I sipped, sweeter by far than any wine. He had amassed a considerable archive over the course of many years of travel inflicted on him by the base necessity of trade—I must interject at this juncture that I cannot stress too highly the need to shun such distractions as commerce if one is to reach one’s full potential as a scholar by traversal of the path you propose to embark upon—and the fruits of his sorrows fermented into a heady vintage in time for my youthful excursions into his cellar to broach the casks of wisdom. However, I came to recognize a bitter truth as I assayed the dregs of his collection: my kindred souls are as the dust of the church-yard. As with Poe so am I one with the dead, for we persons of rarefied spirit & talent tread but seldom upon the boards of earth & are summoned all too soon to the exit eternal.

Now, as to the qualities of the MS submitted with your latest missive for my opinion, I must thank you most kindly for granting me the opportunity to review the work at this early stage—

 

I go home nursing a headache and a not inconsiderable sense of resentment at, variously: Iris for tricking me into this job; DEFRA for asking for back-up in the first place; and Howard Phillips Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island, for cultivating a florid and overblown prose style that covered the entire spectrum from purple to ultraviolet and took sixteen volumes of interminable epistles to get to the point—whatever point it was that constituted the meat of the EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN dossier, which point I had not yet ascertained despite asymptotically approaching it in the course of reading what felt like reams & volumes of the aforementioned purple prose—which is infectious.

To cap it all, my fragrant wife Mo is away on some sort of assignment she can’t talk about. All I know is that something’s come up in Blackpool that requires her particular cross-section of very expensive talents, so I’m on my own tonight. (Combat epistemologists and violin soloists both are underpaid, but take many years and no little innate talent to train. Consequently, the demands on her time are many.) So I kick back with a bottle of passable cabernet sauvignon and a DVD—in this case, plucked at random from the watch-this-later shelf. It turns out to be a Channel Four production of Equus, by Peter Shaffer. Which I am hitherto unfamiliar with (don’t laugh: my background veers towards the distaff side of the Two Cultures) and which really doesn’t mix well with a bottle of red wine and H. P. Lovecraft’s ghastly prose. So I spend half the night tossing and turning to visions of melting spindly-legged Dali horses with gouged eye sockets—I’ve got to stop the eyeballs rolling away, for some reason—with the skin-crawling sense that something unspeakable is watching me from the back of the stables. This is bad enough that I then spend the second half of the night sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas, brute-forcing my way through my half of my annual ideological self-criticism session—that is, the self-assessed goals and objectives portion of my performance appraisal—because the crawling horrors of human resources are far less scary than the gory movie playing out behind my eyeballs.

(This is why many of my co-workers eventually start taking work home—at least, the non-classified bits. Bureaucracy is a bulwark of comforting routine in the face of the things you really don’t want to think about too hard by dead of night. Not to mention being a safer tranquilizer than drink or drugs.)

In my experience it’s best to go on-site and nail these bullshit jobs immediately, rather than wasting too much time on over-planning. This one is, when all is said and done, what our trans-Atlantic cousins call “a snipe hunt.” I’m hoping to nail it shut—probably a little girl with a strap-on plastic horn for her pony—and be home in time for tea. So the next morning I leave home and head straight for London Bridge station rather than going in to the office. I fight my way upstream through the onrushing stream of suits and catch the commuter train that carried them into London on its return journey, rattling and mostly empty on its run out to the dormitory towns of East Sussex. It’s just me and the early birds taking the cheapskate stopping service to Crapwick to avoid the hordes of holiday-makers (and pickpockets) at Thiefrow. And that’s the way I like it.

I have a name and destination in the Request for Support memo Iris gave me: we’re to investigate one G. Edgebaston, of Edgebaston Farm Livery Stables, near Hove. But first I’m supposed to meet a Mr. Scullery at a local DEFRA office in East Grinstead. Which is on the London to Brighton line, but it’ll take me a good hour of start-stop commuter rail and then a taxi ride of indeterminate length to get there. So I take a deep breath and dive back into the regrettably deathless prose of the Prophet of Providence.

 

Listen, I know what you’re thinking.

You’re probably thinking WHAT THE HELL, H. P. LOVECRAFT? And wondering why I’m reading his private letters (most certainly not found in any of the collections so lovingly curated by Lovecraft scholars over the years, from August Derleth to S. T. Joshi), in a file so mind-numbingly trivial that its leakage on the front page of a major tabloid newspaper would be greeted with snores.

This is the Laundry, after all, and we write memos and file expense reports every day that deal with gibbering horrors, things that go bump in the night, the lunatical followers of N’yar lath-Hotep, the worshippers of the Sleeper in the Pyramid, alien undersea and lithospheric colonies of BLUE HADES and DEEP SIX, and Old Bat Wings himself.

You probably think HPL was one of ours, or that maybe one of our predecessor agencies bumped him off, or that these letters contain Great & Terrible Mysteries, Secrets, & Eldritch Wisdom of the Ancients and must be handled with asbestos tongs while reading them through welders’ goggles. Right?

Well, you would be wrong. Although it’s not your fault. You’d be wrong for the same reason as the folks who think modern fly-by-wire airliners can fly themselves from takeoff to landing (who needs pilots?), that Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction (we just didn’t search hard enough), and that the Filler of Stockings who brings presents down the chimney every Newtonmas-eve is a benign and cheery fellow. You’ve been listening to the self-aggrandizing exaggerations of self-promotion artists: respectively, the PR might of the airliner manufacturers, dodgy politicians, and the greeting card industry.

And so it is with old HPL: the very model of an 18th century hipster, born decades too late to be one of the original louche laudanum-addicted romantic poets, and utterly unafraid to bore us by droning on and on about the essential crapness of culture since Edgar Allan Poe, the degeneracy of the modern age, &c. &c. &c.

His reputation has been vastly inflated—out of all proportion—by his followers, who think he is the one true wellspring of wisdom concerning the Elder Gods, the Stars Coming Right, and various hideous horrors with implausible names like Shub-Niggurath, the goat of a thousand young, who spawns mindlessly on the darkest depths of the forest . . .

. . . Whereas, in actual fact, his writings are the occult equivalent of The Anarchist Cookbook.

It’s absolutely true that Lovecraft knew stuff. Somewhere in grandpa’s library he got his hands on the confused rambling inner doctrines of a dozen cults and secret societies. Most of these secrets were arrant nonsense on stilts—admixed with just enough knowledge to be deadly dangerous. Occultists of old, like the alchemists who poisoned themselves with mercury in their enthusiasm to transform lead into gold (meanwhile missing the opportunity to invent the modern discipline of chemistry as we understand it), didn’t know much. What they did know was mostly just enough to guarantee a slow, lingering death from Krantzberg Syndrome (if the Eaters in Night didn’t get them first). Not to mention the fact that the vain exhibitionists who compiled these tomes and grimoires, strung out between the narcissistic urge to self-exposure and their occupational addiction to secrecy, littered their scribbled recipes with booby traps on purpose, just to fuck with unauthorized imitators and prove how ’leet they were for being able to actually make this junk work without melting their own faces.

But the young idiot savant HPL was unaware of the social context of 18th century occultist fandom. So he naively distilled their methanol-contaminated moonshine and nonsense into a heady brew that makes you go blind and then causes your extremities to rot if you actually try to drink it. It’s almost as if he mistook his grandfather’s library for a harmless source of material for fiction, rather than the demented and dangerous documentation of our superstitious forerunners.

The Anarchist Cookbook, with its dangerously flawed bomb formulae, hasn’t maimed half so many hands as HPL’s mythos. His writings look more like fiction than allegorically-described recipes to most people, which is a good thing; but every so often a reader of his more recondite works becomes unhealthily obsessed with the idea of the starry wisdom behind it, starts thinking of it as something real, and then tries to reverse-engineer the design of the pipe bomb he’s describing, not realizing that Quality Control was not his strong point.

There are bits of the True Knowledge scattered throughout HPL’s oeuvre like corn kernels in a turd. But he left stuff out, and he added stuff in, and he embellished and added baroque twiddles and stylistic curlicues as only H. P. Lovecraft could, until it’s pretty much the safest course to discount everything he talks about—like Old Bat-Wings himself, Dread Cthulhu, who dead but dreaming sleeps in Drowned R’lyeh beneath the southern ocean.

Watch my lips: Cthulhu does not exist! And there is no tooth fairy.

(Santa Claus is another matter; but that, as they say, is a file with a different code word . . .)

 

East Grinstead is buried deep in the heart of the Sussex commuter belt: this is Ruralshire, nor are we out of it. It’s an overgrown village or a stunted town, depending on how you look at it, complete with picturesque mediaeval timbered buildings, although these days it’s mostly known for its weirdly large array of fringe churches. I stumble blinking from the railway station (which is deathly quiet at this time of day, but clearly rebuilt to accommodate rush hour throngs), narrowly avoid being run down by a pair of mounted police officers who are exercising their gigantic cavalry chargers outside the station in preparation for crowd control at the next sudden-death derby (Brighton Wanderers v. Bexhill United, or some such), and hail a taxi. A minute’s muttered negotiation with the driver ensues, then I’m off to the office.

When we arrive, I’m half-convinced I’ve got the wrong address. It’s way the hell up the A22, so far out of town that at first I’m wondering why I got off the train in East Grinstead—but no, that’s what Google said. (Not for the first time I wish I had a car, though as I live in London on a civil service salary it’s not a terribly practical wish.) The taxi drops me in the middle of nowhere, next to a driveway fronted by a thick hedgerow. There are no obvious offices here, much less the sort of slightly flyblown agricultural veterinary premises you’d expect the Animal Health Executive Agency to maintain. So I look around, at a loss for a minute until I notice the discreet sign pointing up the drive to the Equine Veterinary Practice.

