The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, p. 139)
Thus begins H. P. Lovecraft’s iconic tale "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), setting out the key elements of his brand of cosmic horror. The Cthulhu Mythos, which has become increasingly popular since Lovecraft’s death through later authors adding their own stories to it, alongside several successful RPGs and board games, works on the simple principle that there are beings in the universe, existing within many dimensions simultaneously, which are infinitely more intelligent, powerful, and deadly than the human race. It is only by sheer luck that we have not thus far been wiped out, but there are signs that suggest that these creatures are probing at the edges of our reality, seeking ways in which to manifest on Earth in order to wreak havoc in furtherance of their unfathomable motives. Lovecraft’s stories often center on protagonists who discover some aspect of the terrifying forces ranged against them, which usually results in them being driven to insanity or suicide.
There is still a dark potency to Lovecraft's stories, in part because of the tortuously overwrought prose with which he conveys the emotions of those whose minds are overwhelmed by the nameless terrors, spending twenty adjectives just to describe how utterly indescribable those terrors truly are. Over many years of re-treading this ground by writers, artists, games designers, and filmmakers, Lovecraft’s brand of nihilistic existentialism now seems so po-faced that it is almost absurd. The very techniques with which he evokes his cosmic horror have themselves become the subject of good-humored satire, such as Neil Gaiman’s "I, Cthulhu" (1986). Others, such as Chaosium with their seminal Call of Cthulhu RPG (first edition released in 1981), focus on the pleasures of basing investigations around secrets capable of destroying the human mind, blending horror with a noirish, detective fiction sensibility. In the Laundry series, Charles Stross combines both the humorous and detective strands of contemporary Lovecraftian writing, splicing them with hard SF, the spy thriller tradition, and a scathing satire of bureaucracy and post-9/11 attitudes to security, creating something that feels both familiar and excitingly innovative.
In the first volume of the series, The Atrocity Archives (2004), Stross introduces Bob Howard as an unlikely spy; a computer science expert and proud geek who is recruited into the British occult secret service after he attracts their attention through writing a potentially deadly program. Stross’s universe builds explicitly upon Lovecraft’s cosmic horror but, rather than through esoteric rites, the Elder Gods who menace our world can be invoked using complex mathematical equations and theorems. In The Fuller Memorandum, Bob explains this iteration of the Cthulhu Mythos in a playful technobabble revision of Lovecraft’s words:
We live in a hideously reticulated multiverse where most of the dimensionality of spacetime is hidden from our view—curved in on themselves in closed loops, tucked away in imaginary spaces—but the stuff we can observe is a tiny fraction of the entirety of what we live in. Magic, the stuff I deal with in the office on a day-to-day basis, involves the indirect manipulation of information flow through these unseen dimensions, and communication with the extra-dimensional entities that live elsewhere. (p. 234)
What makes The Atrocity Archives so charming is the clever balancing of serious Lovecraftian horror mixed with an awareness of how kitsch his most tired tropes have become, all held together by a narrator who possesses a healthy fear of his otherworldly adversaries and a weary cynicism towards the stilted bureaucracy of the organization he is forced to join. The Laundry fits into a tradition of dystopian administrations that can be found in such diverse places as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and the novels of Franz Kafka. Anyone who has held a position working in an office within a large organization will recognize the numbing tedium of form-filling and the petty-minded grudges that arise over the proper use of stationery, which Stross juxtaposes with the impending doom humanity faces if Bob is prevented from carrying out his work.
