Read an Excerpt From Jeff VanderMeer’s A Peculiar Peril

We’re excited to share an excerpt from Jeff VanderMeer’s head-spinning epic about three friends on a quest to protect the world from a threat as unknowable as it is terrifying. A Peculiar Peril is the first book in the Misadventures of Jonathan Lambshead, publishing July 7th with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Jonathan Lambshead stands to inherit his deceased grandfather’s overstuffed mansion—a veritable cabinet of curiosities—once he and two schoolmates catalog its contents. But the three soon discover that the house is filled with far more than just oddities: It holds clues linking to an alt-Earth called Aurora, where the notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley has stormed back to life on a magic-fueled rampage across a surreal, through-the-looking-glass version of Europe replete with talking animals (and vegetables).

Swept into encounters with allies more unpredictable than enemies, Jonathan pieces together his destiny as a member of a secret society devoted to keeping our world separate from Aurora. But as the ground shifts and allegiances change with every step, he and his friends sink ever deeper into a deadly pursuit of the profound evil that is also chasing after them.


 

 

Chapter Sixteen
Neither Ghost Bears nor Wraiths Shall Love Thee

Rack would never get his fill of Dr. Lambshead’s mansion. He knew this by day two, but confirmed it early on day four when he experienced euphoria upon a find of fifty-two crystal candelabras from the 1920s wrapped in green velvet cloth and stored in a huge war chest banded with an intricate mother-of-pearl design. The whole ensemble, though very dusty, smelled faint of lavender.

Perhaps it reminded him of the heyday of the old ancestral home in “Hay-on-Straw,” as they’d dubbed it, now cold and gray and much emptier. Casualty of estate taxes and declining fortunes. The home he’d hopped into at age five, victim of the same fire that had killed his parents and grandparents. Only to lose his adoptive parents at age twelve to a car accident, at which point any residual feud between him, the interloper, and Danny had died away, replaced by a unbreakable bond.

Underneath all the candelabras, a worn case full of carefully stacked silver. Dull, yes, but with some dusting and polishing all of it would be mansion-worthy. Although: not this mansion. This mansion was a high-end flea market. This mansion had been run by a nutter posing as a reasonable man of science and medicine. Of this Rack was sure. Dr. Lambshead had been about as reliable to poor young Johnny Lamb as—take your pick, pick your poison—some pack-rat version of Attila the Hun or one of the parchment-dry instructors at Poxforth, who Rack imagined might one day during a drought burst into fame right at the lectern.

“This is the life!” Rack muttered to Danny as he foraged in a particularly vibrant pile of antiques.

“Or a life,” she replied. “Turns out the rat doesn’t take to dust, Rack. Surprise surprise. ”

“The rat. Always with the rat. The dust is of a superior vintage, innit, sister-blister?”

A grunt from Danny—she was a champion at grunting, once grunting her way through a whole field of rugby opponents, the ball, ovoid, or whatever they called it, secure in one massive muscled hand. Her enthusiasm might seem underwhelming to an outside observer, her giant pilot light burning a tad lower and slower than the usual maximum-high, raging flame.

Yet Danny had been the one who had wheedled and cajoled him into saying yes to Jonathan’s offer. At the time, Rack would have been just as content spending a threadbare summer crashing at various acquaintances’ houses, while Danny went on a succession of dates with alternating lads and lasses, as was her summer tradition of late. Rack would’ve gotten a break from his sister (and rat) whilst living in decadent squalor with jaunty conversation on the couches of any number of handsome fellows.

But Rack didn’t feel that way now. He’d caught a kind of fever from all the sorting, recognized it as akin to his propensity to collect pocket squares. Wondered if it meant he was destined to run an antiques shop himself. Was that a good or a poor fate? He wasn’t sure.

No, certainly he could at least run a posh auction house, get his thrills that way. Rise above his station as a person of non-British origin twice-orphaned and heir to a drafty mansion-castle they couldn’t afford upkeep on and no one wanted to buy. While he and Danny lived adjacent, when not at Poxforth, in the cottage and its much more affordable utilities and other amenities.

