Locus Magazine Review

The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-23-1, $24.95, 248pp, hc) May 2004. Cover by [Steve Montiglio].

Has HPL finally become a meme? . . . we [see] Lovecraft's overambitious monsters invading the world . . . in Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives, this time in a world derived from that of Len Deighton's budget-and-paperwork-harassed secret agents . . . In a fascinating afterword, Stross develops an almost-persuasive argument regarding parallels between the horror story and the Cold War thriller, paying specific homage to Deighton (who himself ventured into alternate-history SF in his 1978 novel SS-GB) and noting how Lovecraft's preoccupation with "the obsessive collecting of secret information" and "the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien" are reflected in the modem espionage thriller. Intriguing. as these ideas are, one can't help suspect that they're something of a rationalization for Stross's decision to have fun with two of his favorite writers, and fun is what he has, from naming his wisecracking, put-upon narrator Robert Howard to overt references to such Lovecraftian arcana as Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Arkham, Al-Hazred, "Chateau Cthulhu," and even the Lovecraft knock-off private eye movie Cast a Deadly Spell. Add to this a substantial dose of Nazi occultism (another resurgent theme, seen most recently in Ian Watson's Mockymen), the premise that secret agencies supposedly disbanded after World War II have simply gone into deeper cover, and even allusions to Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda (the novel was begun in 1999 and finished before 9/11, although it contains a creepy reference to the Iraqi secret police working on "weapons of mass destruction"), and set the whole thing in an Everett-Wheeler cosmology in which mathematical formulas can actually open gates between universes and summon demons, and you have a virtual carnival of 20th-century paranoia, not to mention what would seem to be an open invitation to complete narrative incoherence.

Stross, however, has never been intimidated by the number of bikes he sets out to jump, and he keeps the narrative taut, fast-paced, and often funny, though initially rather disjointedly episodic. "The Atrocity Archive" (the far longer of the two stories in the book) opens as Howard, an operative for a supersecret special operations department known as the Laundry, completes a covert break-in that gets him in trouble with his supervisor Harriet for failing to do the proper paperwork and get budget clearances. He's assigned to a training course in demon-summoning, and gets into trouble again after saving his other classmates from a clueless accountant suddenly possessed by demons because of a misstep during a lab exercise. Reassigned again, this time to California, he meets a brilliant mathematician named Dominique, who is soon kidnapped by terrorists and in need of rescue (yet another unbudgeted operation for Howard). Eventually, the Laundry decides to use Dominique as bait to flush out the terrorists, with Howard assigned to shadow her. Sent to Amsterdam, they visit the Atrocity Archives of the title — a hidden collection of Nazi nightmares in the basement of the Rijksmuseum — and Dominique is abducted again, this time through a massive portal opened up in her hotel room to a bleak, frozen world. If Stross's pattern of abductions, rescues, and bureaucratic harassment gets a bit mechanical, and if he often seems enamored of high-math tech talk ("Why don't they just set up an n-dimensional homogeneous matrix transformation?" asks Dominique as she's falling in love with Howard), he makes up for a great deal of this with sheer energy and a genuine fascination with his elaborately worked out historical backstory. In addition to the novel-length title story, The Atrocity Archives also includes a sequel novella, "The Concrete Jungle," which elaborates the backstory even further and in which Howard is assigned to investigate an outbreak of Gorgonism, suggesting that a series may be in the works.

— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, May 2004


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