Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. For the past couple of installments we’ve discussed recent anthologies—a favorite source of short fiction for me—but plenty of magazine issues have been released in the interim as well. So, for this column and the next, I’d like to do a little overview of some new short fiction that’s caught my eye across various periodicals. This week, there’s only one story to chat about—because it’s a long one: “Equoid” by Charles Stross.
While generally I leave the short fiction that appears here on Tor.com for the readers to enjoy on their own, the appearance of a Laundry Files novella proved too tempting to resist. In the past, I’ve written about the Laundry Files books under the umbrella of genre investigation here; I’ve also reviewed the most recent installment in the series, here. Needless to say, I’m a fan. The books do quite a lot of things I enjoy, and they’re also darkly entertaining. This story was perhaps more on the “dark” side than usual—I’d go so far as to say gruesome/deeply icky—but it also had its compulsively-readable quotient in play.
Unicorns, and also old Lovecraft, are the central figures of this novella. Bob Howard is sent off to investigate a potential unicorn infestation in the countryside, learns from certain Laundry-Files-only letters of Lovecraft’s that unicorns are deeply disgusting bad news, and ends up helping to “save” the day. (But it’s not very saved, except from one particular instance of a unicorn. Most of the people involved die, and the implication is that the unicorn itself is smart enough to keep reincarnating its hive mind. Possibly through bureaucratic methods. Which is supremely clever as a little device sprinkled through the story.)
The droll business of daily paperwork at the Laundry gets its brief showing for humor—as does Bob’s tendency to assume the best of a situation that we, the reader, knows is going to turn out totally fucked. Because that’s what we’ve seen Bob do so far: unfuck to the best of his ability terrible incursions into our reality, etc. The investigation unravels with a well-managed sense of crowning horror, particularly as Bob—having read the disturbing letters—knows what he’s probably going to find and really doesn’t want to find it. The conclusion is breathless and frightening; that sort of thing, Stross excels at, particularly in these stories.
And then there’s the matter that more or less every commenter on the story was compelled to discuss—so, yeah, me too.
I was curious at first to note that this story had a trigger warning in the introductory paragraph, the first of which I’ve noticed with a Tor.com piece—though I’m sure there’ve been tagged stories before. I was especially curious because, despite their occasional skin-crawling creepiness, the Laundry Files tales don’t tend to require trigger warnings. Bad things happen, certainly, and bad things happen to good people; rarely would I classify it as so awful that I’d need to warn somebody.
And yet, there’s always room for something new in a familiar fictional universe. Because “Equoid” did in fact deserve that innocuous little warning in the introduction.
This perhaps makes more sense given the context—which Stross himself links in the comments—of this story coming out of a sort of terrible challenge: it certainly does achieve its goal of making unicorns a nightmarish, grotesque thing (prone to do some nightmarish, grotesque stuff to their “hosts,” those young girls of fairytale with their sparkly horses). The material Stross was working with lent itself to a certain level of stomach-turning sexualized horror, sure; most of the stories I’ve seen that can be classified “bad unicorns” play with similar tropes. The only difference is Stross’s grasp of how to be as graphic and upsetting as possible in as little a space as necessary: highly effective deployment of research into similar horrifying nasties in the biological realm.
Of course, the worst of it is in Lovecraft’s letters—the most gratuitous description, at least—and on that note, Bob himself notes the over the top nature of the tale: “Even making allowances for Hipster Lovecraft’s tendency towards grisly gynophobic ranting, Freudian fever-fantasies, and florid exaggeration, we’re clearly about to meet something deeply creepy.” So some of the horror is dismissed, all right. But then there’s the last thing Bob sees in the barn, and ick—firmly ick. That’ll be sticking around behind my eyeballs for a long while. In the end I don’t know what to make of that; it’s the sort of confounded feeling I get when I’m sure that a writer was trying to gross me out on purpose with some problematic imagery and succeeded, yet I’m not sure that the depths gone to were necessary in the story. (I call it the Palahniuk Effect.) Then again, that was—sort of the point of the story? So. Perhaps I’m just the wrong damn audience for that sort of thing.
Regardless of the question of the Effect, it was still a Laundry story and I did still for the most part enjoy it, for various measures of the word enjoy. I can’t say that I’m sure all the usual fans will also enjoy it, though—bit of a different tale, this. Heed the warning, and if you’ve got the stomach, go on ahead; it is still Bob Howard.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.