I amble into the yard of what looks like a former farmhouse. It’s been inexpertly fronted with a conservatory that houses a rather dingy reception area, complete with a bored-looking middle-aged lady tapping away on her computer while wearing an expression that says if it’s MySpace, she’s just been unfriended by the universe.

“Hello,” I ask her. She ignores me, intently tapping away at whatever so preoccupies her on her computer. “Hello?” I repeat again. “I’m here to meet Mr. Scullery? Is he around?”

Finally she deigns to notice me. “He’s on a job for the Department,” she says. “He won’t be available until Thursday—”

I let her see my teeth: “Perhaps you can tell him that Mr. Howard is here to see him? From the office in London. I assume it’s the same job we’re talking about.”

“He’s on a job for the—” Finally what I just said worms its way through her ears and into her brain—“I’m sorry, who did you say you were?”

“I’m Mr. Howard. I’ve come all the way down from London. About the Edgebaston brief.” I bounce up and down on my toes. “He asked for me, so if you’d just like to—”

She is already reaching for the phone. “Hello? Mr. Scullery? I have a Mr. Howarth from London, he says you asked for someone from London to help with Edgebaston Farm? Is that right? Yes—right you are, I’ll just tell him.” She puts the phone down and smiles at me in that very precise, slightly self-deprecating way farm-bred ladies of a certain class use to let you know that there’s nothing personal about the knee cap they’re about to deliver to your left nut: “Mr. Scullery says he’s running half an hour late and he’ll be with you as soon as he can. So if you’d like to take a seat in the waiting area? I’m sure he won’t be long.” She turns back to her computer as if I’m invisible. I hover indecisively for a moment, but I know when I’ve been dismissed; and so I go and find a waiting room seat to occupy (sub-type: wooden, elderly, not designed with human buttocks in mind) and mooch listlessly through the stack of magazines for space aliens that they keep on hand to distract the terminally bored.

 

Dear Robert,

 

I must confess that, pursuant to my reply to your last missive, I experienced no small degree of self-doubt as to the perspicacity & pertinence of my critique. If you will permit me to attempt to justify my equivocation, I would like to enter in my defense a plea of temporary insanity. Your confabulation, while a most excellent evocation of a legendary monster, bears special & most unpleasant personal resonances from my regrettable youth. It is not your fault that the heraldic beast you chose to depict in this form is a marvelous horror in my eyes; indeed, you must be somewhat puzzled by my reaction.

I regret to inform you that your description of the unicorn, while vivid in its adhesion to the classical description of same & sharply piquant in depicting his pursuit of the gamine subject of the narrative, is fundamentally inaccurate in both broad outline & fine detail. Explorers might once have sketched fanciful depictions of the Chinese Panda, but today we are fettered by the dour tyranny of camera & zoo; to diverge so drastically from the established order of nature is to risk the gentle reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Regrettably, the horrid creature you caricature is all too real; it will in due course be a matter of the most mundane familiarity to readers, & familiarity inevitably brings such enthusiastic flights of fancy as your missive to grief on the cold stone flags of reality.

Please extend me your trust on this matter. Unicorns are not a suitable topic for romance or fantasy. On the contrary, the adult unicorn is a thing of dire & eldritch horror & I would advise you to pray to your creator that you live to a ripe old age without once encountering such a monstrous creature.

I, alas, was not so lucky & the experience has blighted my entire adult life . . .

 

I kill time waiting for the Man from Ag and Fish by working my way through a stack of glossy magazines for aliens. Passing over the princess-shiny pinkness of Unicorn School: The Sparkling with a shudder, I work my way through a thought-provoking if slightly breathless memoir of “Police Cavalry v. Pinko Commie Striking Miners in the 1980s”—the thoughts it provoke focus on the urgent need to commit the author to an asylum for the violently insane—and am partway through reading a feature about modern trends in castration techniques (and how to care for your gelding) in Stallion World when the door slams open and a gigantic beard wearing a loud tweed suit explodes into the reception area: “Lissa! Melissa! I’m back! Can you tell Bert to hose out the back of the Landy? And fetch out the two sacks of oats behind the passenger seat! Where’s this man from the ministry? Ah, there you are! You must be Mr. Helmuth! I’m Greg Scullery. Pleased to meet you!”

He bounds across the reception area before I can put the magazine down and grabs my right hand, pumping it like a windlass while I’m still coming to my feet. Mr. Scullery is wiry and of indeterminate middle age. He could probably pass for a farmer with bizarre (albeit dated) sartorial taste—ghastly green tweed suit, check shirt, a tie that appears to be knitted from the intestines of long-dead badgers—but his beard is about thirty centimeters long, grizzled and salted and bifurcated. It has so much character that it’s probably being hunted by a posse of typographers. “Um, the name’s Howard. Bob Howard.” I try not to wince at the sensation in my hand, which feels as if it has been sucked into some kind of machine for extracting oil from walnuts. “I believe you requested backup? For some sort of infestation?”

Yes! Yes indeed!” I remember my other hand and use it to make a grab for my warrant card, because I have not yet had an opportunity to authenticate him.

“Seen one of these before?” I ask, flicking it open in front of him.

The walnut-crusher shifts gear into a final grind-into-mush setting: “Capital Laundry Services? Oh yes indeedy! I was in the Rifles, you know. Back in my misspent childhood, haha.” The walnut slurry is ejected: my right hand dangles limply and I try not to wince conspicuously. “Jolly good, Mr. Howard. So. Have you been briefed?”

I shake my head, just as the bell above the reception area door jangles. A young filly is leading her mater in. They’re both wearing green wellies, and there’s something so indefinably horsey about them that I have to pinch myself and remember that were-ponies do not exist outside the pages of a certain bestselling kid-lit series. “Is there somewhere we can talk about this in private?” I ask Greg. “My manager said she didn’t want to prejudice me by actually telling me what this is about.”

His beard twitches indignantly while it sorts out an answer. “One of those, eh? We’ll see about that!” He turns towards reception, where Jocasta or Penelope is trying to evince a metabolic reaction from Melissa the receptionist, who is still deep in MySpace meltdown. “Lissa! Belay all that, I’m going out on a job with Mr. Howard here! If Fiona calls, tell her I’ll be back by five! Follow me.” And with that, he strides back out into the farmyard. I swirl along in the undertow, wondering what I’ve let myself in for.

Greg leads me across the yard to a Land Rover. I don’t know a lot about cars, but this one is pretty spartan, from the bare metal floor pan punctured by drain holes, to the snorkel-shaped exhaust bolted to one side of the windscreen. It’s drab green, there’s a gigantic spare tire clamped on the bonnet, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it has an army service record longer than Greg’s. That worthy clambers into the driver’s seat and motions me towards the passenger door. “Yes, we have seat belts! And other modern fittings like air conditioning” (he points at a slotted metal grille under the windscreen), “and radio” (he gestures at a military-looking shortwave set bolted to the cab roof), “even though it’s a pre-1983 Mark III model. Just hang on, eh?” He fires up the engine, which grumbles and mutters to itself as if chewing on lumps of coal, before it emits a villainous blue smoke ring as a prelude to turning over under its own power. Then he rams it into gear with a jolt, and we lurch towards the main road. I’m certain that the rubber band this thing uses in lieu of a leaf spring profoundly regrets how very, very wicked it was in an earlier life. And shortly thereafter, so do my buttocks.

 

Dear Robert,

 

Many thanks for your kind enquiry after my health. I am, as is usually the case, in somewhat precarious straits but no better or worse than is to be expected of a gentleman of refined & delicate breeding in this coarsened & debased age. My digestion is troubling me greatly, but I fear there is nothing to be done about that. I have the comfort of my memories, & that is both necessary & sufficient to the day, however questionable such comfort might be. I am in any event weighed down by an apprehension of my own mortality. The sands of my hourglass are running fast & I have no great expectation of a lengthy future stretching before me; so I hope you will indulge this old raconteur’s discursive perambulations & allow me to tell you what I know of unicorns.

I should preface my remarks by cautioning you that I am no longer the young man whose memories I commit to paper. In the summer of 1904 I was a callow & untempered fourteen-year-old, with a head full of poetry & a muse at either shoulder, attending Hope High School & keenly absorbing the wisdom of my elders. That younger Howard was a sickly lad, but curious & keen, & took a most serious interest in matters astronomical & chymical. He was at heart an optimist, despite the death of his father from nervous exhaustion some years previously, & was gifted with the love of his mother & aunts & grandfather. Oh! The heart sickens with the dreadful knowledge of the horrid fate which came to blight my life & prospects thereafter. The death of my grandfather in that summer cast a pall across my life, for our circumstances were much reduced, & my mother & aunts were obliged to move to the house on Angell Street. I continued my studies & became particularly obsessed with the sky & stars, for it seemed to me that in the vastness of the cosmos lay the truest & purest object of study. It was my ambition to become an astronomer & to that end I bent my will.

There were distractions, of course. Of these, one of the most charming lived in a house on Waterman Street with her family & was by them named Hester, or Hetty. She attended Hope High, & I confess she was the brightest star in my firmament by 1908. Not that I found it easy then or now to speak of this to her, or to her shade, for she is as long dead as the first flush of a young man’s love by middle age, & the apprehension of the creeping chill of the open grave that waits for me is all that can drive me to set my hand to write of my feelings in this manner. Far too many of the things I should have said to her (had I been mature enough to apprehend how serious an undertaking courtship must be) I whispered instead to my journal, disguised in the raiments of metaphor & verse.