Perhaps his fanatical enthusiasm for the cataloging is what made him miss Jonathan less and less, lose track of “their project” as he sometimes—always with fondness—referred to Jonathan behind his back. Because that was how Danny had acted at first—as if taking Jonathan under their wing was some pagan responsibility, a notch in a good karma belt Rack didn’t think was that stylish and he would never wear. Even if they’d all three clicked very early on. It was true: Although jaded and cynical, Rack quite liked the underclassman, and felt the trio was better together than apart.

Even if (or because?) the truth was that the lad had a naive streak a kilometer wide. He talked to animals like some village simpleton. Liked to walk in nature, whether or not mosquitoes and biting flies lurked, and had interminable stories about jumping over alligators back in Florida.

Jonathan was as wont to frolic in a meadow as to want to see the latest art house movie in Poxforth’s Smeltworth Memorial Cinema House. Cared not for the imbibing of forbidden fermentations. “Straight edge” was too organized a principle by which to describe Jonathan, as he’d likely never heard the term, being, as far as Rack could tell, blissfully asexual and a Luddite who rarely switched on a computer except to do his studies and was forever keeping his phone turned off in his school satchel.

Which is the reason Rack wasn’t worried when Danny with a frown appeared from beyond yet another ziggurat of malformed, overflowing shelves to ask him if he’d seen Jonathan lately.

By then it was midafternoon and not only hadn’t the lad popped up, but he wasn’t in his self-appointed tiki-bar guard shack nor in the pantry or the study—and definitely not, Danny reported, in the backyard by the pond.

On his priority list of worries, Jonathan’s nonpresence currently ranked sixth, well below the top three: his money, his leg, and his foot. Which was followed by a vague worry that Danny had been on the verge since they’d arrived at the mansion of telling him something important that she couldn’t quite bring herself to say, which was very unlike her. Possibly related to those dates of hers.

Below that on the worry list, the sad lack of romance in his love life due to dusty mansion syndrome, followed by: Jonathan’s absence.

“He’ll turn up. He’s off somewhere taking a piss or having a wank.”

Danny ignored that. “Tee-Tee says he’s not here at all. Not on the property at all, yeah? Not anywhere.”

Rack sighed and sat on a crate, for Lester, as he had named his damaged foot-with-special-shoe (once upon a time named, melodramatically, “Das Boot”), was once again beginning to get on his nerves. Literally. Which was why, at the moment, Lester née Das Boot had a drawn-on frowny face and rabbit ears drawn in nonpermanent marker on its polymer surface.

“Tee-Tee is not a bat with powers of echolocation. Nor a Brighton pier psychic. Nor yet a Blackpool amusement ride. Tee-Tee, my dear Danny”—and here he warmed to the task—“is a very confused rat who thinks he is a person because his owner has spoiled him rotten. Cheeky bastard, lying to you about Jonathan.”

“All right, then.” Danny scowled, turned back toward the stacks. “And for your information, Tee-Tee is a very clever rat who does not appreciate your scorn.”

“It’s rather more scorn for the general idea of rats—and psychics— than about any specific rat, sister-blister,” Rack said.

“You must get used to the idea of Tee-Tee soon, brother,” Danny replied, staring skeptical at a broken pen shell turned into an ashtray, before binning it.

“Jonathan will turn up,” Rack reassured her.

Never had he spoken a truer word. But even if he had been Nostradamus, he could not have predicted the nature of Jonathan’s eventual reappearance, which forever after he would describe as a “wee bit over-dramatic.”

Reconciled to rat and sister alike, with Tee-Tee even daring from the expanse of Danny’s shoulder to place one admittedly cute star-shaped pink-padded paw on him, they all three were leaning against the ridiculously huge birdbath contraption, taking a break to eat the last of the prawns and cucumber slices Rack had brought with him, on stale bread, when there came the echoing sound of a door smashed open from the corridor beyond the basement.

