Russell Letson Reviews Escape from Yokai Land by Charles Stross

Escape from Yokai Land, Charles Stross (Tordotcom 978-1-25080-570-6, 96 pp, $19.99, hc) March 2022.

Charles Stross continues to figure out ingenious extensions of and variations on the givens of his Laundry series of horror/secret-agent/comedy entertainments. A while back I decided that the recipe for these stories is ‘‘one-third eldritch threat, one-third workplace comic satire, and one-third spy-thriller action,’’ with the mix allowing a range of comedic-horrific effects. The latest entry, Escape from Yokai Land, dilutes the dire and dangerous by increasing the fish-out-of-water and satirical components of the recipe. The novella also explains what supernatural troubleshooter Bob Howard was doing during his absence from the quite-dire events of The Nightmare Stacks and before the squickiness of The Delirium Brief: dealing with an outbreak of extradimensional pests disturbing the official cuteness of Tokyo’s Puroland theme park.

I’m not sure whether Stross had it in mind, but parts of the book had me thinking of ironically deployed or inverted Bond-movie tourism clichés, specifically those in You Only Live Twice. Bob’s travel arrangements are not quite the James-Bondian luxury-class experience, though at his destination hotel he is installed in the presumably-expensive Princess Kitty Room, ‘‘where the decor is camp going on kitsch: pink roses on cream wallpaper, mauve rose patterns on pink carpet, magenta bedding and frills and bows and furbelows on everything.’’ This sets the tone for much of the rest of the story, though the cuteness does eventually get replaced by something less cozy and more toothy. The book’s vibe combines Bondisms with a William-Gibsonian flavor of unfamiliar cultural territory (see, for example, Idoru or Pattern Recognition) and, once we get to Puroland proper, concentrated Japanese commercial pop culture.

Ordinarily this would be a job for Bob’s mentor, Dr. Angleton, but the doctor is no longer among the living (or even the half-living or the mostly-dead), so both his workload and his powers as ‘‘the mortal vessel of an ancient power called the Eater of Souls’’ have passed on to the understandably reluctant Bob. He barely has time to cope with jet lag and culture shock before he has to start banishing a number of minor-league yokai – annoying supernatural manifestations out of Japanese folklore. It’s a bit insulting, a kind of competency exam conducted by Dr. Suzuki of Japan’s Department of Apocryphal Organisms and herself a yokai. (Bob notices that she sometimes manifests cat’s ears.)

But the crucial job is to deal with the more robust entities infesting Puroland, attracted by the concentrated attention of large numbers of fans of the company’s characters and products. Some are ‘‘possession cases, eaters that take over’’ the park’s costumed actor-employees, including one who ‘‘gets shamelessly drunk and sings death metal, which scares a lot of the children.’’ But the big show is in the Princess Kitty shrine deep in the heart of ‘‘a theme park full of weaponized cuteness, harnessed by the juggernaut of the Mammon of Marketing,’’ where all that kiddy/Kitty fannish adoration calls forth something not at all cuddly, accompanied by transmogrified auxiliary troops:

a gothic Lolita bat-girl, a crazed punk penguin with a green brush-cut and a biker jacket, and a green furry spider-thing with writhing tentacles that clearly originated somewhere far outside the cuteosphere but decided to crash the party anyway. Before the incursion they were human actors in cartoon animal suits. Now their eyes are glowing, and I can feel their malice from clear across the forest floor.

In tune with the tone of the rest of the story, Bob’s climactic encounter with the demonic inflation of Hello Kitty is simultaneously jokey and horrible, signalled by Bob’s remark that ‘‘cuteness is an effective predation strategy for monsters.’’ As comedy seems to be an effective strategy for the dilution of horror – until the puddy-tat wants to eat your soul.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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