Let me then speak plainly, as befits these chilly January days of 1937. Hetty was, Hetty was, like myself, the only child of an old Dutch lineage. A year younger than I, she brought a luminous self-confidence to all that she did, from piano to poetry. I watched from a distance, smitten with admiration for this delicate & clever creature. I imagined a life in literature, with her Virginia playing the muse to my Edgar & fancifully imagined that she might see in me some echoing spark of recognition of our shared destiny together. In hindsight my obsession was jejune & juvenile, the youthful obsession of a young man in whose sinews and fibers the sap is rising for the first time; but it was sincerely felt & as passionate as anything I had experienced at that time.

That was a simpler, more innocent age and there were scant opportunities for a youth such as I to directly address his muse, much less to plight his troth before the altar of providence & announce the depth of his ardor. It was simply not done. You may therefore imagine my surprise when, one stifling August Saturday afternoon, whilst engaged in my perambulations about the paths and churchyards of Providence, I encountered the object of my fascination crouching behind a gravestone, to all appearances preoccupied by an abnormally large & singular snail . . .

 

My tailbone is aching by the time Greg screeches to a halt outside a rustic-looking pub. “Lunch time!” He declares, with considerable lip-smacking; “I assume you haven’t been swallowing the swill the railway trolley service sells? They serve a passable pint of Greene King IPA here, and there’s a beer garden.” The beard twitches skywards, as if reading the clouds for auguries of rain: “We’ll probably be alone outside, which is good.”

Mr. Scullery strides into the public bar (which is as countrified as I expected: blackened timber beams held together by a collection of mirror-polished horse brasses, a truly vile carpet, and chairs at tables set for food rather than serious drinking). “Brenda? Brenda! Ah, capital! That’ll be two IPAs, the sausages and cheddar mash for me, and whatever Mr. Howard here is eating—”

I scan the menu hastily. “I’ll have the cheeseburger, please,” I say.

“We’ll be in the garden,” the beard announces, its points quivering in anticipation. And then he’s off again, launching himself like a cannonball through a side door (half-glazed with tiny panes of warped glass thick enough to screen a public toilet), into a grassy back yard studded with outdoor tables, their wooden surfaces weathered silver-grey from long exposure. “Jolly good!” he declares, parking his backside on a bench seat with a good view of both the parking lot and the back door (and anyone else who ventures out this way). “Brenda will have our drinks along in a minute, and then we shall have a bite of lunch. So tell me, Mr. Howard. What did your boss tell you?”

“That you work for DEFRA and you know about us and you’re cleared to request backup from my department.” I shrug. “When I said she doesn’t believe in prejudicing her staff I meant it. All I know is that I’m supposed to meet you and we’re going to go and investigate a livery stable called, um, G. Edgebaston Ltd. What’s your job, normally? I mean, to have clearance—”

“I work for DEFRA in—” He pauses as a middle-aged lady bustles up to us with a tray supporting two nearly full beer glasses and some slops. “Thank you, Brenda!”

“Your food will be along in ten minutes, Mr. Scullery,” she says with an oddly proprietorial tone; “don’t you be overdoing it now!” Then she retreats, leaving us alone once more.

“Ah, where was I? Ah yes. I work for the Animal Health Agency.” The beard twitches over its beer for a moment, dowsing for drowned wasps. “I’m a veterinary surgeon. I specialize in horses, but I do other stuff. It’s a hobby, if you like, but it’s official enough that I’m on the books as AHA’s in-house cryptozoologist. What about you, Mr. Howard? What exactly do you do for the Laundry?”

I am too busy trying not to choke on my beer to answer for a moment. “I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about that,” I finally manage. (My oath of office doesn’t zap me for this admission.)

“Yes, but really, I say. What do you know about cryptozoology?”

“Well.” I think for a moment. “I used to subscribe to Fortean Times, but then I developed an allergy to things with too many tentacles . . .”

“Bah.” Greg couldn’t telegraph his disdain more clearly if he manifested a tiny thundercloud over his head, complete with lightning bolts. “Rank amateurs, conspiracy theorists and journalists.” He takes a mouthful of the Greene King, filtering it on its way down his throat. “No, Mr. Howard, I don’t deal with nonsense like Bigfoot or little grey aliens with rectal thermometers or chupacabra: I deal with real organisms, which simply happen to be rare.”

“Unicorns?” I guess wildly.

Greg peers at me over the rim of his pint glass, one eye open wide. “Don’t say that,” he hisses. “Do you have any idea what we’d have to do if there was a unicorn outbreak in England? It’d make the last foot and mouth epidemic look like a storm in a tea-cup . . .”

“But I thought—” I pause. “Hang on, you’re telling me that unicorns are real?”

He pauses for a few seconds, then wets his whistle before he speaks. “I’ve never seen one” he says quietly, “for which I am profoundly grateful because, being male, if I did see one it’d probably be the last thing I ever set eyes on. But I do assure you, young feller me lad, that unicorns are very real indeed, just like great white sharks and Ebola Zaire—and they’re just as much of a joking matter. Napalm, Mr. Howard, napalm and scorched earth: that’s the only language they understand. Sterilize it with fire and nerve gas, then station armed guards.” Another mouthful of beer vanishes, clearly destined to fuel the growth of further facial foliage and calm Mr. Scullery’s shaky nerves.

I shake my head. The EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN dossier was suggestive, but it’s always hard to tell where HPL’s starry wisdom ends and his barking fantasy starts. “Okay, so you want backup when you go to run a spot check on Edgebaston’s stable. Why me? Why not a full team of door-breakers, and a flame thrower for good luck?”

“They’ve got connections, Mr. Howard. Bob, isn’t it? The Edgebastons have run Edgebaston Farm out at Howling ever since Harry Edgebaston married Dick and Elfine’s daughter Sandra Hawk-Monitor, and renamed the old farm after his own line—and wasn’t that a scandal, most of a century ago!—but in this generation they’re pillars of the local community, not to mention the Conservative Club. Suppliers of horses to Sussex Constabulary, first cousins of our MP, Barry Starkadder. You do not want to mess with the squirearchy, even in this day and age of Euro-regulation and what-not. They’ll call down fire and brimstone! And not just from the Church in Beershorn, I’m telling you. Questions will be asked in Parliament if I go banging on their front door without good reason, you mark my words!”

“But—” I stop and rewind, rephrasing: “something must have raised your suspicions, Mr. Scullery. Isn’t that right? What makes you think there’s an outbreak down at Edgebaston Farm?”

“I have a pricking in my thumbs and an itching in my nostril.” The beard twitches grimly. “Oh yes indeed. But you asked the right question! It’s the butcher bills, Mr. Howard, that got my attention this past month. See, old George has been buying in bulk from old Murther’s butcher, lots of honeycomb and giblets and offal. Pigs’ knuckles. That sort of thing. Wanda’s happy enough to tell me what the Edgebastons are buying—without me leaning too hard, anyway—and it turns out they’re taking about forty kilos a day.”

“So they’re buying lots of meat? Is that all?” I think for a moment. “Are they selling pies to Poland or something?”

“It’s not food-grade for people, Mr. Howard. Or livestock for that matter, not since our little problem with BSE twenty years ago.” Greg raises his glass and empties it down his throat. “And it’s a blessed lot of meat. Enough to feed a tiger, or a pack of hounds, ’cept Georgie doesn’t ride with the Howling Hounds any more. Had a falling-out with Debbie Checkbottom six years ago and that was the end of that—it’s the talk of the village, that and Gareth Grissom wearing a dress and saying he wants a sex change, then taking off to Brighton.” He says it with relish, and I try not to roll my eyes or pass comment on his parochial lack of savoir faire. This is rural England, after all; please set your watch back thirty years . . .

“Okay, so: meat. And a livery stable. Is that all you’ve got?” I push.

“No,” Greg says tightly, and reaches into his pocket, pulls something out, and puts it on the table in front of me. It’s the shell of a cone snail, fluted and spiraled, about ten centimeters long and two centimeters in diameter at its open end, gorgeously marbled in cream and brown. It’s clearly dead. Which is a very good thing, because if it were a live cone snail and Greg had picked it up like that it would have stung him, and those bastards are nearly as lethal as a king cobra.

“Very nice,” I say faintly. “Where did you find it?”

“On the verge of the road, under the fence at the side of the back field under Mockuncle Hill.” The beard clenches, wrapping itself around a nasty grin. “It was alive at the time. Eating what was left of a lamb. Took a lot of killin’.”

“But it’s a—” I stop. I swallow, then realize I’ve got a pint of beer, and my dry throat really needs some lubrication. “It could be a coincidence,” I say, trying to convince myself and failing.

“Do you really think that?” Greg knots his fingers through his beard and tugs, combing it crudely.

“Fuck, no.” I somehow manage to make half a pint of beer disappear between sentences. “You’re going to have to check it out. No question. In case there are females.”

“No, Mr. Howard.” He’s abruptly as serious as a heart-attack. “We are going to have to check it out. Because if there’s a live female, much less a mated pair, two of us stand a better chance of living long enough to sound the alarm than one . . .”

 

(cont’d.)

Having for so long been tongue-tied in her presence, I was finally shocked out of my diffidence when I saw the object of Hetty’s interest. “I say, what is that?” I ejaculated.

