So. Cosmic horror. It’s a dark genre, but one that exerts surprising amounts of influence in fiction today. Most people agree that the man who codified much of it, H.P. Lovecraft, was also one of it’s greatest voices. Unfortunately, Lovecraft’s work is also full of truly unpalatable things. I’m not talking about the meaningless of life or the cold hostility of the cosmos, I’m referring to the racist overtones of many of his stories, as well as a seeming emphasis on eugenics and blatant Anglophilia.
Of course, in a universe that is devoid of meaning, where human ideas are laughable deviations from the norm anyway, it shouldn’t matter if Lovecraft’s other unfortunate overtones are present or not. But, if you’re interested in learning more about the genre, if for no other reason to get a better grasp on it’s influence on modern entertainment, and you want to see a modern take on the genre, I recommend Charles Stross‘ The Laundry Files.
The protagonist of this truly unique little jaunt into the mind-numbing darkness is Bob Howard, who works for a super secret British agency called the Laundry, which deals with all those nasty, mind numbing horrors. According to the cover of (at least one edition) of the series opener, The Atrocity Archives, Bob’s job is to save the world (it involves a surprising number of meetings.) The basic premise, that Bob has to simultaneously fight eldritch horrors and deal with bad management, unclear org charts and ludicrous mountains of paperwork, is both interesting and funny. And so are the characters we meet along the way.
Most of the early action revolves around Bob finding new ways to “optimize” magic, which is basically properly applied math, and getting himself into field work as a result of it. In particular, the constantly evolving nature of the Laundry’s “basilisk guns” is a nifty running gag. It also serves to remind us of the always immanent nature of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is both a case of the stars aligning and spelling our doom and an example of the lovely codenames the Laundry is always throwing about. How anyone manages to keep secrets when they name them in all caps with phrases that might as well just be “nifty code name” is beyond me.
In short, the basic window dressing of the series is sound. In fact, some of my inspiration for Project Sumter came after I read The Atrocity Archives. Unfortunately, just as cosmic horror is about our slow and inevitable decline, so that premise slowly leeches away at the fun of the books.
Now I can live with the idea that there are incredibly powerful and intelligent beings out there. I question how smart they can really be when the seem to always be shooting themselves in the foot (see the horror from The Atrocity Archives) or somehow getting themselves locked away to starve to death (Stross’ take on Nylarathotep) but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. No, what bothers me is the way everything basically ends up ringing hollow.
The characters live in a world with no hope or joy, nothing of lasting meaning, and spend half their time declaring that fact and how they intend to ignore it today. Then they go to sleep at night and pray their dreams don’t come alive and eat them. This is their fate, and they are sure of it.
Fiction really isn’t a good medium for certainties. It’s a medium for beginnings, for possibilities, for growth, but not well suited for done deals. It’s why protagonists are pretty much always seekers and rarely finders.
Of course, part of the point of cosmic horror is to present a done deal. But if you still want to check it out, at least the deal Stross offers you will be more entertaining than most.