Hallowread, Part 3! The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross
Y’know, maybe I should just declare October 2016 “Hybrid Horror” month, or something, as I’ve been reading stuff that’s … horror-adjacent, I guess? Though again, I’m about 150 pages into a cheap and cheesy monster novel … but it’s not quite as cheap and cheesy as I’d been hoping. Perhaps another visit to the dollar bin is in order, but at least I’ve got some backups.
But! Silver lining is, The Rhesus Chart is easily the most horrific of the novels I’ve read so far this October, so that’s a plus?
Charles Stross’ The Rhesus Chart is the fifth in his Laundry series, which basically boils down to Office Space + James Bond + Lovecraft. The books center around the exploits of Bob Howard, Computational Demonologist– basically, he’s a magical IT guy who works for a secret government agency that keeps extra-dimensional cosmic horrors from eating the world. The thing is, Stross emphasizes the government part of secret government agency, which means that Bob has to deal with office politics and boring meetings just as often as he has to deal with squeebly tentacle demons. There’s a definite sense of English absurdity (and cynicism) in the books, to the point where I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of the gags due to being a “bloody Yank,” as it were. And then there’s a bunch of references that went over my head ’cause I don’t know computer programming very well– but it’s worth noting the book’s still entertaining even if you don’t know what COBOL is.
As the fifth book in a series, The Rhesus Chart hits all the notes one would expect from a Laundry novel. However, Stross throws something different into the mix: vampires. Of course, Stross’ vampires are different. See, in The Laundry novels, all magic is based on mathematic computation. Which leads to the problem that as computers get more powerful, it becomes easier and easier to accidentally discover That What Man Was Not Meant To Know(tm). Case in point, when a team of IT-nerds working for a cutthroat British bank discover an algorithm that turns them into vampires. Oh, and one of said vampires happens to be Bob’s ex-girlfriend, because of course she is.
Stross’ vampires are by turns ridiculous and horrifying. They have enough of the standard tropes: super strength, mesmerism, the tendency to burn in sunlight, no reflection, etc. Add in the sort of sociopathy one needs to get ahead in private banking, along with the fact that when Stross’ vampires feed on you, it gives you brain cancer, it’s sufficiently disturbing. Like, to the point where the book even gave me something of a nightmare (or at least a particularly gruesome dream) which is saying something. Stross also lends his dry wit to the situation as well, as vampirisim is investigated by committees with code names like OPERA CAPE or DRESDEN RICE. (It took me a bit too long to get that last one).
Thing is, that’s just the first part of the book. The second half takes a somewhat different tack, turning to more of a ‘traditional’ vampire novel as Ancient Rival Elder Vampires turn up to play out a decades-old rivalry. I get it that Stross is giving his take on the ‘standard’ vampire mythos (there’s even a gorgeous blonde vampire hunter in a little black dress), and he injects his own cosmic horror flavor into the tropes … but, it’s not nearly as interesting as ‘sociopathic hedge fund vampires’ could be. Heck, the character I was expecting to turn out as the book’s main villain gets unceremoniously offed at the beginning of the third act, which … sure, it throws off expectations, but it’s still a little unsatisfying.
The Rhesus Chart also throws a whole slew of complications into the ongoing metaplot of the series. But again, this stuff comes in at the very end, and is more geared to readers who’ve read the whole series, rather than someone who’s just jumped on for the vampire hijinks.
Despite my quibbles, I rather enjoyed The Rhesus Chart, to the point where I kept going back to it instead of the dollar-bin monster book I snagged. Which might not be the highest of bars to set, but it’s also worth noting I paid the full cover price for The Rhesus Chart, ’cause I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile, and for whatever reason Laundry novels rarely pop up in the dollar bin. Go fig.
Interestingly enough, the next two Laundry books aren’t about Bob. Rather, The Annihilation Score centers around Mo, Bob’s combat-violinist wife (which sounds awesome), and The Nightmare Stacks is about Alex, one of the vampire programers introduced in this book (which sounds less awesome).
Either way, I’ll probably get around to reading some more Stross next October. Should be fun!