My rosy-cheeked Dawn turned her face towards me & smiled like a goddess out of legend: “It is a daddy-snail!” she exclaimed. She reached towards a funerary urn wherein languished a bouquet of wilted lilies & plucked a browning stem from the funereal decoration—she was in truth poetry in motion. “Watch this,” she commanded. My eyes turned to follow her gesture as she gracefully prodded the lichen-crusted rock before the snail’s face. The shell of the snail was a fluted cone, perhaps eight inches long & two inches in diameter at the open end. Its color was that of antique ivory, piebald with attractive glossy brown spots. I could see nothing of the occupant & indeed it could have been a dead sea-shell of considerable size, but when the lily-stem brushed the gravestone an inch or two in front of it there was an excitement of motion: the cone rocked back on its heel & spat a pair of slippery iridescent tongues forth at the stem. With some disbelief I confess to recognizing these as tentacles, as unlike the foot of the common mollusk as can be (although our friends the marine biologists assert that the cephalopodia, the octopi & squid & chambered nautilus, are themselves but the highest form of invertebrate mollusk, so perhaps attributing ownership of tentacles to a land-snail is not such an incongruous stretch of imagination as one might at first consider); but while I was trying to make sense of my own eyes’ vision, the demonic cone grabbed hold of the parched stem of the flower and broke it in two!

“Do you see?” Hetty beamed at me. “It is a daddy-snail!” Then her dear face fell. “But he is on his own, too far from home. There are no missy-horses here, & so he will surely starve & die unfulfilled.”

“How do you know this?” I asked stupidly, confounded by her vivacity & veneer of wisdom in the matter of this desperate gastropod.

“I have a mummy-horse quartered in our stables,” she told me, as matter-of-fact as can be, with an impatient toss of her golden locks. “Would you help me carry Peter back to the yard? I would be ever so grateful, & he would love to be among his kindred.”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?” I asked rudely, then kicked myself. Her speech and direct manner had quite confounded me, being as it was so utterly at odds with my imaginings of her lilting voice & ladylike gentility. (I was a young and dreamy boy in those days & so ill-acquainted with females as to picture them from afar as abstractions of femininity. It was a gentler & more innocent age &c., & I was a creature of that time.)

“I would, but I’m afraid he’d sting me,” she said. “The sting of a daddy-snail is mortal harsh, so ’tis said.”

“Really?” I leaned closer to see this prodigy for myself. “Who says?”

“Those families as raise the virgin missy-horses to ride or hunt,” she replied. “Will you help me?” She asked with imploring eyes & prayerful hands, to such effect as only a thirteen-year-old girl can have on the heart-strings of a pigeon-chested boy of fourteen who has been watching her from afar and is eager to impress.

“Certainly I shall help!” I agreed, nodding violently. “But because it stings, I must take precautions. Would you wait here and stand vigilant watch over our escaped prisoner? I shall have to fetch suitable tools with which to fetter the suspect while we escort him back to jail.”

She nodded her leave & I departed in haste, rushing up the lane towards home to borrow certain appurtenances from our own out-building. I fetched heavy gloves & fireplace tongs, the better with which to grasp a snake-tongued tentacular horror; and looking-glass, paper, & pencils with which to record it. Then I rushed back to the graveyard & arrived quite out of breath to find Hetty waiting complaisantly near our target, who had moved perhaps a foot in the intervening quarter-hour.

I wasted no time at all in plucking the blasphemous mollusk from its stony plinth with tongs and gloves. As I lifted it, the creature stabbed out with a sharp red spike which protruded from the point of its shell: I was heartily glad for my foresight. “Where do you want me to take it?” I asked my muse. I gave the cone a sharp shake & the red spike retracted, sullen at being foiled.

Hetty clapped delightedly. “Follow me!” she sang, & skipped away between the gravestones.

Of course I knew the front of her parents’ house on Waterman Street, but I felt it unwise to show any sign of this. I allowed Hetty to lead me through the boneyard & along a grassy path between ancient drystone walls to the alley abutting the back of her family home. There was a tall wooden gate, and beyond it a yard and stables. I was preoccupied with carrying the cone-shell at arm’s length, for its homicidal rage had not escaped my attention. Periodically it shivered & shuddered, like a pot close to boiling over. Being thus distracted I perhaps paid insufficient attention to the warning signs: the flies, the evident lack of labour applied to cleaning the back stoop, & above all the sickly-sweet smell of rotting meat. “Come inside,” Hetty said coyly, producing a key to the padlock that secured the gate. “Bring Peter with you!”

She opened the gate & nipped inside the yard. I followed, barely noticing as she secured the portal behind me with hasp & cunning padlock. “Come to the stable,” she sang, dancing across the cobbles despite the pervasive miasma of decay that hung heavy over the yard like the fetid caul of loathsome exudate that hovers above the body of a week-dead whale bloating in Nantucket sound during the summer months. “Let me show you my darling, my one true love!” As she said it, the cone in my tongs gave a quiver, as of rage—or mortal terror. As it did so I gagged at the stench inside the yard, & my grip loosened inadvertently. The snail-thing gave another ferocious jerk, then slipped free! It caught the end of my tongs with one sucker-tipped tentacle, uncoiled to lower itself to the decaying straw-strewn cobbles below, then let go before I could respond. Hetty gave a little shriek of dismay: “Oh, the poor little man! Now the others will eat him alive!”

For what happened next I can only cite my callow youth & inexperience in exculpation. I panicked a little, tightening my grip on my tool as the deadly giant snail turned around as if assessing the arena in which it found itself. I took a step backwards. “What is going on?” I demanded.

The singular snail reared, point uppermost, as if tasting the sour & dreadful air. A host of small tentacles appeared around its open end, and it began to haul itself on suckers across the decay-slicked stones, proceeding in the direction of the stable doors & the darkness that I could even then sense lurking within.

Hetty smiled—a horrid, knowing expression, unfit to grace the visage of a member of the fairer sex. “The daddy-snails and the missy-horses dance together & dine, and those that survive join in matrimonial union to become a mummy-horse,” she intoned in a sing-song way, as if reciting a nursery rhyme plucked from the cradles of hell. “My mummy-horse rests yonder,” she said, gesturing at the decaying stable doors, slicked with nameless dark fluids that had been allowed to dry, staining the wood. “Would you like to see my mummy?”

I felt faint, for I knew even then that something terrible born of an unfathomable madness had happened here. Heartbroken—for there is no heartbreak like that of a fourteen-year-old lad whose muse reveals feet not of clay but of excrement—I nevertheless gathered my courage and stood my ground. “Your mummy,” I said. “You do not speak of Mrs. van t’Hooft, in this case?”

She shook her head. “My mother—” she pronounced the word strangely—“is sleeping in the stable with mummy-horse. Would you like to see her?” A horrid glow of anticipation crept into her cheeks, as if she could barely conceal her eagerness to cozen me within.

I wound up the reins of my bravery to the breaking-point & tightened my grip on the fire-tongs. They felt flimsy & intangible in my grasp: oh for the shield and sword of a Knight of the Round Table! My kingdom for a charger & a lance, or even the cleansing flare of a dragon’s hot breath! “Show me to your mummy-horse,” I told Hetty, thinking myself brave & manly & willing to face down monsters for a young man’s apprehension of love: thinking that whatever this monster was, I should have the better of it.

More fool I!

 

They do things differently in East Sussex, or so I gather. My informant in this matter is Greg Scullery, and the nature of the difference is a leisurely lunch at a country pub in place of a hasty sandwich break snatched at one’s office desk in Central London.

I am initially worried about Greg’s willingness to down a pint before lunch, but by the time our food arrives and we’ve cleaned our plates my worries evaporate—assisted by Greg’s smooth transition onto lemonade and soda, albeit replaced by new worries about what we’re going to find down on Edgebaston farm. Because Greg has got that disturbing snail-shell, and with the fresh context provided by the Lovecraftian confessional in the EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN dossier, I’m going to have a hard time sleeping tonight unless I successfully lay that particular ghost to rest.

“It’s not a horse, let’s get that straight,” Greg explains between bites of a disturbingly phallic sausage. “It’s not Equus ferus caballus. It might look like one at certain points in its life cycle, but that’s simple mimicry. Not Batesian mimicry, where a harmless organism imitates a toxic or venomous one to deter predators, much as hoverflies mimic the thoracic coloration of wasps, but rather the kind of mimicry a bolas spider uses to lure its prey—using pheromonal lures and appearance to make itself attractive to its next meal. It’s an equoid not an equus, in other words.”

I suppress a shudder. “How do you tell a female unic—equoid—from a real horse?” I ask.

“Come along to Edgebaston Farm and I’m sure I’ll be able to show you,” he says, setting aside the plate holding what’s left of his bangers and mash as he rises to his feet. “Have you read the backgrounder I sent your people? Or the infestation control protocol?”

“All I’ve read is H. P. Lovecraft’s deathbed confession,” I admit.

“His—” Greg stops dead in his tracks—“really?

“His first flame, Hetty van t’Hooft, introduced him to, well, he called it a unicorn. That was right before his nervous breakdown.” I shake my head. “Although how much stock to place in his account . . .”

“Fascinating,” Greg hisses between his teeth. “I bet he didn’t mention napalm, did he?” I shake my head. “Typical of your effete word-pusher, then, not practical. But we can’t just call in an air strike either, these days, can we? And it’ll take rather a lot of pull to convince the police to take this seriously. So let’s go and beard Georgina in her den and see what she’s hiding.”

I follow Greg through the pub and back to his Land Rover. “Are we just going to go in there and talk to her?” I ask. “Because I thought uni—equoids—are a bit on the dangerous side? In terms of how they co-opt their host, I mean. If she’s got a shotgun . . .”

“Don’t you worry about Georgina, young feller me lad,” Greg reassures me. “Of course she’s got a shotgun! But she won’t use it on us. The trick is to not look like we’re a threat to her Precious, if she is indeed playing host to a fertile equoid. If we’re lucky and she isn’t under its spell things will go much more smoothly. So we’re not going to mention the blessed thing at first. Remember she runs a farm? I’m just dropping in to check her hounds’ vaccination records are up to date. While I’m doing that, you go and take a peek behind the stable doors with that phone camera of yours: then we’ll put our heads together. Piece of cake!” he adds confidently, as he pushes the ignition button and his chariot belches blue smoke.