Before Rack could so much as lower the sandwich from his mouth, there came barreling out of the corridor into the basement an unfamiliar brunette woman in her midtwenties and Jonathan, looking as ashen as if he’d seen his latest grades . . . and pouring out behind them an oily black mist or fog or smoke that made Rack think they were fleeing some sort of fire.

Was the mansion ablaze? And them trapped in the basement?

But then he realized in the next second that the black mist had a face—a lost and vacant look, almost waifish—and a discernable shape and this apparition made a sound like a shriek or scream that he did not believe was a fire alarm.

“The bear gun!” the woman shouted. “Shoot it with the bear gun!”

Rack’s sandwich dropped from his hand as the wraith-thing took up more and more space at incredible speed. He was proper frozen, unable to digest what he was experiencing.

Incredibly his sister Danny shouted back, “I’ve got this,” picked up the bear gun, fell to one knee, stared down the primitive sight, and commanded, “Get down!” to the strange woman and Jonathan—who promptly went from full-on sprint to sprawled across the floor, giving her a clear shot.

Which she took.

There came a heartrending growl right in his ear. There came such a sound that Rack felt it in his bones, as if he were being ripped apart by a bear’s claws, a bear’s fangs. A roaring in his ears.

Then, an impossibility: a whole bear plopped right out of the end of the bear gun, a bear-fur-covered droplet that expanded into the bear proper. A white bear—no, a ghost bear, for he could see clear through the beast—that expanded and became irrationally huge, propelled with a tremendous velocity at the wraith, leapt up at its foe to tear and rend, the leap timed perfectly so that the target fell to the floor wrapped in its dread embrace, dark flaments trailing out to all sides. Even as Jonathan and the woman rolled out of the way and closer to Rack.
It was so brief a battle, and yet indelibly etched into Rack’s memory that ever after it would pop back up into his thoughts at odd hours, in the pale dark right before dawn. Or as he drifted off to sleep, only to be brought awake by the vision.

The way that the bear crunched and popped the “bones” of a being so ethereal. The way that the edges of the wraith began to fray and fade like an old cobweb, while more and more of its essence disappeared down the ghost bear’s gullet. The moment when the wraith became immobile, reduced to prey, and how the hollow spaces that formed its eyes fixed on him and the mouth opened in a wordless howl.

Until with a ridiculous sound like a balloon popping in slow motion, a balloon whooshing into airlessness, the whole apparition collapsed in on itself, and, with the bear getting in a few last eager gobbles, it disappeared as if it had never been there.

A smell lingered, as if a child had burned the wheels of his go-cart, as if a spent match had been dipped in glue. He thought he heard a last gasp, a swooning hopeless sound that swept up the walls of the basement and was no more.

While the bear—with murderous intent, all and every part of it pure bear despite being quite translucent—turned on him, an innocent bystander, a Rack who had taken no position and done nothing more than stand there and drop part of a perfectly good prawn-and-cucumber sandwich to the floor.

A leap, a bound, before Danny, or anyone, could react, and though he flinched and did his best impression of someone jumping to the side, the great dirty mouth, the hot breath, were upon him and the glazed murderous eyes and the enormous paws that intended to smite his silly head from his silly neck and then gnaw on it for a time eternal . . .

Except in the next moment, the bear, too, had begun to fade and the paw meant to kill him just soft-patted his cheek as if in fond farewell as it dissolved and the bear’s gaze that met him in that instant turned to something sad, melancholy, that pierced him to the depths of what was, presumably, his soul.

Then the bear was gone, save for a disconcerting whiff of chocolate and cinnamon, and where the bear’s face had been it was just Jonathan and the woman, risen from the floor, and Danny, still on one knee, but turned to face him, a smile on her face as if all of this was normal and they’d just had a good day at the range or something. Tee-Tee still perched on her shoulder, part of a deranged artillery crew.

“I’d say that was a good shot, yeah?” Danny said, and then staring pointedly at Rack. “At least, Tee-Tee thinks so.”

 

Excerpted from A Peculiar Peril, copyright © 2020 by Jeff VanderMeer.

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