The Fuller Memorandum is set several years after the second Laundry novel, The Jennifer Morgue (2006) which, though quite enjoyable as a standalone story, loses the essence of Bob through an irritating plot device that makes him act as though he is James Bond. Thankfully, the third installment has returned to the decidedly less glamorous occult espionage of the first novel. The Fuller Memorandum is presented as part of Bob’s ongoing memoir, which his employers force him to write so that, in the eventuality of him being killed in the field, his accumulated knowledge will not be lost to the service. It begins with a parodic, ominous warning about the cosmic horrors that are working to break through into our world, expressed as Bob’s religious conviction:
I wish I could go back to the comforting certainties of atheism; it’s so much less unpleasant than the One True Religion . . . [M]y God is coming back. When he arrives I’ll be waiting for him with a shotgun. And I’m keeping the last shell for myself. (pp. 1-2)
Of course, following on from the secularization of magic, the use of the word "God" here is more of an approximate term than a signifier of a supernatural deity:
The things we sometimes refer to as elder gods are alien intelligences, which evolved on their own terms, unimaginably far away and long ago, in zones of spacetime which aren’t normally connected to our own, where the rules are different. But that doesn’t mean they can’t reach out and touch us. As the man put it: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Any sufficiently advanced alien intelligence is indistinguishable from God—the angry monotheistic sadist subtype. And the elder ones . . . aren’t friendly. (p. 156)
Thus the occult practices of Lovecraft’s cultists are drawn into a coherent science fictional universe.
The novel begins with Bob being sent to investigate paranormal manifestations around an antique airframe stored at the Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford. He has been ordered to undertake this rather low-level assignment by his superior officer, who also requests that he look in on another aircraft whilst he is there. It is revealed to him that the plane he must deal with was part of the ominously named Squadron 666 and had logged 280 hours on the "other side" (the significance of this phrase is not made clear to Bob and the reader until later in the narrative).
The sort of macho bravado that typifies much spy fiction is the source of derision for Bob who, whilst feeling morally obligated to stave off the threat from beyond, never falls into the neocon mindset that sees the ends as always justifying the means and the safety of the masses outweighing the rights of individuals. Indeed, he is extremely skeptical about the motivations of security services in the UK. For example, he is reluctant to carry a firearm in the capital due to his fear of other public servants:
One of the reasons I am reluctant to carry a handgun in public is that the London Metropolitan Police have a zero-tolerance approach to anyone else carrying guns, and while their specialist firearms teams don’t officially have a shoot-to-kill policy, you try finding a Brazilian plumber who does call-out work during a bomb scare these days. (p. 80)
It is in wry asides such as this that Stross gives the Laundry series an incisive power, using humor not just to make the reader laugh but also to think critically about the "truths" that are presented to them by the establishment that Bob is a member of. The antithesis of 24’s amoral Jack Bauer, Bob is traumatized when an innocent bystander is killed whilst he attempts to exorcise the spectral infestation from the airframe after she enters the room at the worst possible moment.
This leads to him being investigated by the Laundry’s Operational Oversight team, who have a reputation for taking no prisoners. Bob’s line manager, Iris, attempts to shield him from the full consequences of his role in the death of the civilian, but is still fearful that he will face an unsympathetic tribunal. Fortunately, Bob has a friend with powerful connections (well, less of a friend and more of an ageless boss who terrifies him almost as much as his enemies), and is thus protected. This is another, more subtle, way in which Stross critiques the security services as they are in many ways above and beyond the law. Bob reports directly to Detached Special Secretary Angleton, whose vague title gives little clue as to just how powerful and high ranking he is within the Laundry.
Angleton had an ulterior motive for sending Bob to Cosford, but is not yet ready to confide in him. However, the Detached Special Secretary is willing to inform Bob that 666 Squadron RAF are part of the contingency planning for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN (when the walls of reality collapse and the ravening beings from beyond attempt to devour our world). Left on the edges of secret committees and still not fully cleared of charges of negligence, Bob must try to piece together what is going on.