“Right.” You have got to be kidding, I think, clinging to the grab bar for dear life as Greg shoves the Landy into gear and we bounce across ruts and into the road. “Do you have any idea of the layout of Edgebaston Farm? Because I don’t!”

“It’s jolly simple, Mr. Howard sir.” (Oh great, now he’s reverting to grizzled-veteran-sergeant-briefing-the-young-lieutenant mode.) “Edgebaston Farm covers two hundred acres on a hillside overlooking Howling, but the farm itself—the stables and outhouses—are in the shape of an octangle surrounding the farmhouse, which is a long triangle two stories high. The left point of the triangle, the kitchen, intersects the cowsheds which lie parallel to the barn, which is your target. They’re all built from rough-hewn stone and thatched: no new-fangled solar panels here. It started out as a shed where Edward the Sixth housed his swineherds . . .”

“Yes, Greg, but what do I do if there’s a fucking unicorn in the barn?”

“You run away very quickly, Bob. Or you die.” He glances at me pityingly in the rearview mirror. (The Landy is sufficiently spartan that the reflector is an after-market bolt-on, with that imported American warning: objects in mirror are closer than they appear.) “Isn’t that part of your job description? Screaming and running away?”

I am extremely dubious about my ability to outrun an equoid. “Uh-huh. The only kind of running I generally do is batch jobs on a mainframe.” I clutch my briefcase protectively. “What we really need is a pretext to see what they’re keeping in the stables, one that won’t get us killed if you’re right about what’s lurking in the background.” I pause for a moment. “They’re a livery stable, aren’t they? Do they do riding lessons?”

Greg nearly drives off the road. “Of course they do!” His beard emits an erratic hissing noise like a pressure cooker that’s gearing up for a stove-top meltdown. After a moment I recognize it as something not unlike laughter. Eventually the snickering stops. “And if they’re harboring equoids they won’t be able to offer you a horse. But won’t that take too long?”

“It had better not.” I take a deep breath. “Okay, Greg. Here’s our story: you’re checking the dogs, and I’m your nephew from London. I’m working in Hastings for a month and while I’m there I want to learn to ride . . .”

 

How to describe the smell, the foulness, the louring portents of ominous doom that sent shivers of fear crawling up & down my spine? At the remove of a third of a century, that scene still retains the power to strike terror into my craven heart. I am no adventurer or chevalier; I am an aesthete & man of letters, ill-suited to the execution of such deeds. And though at fourteen I was in the flush of youth, and fancied myself as prepared for deeds of manly heroism as any other lad, I yet held a shadowy apprehension of that future self whom I was fated to become. I, Howard Phillips Lovecraft Esq., a man of contemplative & refined sensibilities born into a decadent latter age of feral brutes menaced by the unspeakable stormclouds of Bolshevism & Jew-Fascist Negro Barbarism sweeping the old countries of Europe, fear that I am nothing more than a commentator, doomed to write the epitaph to Western civilization that will, engraved upon its stony headstone, inform the scholars of a future age—should any eventually emerge from the imminent darkness—of the cause of its fate.

People like my Hetty. People who with the best will in the world would take in & nurture at their rosy breasts the suckling horror that in my fictions I have named Shub-Niggurath, the spawning goat of a thousand young, a shuddering pile of protoplasmic horror that mindlessly copulates with itself and, spurting, squirting, licking its own engorged & swollen membrum & vulvae, inseminates with sucker-adorned tentacles (each cup enfolding the horror of a barbed, venomous hook with which to tear the flesh to which it adhered) the inflamed orifices & lubricious, pulsing cysts from which the abnormal spawn gushes in ropy streams of hideous liquor—

Ia! How to describe the foul smell, the vile purulent exudate of eldritch emulsion bearing gelatinous bubbles of toadspawn from its body, did toadspawn only contain minuscule conical snail-bodies & horse-like bodies—not sea-horses yet, for no sea-horse has legs, but bodies of the size of sea-horses—Ia! The language of the English lacks a sufficiency of obscenity to encompass the monstrous presence of Hetty’s “mummy-horse.” It looked at me with liquid brown eyes as deep as any mare’s, long-lashed & contemplative: some of them embedded within it, others extruded atop stalks like those of a vile unclean slug. It had mouths, too, and other organs, some of them equine, others bizarrely, inappropriately human. I am reduced to the muttered imprecations of the subhuman & deranged; unmanned & maddened by the apprehension of the limits of sanity imposed by witnessing the ghastly immanence of an Elder Thing come to spawn in a family stable in Providence.

Imagine, if you will, a huge pile of gelatinous protoplasm ten feet in diameter & six feet high! It bears the charnel stink of the abattoir about it, a miasma composed of the concentrated fear & faecal vileness of every animal it has consumed to reach its present size. Their bones & skulls lie all around, & it is evident from a swift perusal of the scene that though it started on its equine stable-mates, the “mummy-horse,” gracile & pallid, with the calcified body of a spiral coned snail fused to the bone between its eyes, has absorbed its own legs, & head, & indeed every portion of its anatomy not dedicated to its adult functions of eating & spawning. There are human bones scattered around the festering midden in which it nests, for its virginal bellwether has with girlish laughter & coy blandishments tempted first the human members of the household & then every adult she can reach to enter the den of the monster. It is the way of this horror that when she finally ceases to provide it with a banquet of men & women, boys, girls, & babies, it will take her for its final repast, & subsequently it too will succumb, for its cannibal kind feed their spawn not with milk but with their own suppurating, foul flesh.

I know not from which hadean pit of horrors the spawn of the unicorn hail, but through subsequent years of research I have learned this much: that the cone-snails are the male offspring & the “horses” are female, and they tear & bite & eat anything that approaches them except a member of the distaff sex. They mate not by insemination but by fusion, the male adhering to the forehead of the female. Their circulatory systems fuse & the male is presently absorbed, leaving behind a spiral-fluted horn containing only the reproductive gonads, which presently discharge via the shared venous circulation. Once mated, the tiny “unicorns” tear into the maternal corpus, bloating their stomachs & growing rapidly; they squabble over the remains & spear one another & cannibalize their weaker siblings, until in the end the survivors—barely two or three in each litter of thousands—leave their charnel nursery behind & set out in search of a new virgin hostess who will take them in & groom & feed them. And so the wheel of death rolls ever on . . .

 

There is cold comfort to be drawn from the sure and certain knowledge that the correct way to deal with the problem you’re facing in your job involves napalm, if you find yourself confronting a dragon and you aren’t even carrying a cigarette lighter.

(Thumps self upside the head: Dammit, HPL’s style is infectious! Let me try again . . .)

With Greg driving me—if not mad, then at least in the direction of a neck brace—I barely notice either the time or the road layout as we hurtle towards Edgebaston Farm. We arrive all too soon at a desolate drystone wall overlooking a blasted heath, judder across a cattle grid set between the whitewashed gate posts, and embark on a hair-raising hillside descent along a poorly-maintained driveway that ends in a yard surrounded by mostly-windowless outbuildings that look like the mediaeval predecessors of World War II bunkers. It is not remotely like any of my preconceptions of what livery stables should look like—but then, what do I know?

Greg pulls up sharply and parks between a Subaru Forester covered in mud to the door sills and a white BMW. I do a double-take when I spot the concealed light-bar of an unmarked Police car on the BMW’s rear parcel shelf. I remember what Greg said about the Edgebastons supplying the local cops with horses for their mounted police. Back home in London they’re more interested in flying squirrels—Twin Squirrel helicopters, that is—but I guess here in Ruralshire they still believe in a cavalry charge with drawn batons and added eau de pepper spray. Or maybe the Chief Constable rides with the local Hunt. Either way, though, it’s a warning to me to be careful what I say. In theory my warrant card is supposed to compel and command the full cooperation of any of HMG’s servants. In practice, however, it’s best to beware of local entanglements . . .

Greg marches up to the farmhouse door and is about to whack it with the knurled knob-end of his ash walking stick when it opens abruptly. The matronly lady holding the door handle stares at him, then suddenly smiles. “Greg!” she cries, not noticing me. I take stock: she’s fortyish, about one-sixty high and perhaps seventy kilos, and wears jeans tucked into green wellies with a check shirt and a quilted body-warmer, as if she’s just stepped in from the stables. Curly black hair, piercing blue eyes, and the kind of vaguely familiar facial bone structure that makes me wonder how many generations back it diverged from the royal family. “How remarkable! We were just talking about you. Who’s this, are you taking on work-experience trainees?”

I emulate lockjaw in her general direction, it being less likely to give offense than my instinctive first response.

“Georgina,” says Greg, “allow me to introduce my colleague—”

“Bob,” I interrupt. Georgina darts forward, grabs my hand, and pumps it up and down while peering at my face as if she’s wondering why water isn’t gushing from my mouth. “From London.” It’s best to keep introductions like this as vague as possible.

“Bob,” she echoes. To Greg: “Won’t you come in? Inspector Dudley is here. We were discussing retirement planning for the mounted unit’s horses.”

“Jack Dudley’s here, is he?” Greg mutters under his breath. “Capital! Come on, young feller me lad.” And with that, he follows Georgina Edgebaston as she retreats into the cavernous farm kitchen. “And how is your mother, Georgie?” Greg booms.

“Oh, much the same—”

“—And where’s young Lady Octavia?” Greg adds.

“Oh, she’s back at school this week. Jolly hockey sticks and algebra, that kind of thing. Won’t be back until half-term.” The lady of the manse calls across the kitchen: “Inspector! We have visitors, I hope you don’t mind?”

