“Equoid” is the first of Charles Stross’s works that I have read. It is part of his popular Laundry Files series of books, novellas, and short stories. “Equoid” was recently nominated for a Hugo Award and is currently available to read on Tor.com.
The basic premise of The Laundry Files is quite similar to the role-playing game Delta Green: a covert government agency investigates and covers up eldritch horrors because the citizen population wouldn’t be able to handle the truth. The major difference between the two is that while Delta Green focuses more on existential horror, The Laundry Files incorporate bureaucratic humor with the horror. A secondary difference is that Delta Green is a U.S. creation, while The Laundry Files is a British creation. This difference may actually account for the humor.
“Equoid,” then, takes us into the world of Bob Howard (pseudonym), agent of The Laundry. He has been sent to East Grinstead to investigate a possible unicorn sighting. These are not the unicorns of popular mythology, however. These are the offspring of Shub-Niggurath also called the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. The offspring typically resemble horses (“It’s an equoid not an equus”), although monstrous with glowing eyes, dagger-sharp teeth, and with a taste for human flesh. Shub-Niggurath itself is a vaguely horse-like creature with tentacles it uses to speak through human hosts and it is all quite horrifying and unpleasant. Honestly, if you have a weak stomach, this portion of the story, recounted as a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, is extremely disturbing.
But that is one thing that surprised me about Stross’s style: he masterfully balanced humor and horror. The humor and absurdity of the concept (malicious unicorns) is perfectly balanced by the horror of the encounters with Shub-Niggurath. I enjoyed the Lovecraft letter that was part of the dossier on unicorns (codename: EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN) because most of the best horror happens in the letter, a letter that may have been embellished because, as Bob Howard points out, Lovecraft is not exactly a reliable narrator. He had a tendency to exaggerate—just look at his prose. And so part of the horror rests in uncertain expectation. It retains an element of the unknown even after the creature has been described.
Humor is also achieved in passages on bureaucracy and IT. In particular is an occult computer virus that consumes human souls—appropriately activated when opening a Word file. Also present is a government bureaucracy that institutes a program to genetically engineer WMD police-mounts based on a memo that no one remembers writing and no one can trace to its source. The interspersion of the memos and the letters worked to elevate the tension in the story.
So far as I know, “Equoid” is available on the Tor site indefinitely. I recommend it if you are not easily horrified by disturbing content and are a fan of Lovecraft.