When he collects his wife and colleague Dr. Dominique (Mo) O’Brien, Epistemological Warfare Specialist, Bob is distressed to see the heavy toll her last mission has inflicted on her and is angry that they cannot discuss it together because of a geas placed on her that he is not cleared to bypass. Fortunately, if such events can be considered in a positive light, Bob is quickly brought into the trusted circle of Laundry staff working on the case after a possessed spy enters their home and tries to kill them. The author manages to retain elements of genuine Lovecraftian horror, such as the description of their assailant as irrevocably damaged by the being that has taken up residence within his body: "Luminous green worms swirling behind the glazed surface of his eyes, writhing in the muddy waters of a mind that’s been sucked into a place where human consciousness melts like grease on a hot frying pan" (p. 59).
Mo is subsequently at liberty to fill Bob in, as he is now part of the team investigating Club Zero: a particularly dangerous sect of cultists known as the Free Church of the Universal Kingdom. Mo’s experiences in the field have shown her that they are a front for a more insidious power that wishes to unleash the terrifying power of the Teapot. The Teapot is an occult weapon about which very little is known. When Russian spies confront Bob as to its whereabouts the use of Cold War-style paranoid metaphorical phrases to offer a warning without actually giving anything away is highly amusing: “The teapot is missing . . . You were its last keepers. Please, I implore you, find it? For all our sakes, find it before the wrong people get their hands on it and make tea” (p. 139). Together, Bob and Mo fight to foil Club Zero’s plot. Unfortunately, kept on the fringes of the Laundry’s high command, they are forced to engage in counter-espionage before they are fully aware of the facts of the situation, which leads to them having to make leaps of faith that are sometimes deeply misguided.
The later sections of the novel feature double-crosses and increasingly partisan actions from each of the major parties involved, with the ending seeing legions of possessed corpses clashing with special ops forces in a battle over the fate of humanity. The scope of the plot is far-reaching and complex, but remains anchored by the strong characterization. Aside from Bob, Mo has developed into an emotionally complex, determined agent for the Laundry, whilst also having a believably close and affectionate relationship with her husband, which makes the reader empathize with each of them when the other is in danger. Angleton progresses from shadowy mentor figure to become a surprisingly well-fleshed out character, whose biographical details, whilst still largely opaque, grant the reader insight into why he has dedicated his life to the Laundry.
Of the three Laundry novels thus far, I felt that The Fuller Memorandum has the best finale in terms of concept, excitement, and execution. At the end of the novel both Bob and the reader have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the history of the Laundry; there is a sense that the author has perfected the setting and characters for the series, which now feels truly unique. In Bob Howard, the author has created a secret agent for our times: he works out of necessity, cares deeply about individuals, and treats those who wield power with a skepticism born from experience. He undergoes a further transformation in the final conflict of the novel and I look forward to seeing how Stross explores the implications of this in the next installment.
The Fuller Memorandum combines intrigue, visceral peril, occult conspiracies, and cynical humor to create an extremely satisfying Lovecraftian spy thriller. It shows an author who knows his characters and their world writing with assurance, confirming the Laundry series as one to watch for fans of comedic horror. Interestingly, the Laundry has now itself been turned into an RPG by Cubicle 7, creating a new remediation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which shows no sign of going away any time soon. Like an appalling, oozing, scheming, malevolent, amorphous entity of ancient origins and nameless powers it continues to howl under a gibbous moon, summoning new legions of devotees.
David McWilliam is a PhD student at Lancaster University, under the supervision of Dr. Catherine Spooner and Dr. Lee Horsley. His thesis looks at representations of folk devils in contemporary American culture and how they interrogate discourses of monstrosity about extreme criminal deviance. David is a critic of contemporary genre fiction whose reviews have appeared in Vector, Foundation and the Interzone website. Alongside Glyn Morgan, he is the co-founder of Twisted Tales, which runs a series of events that bring great horror fiction to the attention of a wider audience. He is the editor of Nightmare Visions, a reviews section of the Twisted Tales blog that promotes the best of 21st Century horror cinema. He is currently working on interviews with top contemporary horror authors for a proposed series to be published on the Gothic Imagination website (the first of which, with Sarah Pinborough, can be viewed here).