“Oh, not at all.” A big guy with the build and nose of a sometime rugby player rises from the far end of the table, where he’s been nursing a chipped mug. He’s not in uniform, but there’s something odd about his clothing that takes me a moment to recognize: boots and tight trousers with oddly placed seams, that’s what it is. He’s kitted out for riding, minus the hard hat. He nods at Greg, then scans me with the professional eyeball of one who spent years carrying a notepad. “Who’s this?”

“Bob Howard.” I smile vacuously and try not to show any sign of recognizing what he is. There’s another guy at the far end of the kitchen, bent over a pile of dishes beside the sink. I get an indistinct impression of long, lank hair, a beard, and a miasma of depression hanging over him. “Greg’s showing me around today. It’s all a bit different, I must say!”

“Bob’s a city boy,” Greg explains, as if apologizing in advance for my cognitive impairment. “He’s working in town for a month, so I thought I’d show him round. He’s my sister’s eldest. Does something funny with computers.”

That’s getting uncomfortably close to the truth, so I decide to embellish the cake before Greg puts his foot in it: “I’m in web design,” I say artlessly. “Is that your car outside?” I ask Dudley.

The inspector eyeballs me again. “Company wheels,” he says. To Georgina, he adds, “Well, I really should be going. Meanwhile, if you can think of anyone who has room to take in our retirees I’d be very grateful. It’s a problem nobody mentioned in the original scope briefing—”

“A problem?” Greg asks brightly.

“Jack’s looking for a new retirement farm for the Section’s old mounts,” Georgina explains. “We used to take them in here, but that’s no longer possible.”

“Old mounts?” I ask.

My obvious puzzlement gives them a clear target for a patronizing display of insider knowledge. “Police horses don’t come cheap,” Greg explains. “You can’t put any old nag up against a bunch of rioters.” (The inspector nods approvingly, as if Bexhill-upon-Sea might at any time to supply a riot whose average age is a day under seventy! Horses v. wheelchairs . . . ) “They have to use larger breeds, and they have special training. And they don’t stay in service forever—in at six, retired by sixteen. But that’s relatively young to retire a horse, so the number of stables who can handle an ex-police mount is relatively small.”

“We used to take them in until suitable new owners could be found,” Georgina explains, “but that’s out of the question now—we’re at full occupancy. So I was just explaining to the inspector that while I can help him find a fallback, I can’t take Rose and Oak when they reach retirement next month.” She smiles politely. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Greg chortles. I nod vigorously, and refrain from paying obvious attention as the inspector makes his apologies and slithers out of the kitchen. I’m a good boy; I pretend I don’t even notice him eyeballing the back of my neck thoughtfully from the doorway. Ten to one he’ll be asking questions about me over Airwave before he gets back to the local nick. Let him: he won’t learn anything.

“So why can’t you take the police horses?” I ask as disingenuously as possible, while Georgina fusses over kettle and teapot. “Are you full or something?”

Greg spots my line of enquiry and provides distracting cover: “Yes, Georgina, what’s changed?” he asks.

She sighs noisily. “We’re out of room,” she says. “Leastwise until we can empty the old woodshed out and get it ready to take livestock instead.” She turns to the guy at the sink: “Adam, would you mind taking your clettering outside, there’s a good lad? Mr. Scullery and I need a word in private.”

Mr. Miasma rises and, wordlessly but with misshapen stick in hand, heads for the door. “I came to check the hounds’ vaccination log book was up to date,” Greg begins, “but if there’s something else you’d like me to take a look at—”

“Well, actually there is,” says Georgina. “it’s about the stables.” She’s wringing her hands unconsciously, which immediately attracts my attention. “And those damned land snails! They’re getting everywhere and I really can’t be doing with them. Ghastly things! But it’s mostly the new police mares. Jack convinced me to take them in for early training and breaking to saddle, but they’ve been an utter headache so far. ”

“New mares,” echoes Greg. I’m all agog, but as long as Greg is doing the digging I see no reason to interrupt. “What new mares would these be?”

Georgina sighs noisily again as she picks up the kettle and fills the teapot. “Sussex Police Authority’s Mounted Police Unit, operating out of the stables in St. Leonards, is in the throes of phasing out all their medium-weight mounts and replacing them with what they call Enhanced-Mobility Operational Capability Upgrade Mounts, or EMOCUM—god-awful genetically engineered monstrosities, if you ask me, but what do I know about how the police work out their operational requirements?” She puts the kettle down, then dips a spoon in the teapot and gives it a vigorous stir. “So it’s goodbye to Ash and Blossom and Buttercup, and hello to EMOCUM Units One and Two, and if it looks like a horse and acts like a horse—most of the time—then it’s a horse, so it needs stabling and currying and worming and training, stands to reason; but if you’ll pardon my French, this is bullshit. Unit Two tried to eat Arsenic, so I have to move him out of the stable—”

“What? When was that? Why didn’t you call me?” demands Greg. His beard is quivering with indignation.

Georgina rolls her eyes, then opens a cabinet and hauls out a double handful of chipped ceramic mugs. “You were attending to a breech delivery, one of old Godmanchester’s Frisians as I recall. Melissa sent Babs instead and she patched him up—”

“Why would you leave arsenic lying around in a stable?” I ask, finally unable to contain myself. “Isn’t that a bit risky?”

Two heads swivel as one to regard the alien interloper. “Arsenic is Octavia’s horse,” Georgina explains, her voice slow and patient. “A seventeen-year-old bay gelding. He used to belong to Jack’s mounted unit but they put him out to pasture two years ago. Sixteen-and-a-half hands, police-trained, perfect for an ambitious thirteen-year-old.”

I’m blinking at this point. I recognize “police,” but the rest of the words might as well be rocket science or motorbike internals for all I can tell. All I can work out is the context. “So he’s a horse, and he was attacked by one of these EMOCUM things?” I ask. “Was that serious?”

“It tried to eat him!” Georgina snaps. I recoil involuntarily. “It has canines! You can’t tell me that’s natural! It’s messing with the natural order of things, that’s what it is. Amos was right.” She gives the tea another violent stir, then sloshes a stream of orange-brown liquor into the mugs—one of those breakfast blends with more caffeine than espresso and a worrying tendency to corrode stainless steel—and shoves them at Greg and myself. (Americans think we Brits drink tea because we’re polite and genteel or something, whereas we really drink it because it’s a stimulant and it’s hot enough to sterilize cholera bacteria.) I accept the mug with some trepidation, but it doesn’t smell of sheep-dip and my protective ward doesn’t sting me, so it’s probably not a lethal dose. “Babs stitched him up, but we can’t get him to go anywhere near the stable now—he panics and tries to bolt.”

“Where are you keeping him for the time being?” Greg asks, with the kindly but direct tone of a magistrate enquiring after the fate of a mugger’s victim.

“He’s in the south paddock while I sort out getting the woodshed refitted as a temporary stable, but there’s damp rot in the roof beams. And we had to move Travail and Jug-Jug, too. Not to mention Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless, who are all under-producing and their milk is sour and they won’t go anywhere near the yard. It’s a disaster, except for the cost-plus contract to look after the new Units. An absolute disaster! For two shillings I’d sell them to a traveling knacker just to get rid of them. But that’d leave Jack in the lurch, and the police with nowhere to put the other six they’ve got coming, and we can’t be having that, so think of England, say I.”

Greg takes a swig of rust-colored caffeine delivery fluid: the beard clenches briefly around it, then swallows. “Well, I suppose we’d better take a look at these EMOCUM beasties. What do you think, young feller?”

“I think that’d be a very good idea,” I say cautiously. My head’s spinning: Georgina has swapped out the game board from underneath our original plan—and what the hell are the police playing at? “Then I think we’d better go and have a word with Inspector Dudley. I have some questions for him, starting with where he got the idea of re-equipping the mounted unit with equoids . . .”

 

To paraphrase the stern & terrible Oliver, I beseech you, Robert, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken about unicorns. They are an antique horror that surpasses human understanding, a nightmarish reminder that we are but swimmers in the sunlit upper waters of an abyss & beneath us in the inky darkness there move monsters that, though outwardly of fair visage, harbor appetites less wholesome than Sawney Bean’s. As Professor Watts reminds us, fully three-quarters of life’s great & bounteous cornucopia consists of parasites, battening furtively on the flesh of the few productive species that grace creation. It is true that some of these parasites are marvelously attuned to the blind spots of their hosts; consider the humble cuckoo & the way its eggs, so different in shape & color from those that surround them, are nevertheless invisible to the host that raises the changeling in the nest. Just so too do unicorns exploit our beliefs, our mythology, our affection for our loyal equine servants! But their fair visage is merely a hollow mask that conceals a nightmare’s skull.

I knew none of that as I stood in that terrible courtyard, feet braced uncertainly on slime-trailed cobblestones slick with the mucilaginous secretions of the flesh-eating snails, facing the darkness within the gaping jaws of the stable with only a pair of steel tongs in my hand—and the looking-glass I had fetched with some vague, childish idea of sketching the details of the snail’s shell to compare with the encyclopedia in my grandfather’s library. Standing there in that revelatory moment of which I have dreamed ever since, I knew only Hetty’s blasphemous grin, the slithering horror of the tentacular mollusk as it fled towards the stables, and an apprehension of the greater nightmare that lurked beyond that shadow’d threshold.

But I was not unarmed! A stack of chopped lumber lay beneath a roof at one side of the barn, & the yard was strewn with moldering hay. I strode across, trying not to look within those horrid doors, & seized a slender branch that had been left intact, presumably as kindling.

“What are you doing?” demanded Hetty: “Won’t you go inside right away? Mummy-horse needs help!”

“It’s all right,” I consoled her; “but I need to see what I’m doing if I am to help her.” And with that facile reassurance I scooped up a handful of straw & used my handkerchief to bind it around the stick. Then I strode to the sunlit corner of the yard & pulled out my glass, bringing it to a focus on the straw.

Hetty stared at me oddly, then retreated to the barn door, her hips swaying lasciviously as she beckoned. There was, I recall, a sultry smile on her lips & a glazed & lustful expression that I, in my juvenile naïveté, barely apprehended was contrived to be seductive. As she stepped backwards into the shadows she raised her petticoats, revealing far more leg than common decency normally allowed in those days. I shuddered. “Won’t you come with me?” she sang.

The tip of my wand erupted with a pale glow. I breathed on the straw until it caught. I found myself wishing I had some tar or paraffin; with barely a minute until it burned down, I knew I had scant opportunity. I stepped toward her, a steely resolve in my chest propelling me forward even though my knees nearly knocked together & my teeth clattered in my head. “I’m coming, dear,” I said as Hetty retreated further into darkness, lifting her dress over her hips. She wore—pardon me for the nature of this confession—nothing beneath it, but was naked as the day she was born. Livid bruises studded her pale thighs, some of them circular, with puncture marks at their centers, scabbed-over wounds that hinted at unholy practices. No dance of the seven veils was this, but rather the puppet-show of a diseased and depraved imagination, seeking to corrupt & abuse the feeble-minded & weak-willed & lure them to a fate of unspeakable moral degeneracy.

The choking air within the barn reeked of overpowering decay, tempered by a musky odor that set my loins aflame despite my terror. I saw a lamp hanging from a nail just inside the door. Seizing it, I hastily applied the torch (fading to embers even then) to the wick, and just in time: for it caught. I raised the lamp & wound the wick up until it flared, & forced myself to look past Hetty—shamefully naked now, thrusting her hips towards me & supporting her uncorseted bosom with both hands in a manner transparently calculated to attract my attention—to behold the benthic horror of the angler fish lurking half-unseen in the twilight, dangling its shapely lure before me—its chosen prey!

This abomination stared at me with those glistening, liquid horse-eyes & woman-eyes: and it repeatedly coiled & recoiled tentacles like those of the Pacific octopus. Mouths opened & closed as those muscular ropes twitched & slithered around Hetty’s feet. “Do you want me?” her sweet soprano offered, even as a pink-skinned tentacle with fewer suckers than most spiraled around her left leg, questing & climbing. “Mummy-horse says don’t be afraid!” The pink & blindly questing membrum passed the level of her knees. “Mummy says she would like to speak with you, in a minute, through my mouth—” The tentacle’s blind head (the hectocotylus, as I later identified it) reached between her buttocks from behind. Pulses shivered up it from stem to tip as she opened her cloacal passage to receive it with a sigh. Her knees flexed towards me, baring her naked womanhood, as her weight collapsed onto that vile and corrupt pillar of muscle. It supported her fully: her eyes rolled back in her head as she fainted. “Howard,” said another’s voice, speaking through her throat. “Come to me & join in precious union with this mating body, for your arrival has been prophesied by the ancients of our kind & you will be a fitting adornment to my reign.

“Wh-what are you?” I asked, mesmerized—I was, as I have said, but a youth: I had never seen a woman’s secret parts before, & even in the midst of this terrible wrongness I was excited as well as afraid—for it did not occur to me then that my very soul was in immediate danger.

We are Shub-Niggurath,” said the cyclopean nightmare that spoke through Hetty’s vocal cords; “we come from your future & it is prophesied that you will become one with our flesh.

Hetty’s body now began to rise, legs straightening. Her arms rose too, outstretched and imploring towards me. Her neck righted itself & her eyes opened. “Howard?” she said in her normal voice. Then in the voice of Shub-Niggurath: “Mate with us & give us the gift of your seed.” Then again: “Howard? Something is wrong! I’m afraid ...”

I stepped closer, mesmerized. Then another step. By the light of my raised oil lamp I beheld tears of blood weeping from her eyes. By my every inhalation I could perceive (from among the overwhelming, choking midden-stink of the stables) a peculiar stench emanating from her skin in place of the normal fragrance of the fairer sex. “Isn’t this your mummy-horse?” I asked, driven by a cruel impulse: I wanted to touch her, I wanted to open myself to experiences I as yet had no understanding of: powerful emotions drove me on, no longer pure and holy terror but now tempered with an admixture of feral lust. “Isn’t this what you want?”

“She hasn’t done this to me before—” Shub-Niggurath: “Take the gift we place before you, boy. Lose yourself in the flesh of Hetty van t’Hooft & revel in the pleasure & ecstasy of the union of bodies & souls! Join us, join us, join us!” I saw the thick column of cephalopodian flesh pulsing behind & within her, operating her skin like a hellish glove puppet, & I slowly realized: this thing, this hideous monster that spawned endlessly in the filthy darkness of the family stable, was hollowing her out from the inside! It meant to use her as a lure, just as the angler mercilessly impales a fly on a barbed hook—& I was the juicy trout in its sights! The musky scent hanging all around made my heart beat faster & brought premature life to my youthful manhood, but even then I recognized that to succumb to such an unholy lust was a mistake I could ill afford to make.

Even so, I took another step forward. It was to nearly prove my undoing, for I had paid scant attention to the spawn that surrounded us, lurking in the far corners of the barn. But the spawn had begun to close in, ready to resume tearing at the flesh of their progenitor, and now by pure mischance I brought my shod foot down on an over-eager unicorn. It was a perfect miniature pony perhaps a hand high at the hock, sporting a viciously sharp horn an inch long. It screamed in a high-pitched voice & I slipped, falling to one knee. I looked up, straight at Hetty’s female parts, & saw then what had been hidden in waiting for me: a livid appendage, either vastly expanded from her natural organ (like the clitoris of the spotted hyena) or worse, an extrusion of Shub-Niggurath itself, capped with the concentric circular jaws of a lamprey, alternately gaping open to bite & snapping closed with vile frustration, streaked with blood & mucus, pulsing as it quested blindly from its vulval nest to seek my face—

I screamed & threw the oil lamp. Then I pushed myself to my feet & fled. Fiery stabbing pain lanced through my hand; I glanced down & saw that I had been stung by the lance of a small snail-cone. The agony was pure & excruciating, & as breathtaking as a hornet sting. I caught my breath & screamed again, then stumbled backwards. Hetty was still upright, but quivered from head to toe in a quite inhuman manner, which I now know to be death spasms, like those that are seen when a felon is being hanged. Blood trickled from the sides of her mouth & from her ears now, as well as from the sides of her twitching eyes. The vileness that supported her skin now ate at her innards with its concealed radulae. But even as it consumed her & tried to extend its tentacles towards me, the spreading pool of oil from the lamp reached a half-collapsed bale of hay that lay beside a bloody exposed rib cage (whether of man or beast I could not tell, in the depths of my torment).

We will be back,” the horror gurgled through her dying larynx: “and we will have you in the end!

The flames caught as I stumbled away, cradling my burning, wounded hand. I remember naught of the next two weeks but nightmares, but I was later told I lay febrile & unconscious & shuddering on the edge of death’s dark cliff. Thereafter, whenever I was introduced to a member of the fairer sex who might flirt with me or whisper sweet nothings, all I could see was my the husk of my Hetty, impaled and half-eaten on the tentacle of a nightmare from the far future, even as she whispered chilling blandishments to me; and all I could think of was the thing that lay in wait for me, & what the Beast had said at the end.

Not until I met the blessed Sonia was I was even partially healed of the wound in my soul that the unicorn inflicted. Even today I am only half the man that I might have been had I not met the abomination in the stable. And this is why I urge you not to write lightly of the four-legged parasite that preys upon our instinct to protect & cherish the fairer sex. They are a thing of unclean & blasphemous appetites that preys upon the weak & foolish & our own intrinsic tendency towards degeneracy & self-abuse. Worse still, they harbor a feral intellect and they plan ahead. They must be destroyed on sight! Otherwise the madness & horror will breed, until only darkness remains.

42 comments
philolexian
1. philolexian
There have always been Starkadders at Edgebaston Farm!
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Great job! The Lovecraft letters and the procurement forms interleave to really ramp up the tension.

Something nasty in the woodshed indeed.
E M
3. herewiss13
Well, that was truly horrible (in the best possible way). I'm never looking at unicorns the same way again...or cone-shaped snail shells, for that matter.

::shudder::
Christopher Hatton
4. Xopher
Only Charlie Stross could weave unicorns, Lovecraft, bureaucracy, and (ROT13 for spoiler) Pbyq Pbzsbeg Snez together into a story that's alternately hilarious and terrifying...or sometimes both at once.

Bravo.
Colin Bell
5. SchuylerH
All the best Stross stories leave you with that ambigously sick feeling...
Christian Decomain
6. Khryss
I didn't know that Peter Watts was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, but it explains some things about his writing...
philolexian
7. missallen
Wowie! Another heart-stopping story from Charlie. Loved the use of HPL's "letters" and the twisted view of unicorns. Seriously seriously good.
philolexian
8. JohnElliott
East Grinstead on the London to Brighton line? I suppose that in the Laundryverse something nasty could have taken out the main line south of Three Bridges, and so now everything goes via East Grinstead instead.
philolexian
9. Ghostwoods
Fantastic! Thanks, Charlie / Tor. Best. Unicorns. Ever!
philolexian
10. Megpie71
Loved this to bits, and would recommend more. Enjoyed the references to Stella Gibbons, H P Lovecraft, Peter Schaeffer and Terry Pratchett. My partner has once again expressed his opinion that I am a very strange person.
philolexian
11. Mep
As always, Stross makes a wonderful thing out of several other wonderful things. He remains one of the most enjoyable reads I have encountered, as well as one of the most chilling.
philolexian
12. Michdevilish
That was a lot of fun to read. I will search out some more Charlie Stross.
philolexian
14. Mag
I really enjoyed the other two, thanks for the links.
I am heartily sorry that I breezed past the mildly phrased trigger warning on this one. I get all the jokes, AND I wish I could unread parts of this.
I even understand that the particular horrors were part of the Real-People Sekrit History of How HPL Got That Way. I just... It wasn't a good trade for me, to appreciate that cleverness but have those images in my head now.
I would read the novels, if they're more like the other two stories and Not Like This. Does anybody know?
philolexian
15. Aaron Em
Mag @ 14: Having read all four thus far published, I wish to certify that the books are very much Not Like This, in the sense to which you refer; there is nothing even remotely similar to be found in any of them.

(Speaking of which, I really can't imagine Lovecraft being anything like that graphic, however informal or confidential the context. It doesn't really seem necessary to his aim of dissuading Bloch from whatever that worthy was considering doing with unicorns, and it certainly doesn't strike me as being an episode in his personal history which he'd have any desire to revisit at such length or explicitude -- all of which left the whole thing seeming very much gratuitous to me.)
Rick Grant
16. brevoort
This truly was a treasure read for me today.

I was expecting the usual highly competent and readable Laundry story. But to have Lovecraft and Cold Comfort Farm thrown in for good measure was terrific.

However, like someone else said, I have some images in my head now that I wish I could scrub out. Of course, being left mildly disturbed after reading a horror tale is a sign that the author has done a sterling job.

I await the next full length Laundry novel with high anticipation although that anticipation is now tempered with some trepidition.

Well done Mr Stross sir.


Rick Grant
Calgary
Colin Bell
18. SchuylerH
@14: I would say the novels are perhaps more of a spy thriller pastiche than out-and-out horror. The best starting place, really, is The Atrocity Archives, a Len Deighton tribute where a reluctant Bob gets recruited and finds himself fighting Nazi occultists. Most editions also include the Hugo-winning "The Concrete Jungle", which has a nasty, Orwellian, twist on the idea of the gorgon or basilisk. If you like this book, you'll probably enjoy the others.
Charlie Stross
19. cstross
PSA: If you're wondering why this story ever got written, the truth can now be told: it was essentially written on a dare, and it's mostly John Scalzi's fault.
Colin Bell
20. SchuylerH
@19: Thanks. If that's your take on unicorns, I'm very interested to see how you handle vampires...
Maiane Bakroeva
21. Isilel
So, has it really been suggested that Bob is a reincarnation of Lovecraft?!

And yes, this is one truly horrifying horror story... Great, but much, much darker than the rest of the Capital Laundry series, IMHO.

So, why virgin girls? In the Laundry universe, I mean.

And how is it that unicorns are still around in 21st century when it seems that they have a very short maturation cycle? I.e. become a fully fledged, immobile horror and consume their girl-host within months? Is somebody seeding them, as those periodic requisitions seem to suggest?
Soon Lee
22. SoonLee
SchuylerH @20: Patience is a virtue. "The Rhesus Chart" should be out next year.
Colin Bell
23. SchuylerH
@21: My theory is that (rot13) obo bpphcvrf n fvzvyne cbfvgvba gb uvf uvfgbevpny anzrfnxr: ur znl or n sevraq naq pbzcnavba gb gur frpbaq pbzvat bs U. C. ohg abg gur zna uvzfrys, va gur fnzr jnl gung ur ghearq bhg gb unir gur obaq tvey ebyr va gur wraavsre zbethr.

@22: But I want to read it now!
philolexian
26. Michael Chermside
It was a wonderful (and terrifying) tale. I read the free version For posted, but now I'm off to go find a place to purchase an e-book, because authors (and publishers) of such excellent stories deserve to get paid.
philolexian
27. Lillian13
LOL, does this mean Bronys are actually cone snails? It all makes so much more sense now...
philolexian
28. M257426
Fuck, Charles, this was the most amazing and equally disturbing shit I've read in a while.
And I was just giving ping plastic unicorn as birthday present to my goddaughter!
I ll never look at her playing with them the same way!!!
M
philolexian
29. T Hemminger
Somewhere I've seen a picture of this brown lump with the eys and stuff including a hoof sticking out of it. I have no idea when or where . I am 75. It does stick with you, I guess. Brrrrrr.
philolexian
30. Ariella
This story was awesome and it makes me want to seek out the Laundry novels.

On the other hand, because of my childhood immersion in sparkle-pony stories, I can't help noting that horses are measured at the withers, not the hock; 13 hh is more of a children's pony than a cavalry mount; sturdy horses over 15 hh are going to weigh more than 900 lbs; poll evil is very unlikely among police horses in the twenty-first century, and cremello is spelled with two l's. I'll attribute the slips to the fact that the characters who pronounce them are all somewhat deranged. ;-)
philolexian
31. RevSandy
I just love this story, great writer with excellent humour. And I appreciated the details. For example, I loved the various reports about the development of the 'unicorn' project. The one that especially drew my interest was the first report that the project should be cancelled because the British army was in the process of developing the Centurion tank in 1945, suggesting that the various British tank developments between 1940 and 1945 would not be as effective as the unicorn, interesting because British tank development during the Second World War was a bit of a ramshackle affair.
William Hartwell
33. yinepuhotep
Loved it. Especially got a giggle out of the Audit Committee's repeated attempts to kill the unicorn project, only to have the MoD try an end run around them by sending it through the Home Office. Only a bureaucracy could be so unremittingly stupid. But then again, you've done an exceptional job of showing that, again and again.
philolexian
34. Gerald Fnord
Does Bob _know_ that the letter was to Robert Bloch, as opposed to Robert Howard? And perhaps H.P.L. 's letter was unable to deter R.H., and the experience contributed to the latter's suicide the next year, and our Bob didn't get his use-name by accident, the abomination recognises him, and refers to 'your Hetty' because she has trouble keeping her Known Monkeys hashtable straight (equals() is badly defined for her msppnga of us).
philolexian
35. Gerald Fnord
Stupid of me:
'msppnga of'-->'mappings for'
philolexian
36. TaliaG
Whew. Wow. Disturbing and yet very funny.
Just finished reading. (Kept getting interrupted)

@Isisel: Maybe it also produces larvae that are dormant for a certain amount of time - 20 years or so. There are some kinds of cicadas that have 17 year cycle. (it was in the news a few months ago.)

Never thought of the horn from a symbiosis/anglerfish kind of thing. Would make some sense, though, I did think it was odd (from an evolutionary developement viewpoint) to have what is essentially a tusk protruding from the forehead of a horse-like animal, (if the horn is like a narwhal, it would be a migrated tusk) because the other animals with head horn(s) like deer or antelope, it's so different looking, and seems to have a different purpose (I think they whank at each other's antlers, not skewer people and animals, as the "ferocious unicorn" was said to do.) If it was natural tusk, it would be more like a rhino's.

I doubt I will be particularly haunted by the images, EWWWWWW-inducing and disturbing as they may be (then again, I grew up on a steady sci-fi diet and that included plenty of parisitical takeover stories. Demonic possesion, too, come to think of it. ) Even the the bit where HPL was confronted by "Hetty" and the thing putting a biting mouth...............um, where it shouldn't have been, was more of an "ew. Is this just to be shocking or what? It just sounds like a squid having it's beak in the middle of its body" BUT the back story, of how this story came to be........now that is something I wish I hadn't read!
Chat Rooms
37. chatrooms
Ariella said,
On the other hand, because of my childhood immersion in sparkle-pony stories, I can't help noting that horses are measured at the withers, not the hock; 13 hh is more of a children's pony than a cavalry mount; sturdy horses over 15 hh are going to weigh more than 900 lbs; poll evil is very unlikely among police horses in the twenty-first century, and cremello is spelled with two l's. I'll attribute the slips to the fact that the characters who pronounce them are all somewhat deranged. ;-)
I had NO idea horses actually weighed THAT much. I've never actually ridden one and that terrifies me. Thanks for the tidbit of information.
Talia T
38. TaliaG
@ Chatrooms. Yup. Horses are sometimes half a ton. The few times I have ridden, always amazes me that this big hulker moves for me, the pipsqueak.
philolexian
39. Squirt
Google image "EMOCUM", it has some truly graphic pictures of unicorns.
philolexian
40. Troll
Disturbing, horrifying, absolutely fantastic! (as per usual)
I just found these short stories a short while ago, and I must say I love them. Not only are they good stories in general, but it's a very good format to enjoy Laundry business.
The novels are a big bite, very tasty and a long chew, but far between. Nibbling on these short stories is a lifesaver when eagerly waiting for the Rhesus Chart.
Dear mr Stross, I'm going to need a steady supplies of these. Keep them coming!
Jonathan Zev
41. Sir_Read-a-Lot
Hilariously, this is only the second most horrifying unicorn short story I've read on this site. (the first, of course, being 'Ponies' by Kij Johnson).


Great work as usual!
philolexian
42. muda-kun
Thanks and Congratulations!
Love the classic spy tale takes in the stories.
Could there be a LeCarre inspired Laundry tale in the future?
philolexian
44. tcheph
excellent, but disturbing, work. i feel that it sits well within the laundry universe.

one thought bothers me, however, and that is what becomes of georgina. i can't decide if she should have been in on the plot or under an amnesia geas, neither of which seems quite right for her, as she's built up initially.

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