I was nearing the end of my first reading of Iain Banks’ brilliant The Bridge when I came down with pneumonia. The Bridge is a complex novel, with many layers running together. Pneumonia destroyed my ability to concentrate. I suspended my reading, intending to switch to something simpler, at least until my head was fixed.

I chose Charlie Stross’s brand new The Delirium Brief, the latest in The Laundry Files series.

This was a mistake. That’s not because it’s a bad book—it’s a good book—but because it’s set in a world of brain–eating monsters, and I have pneumonia, which is eating my brain (well, ruining my concentration). It’s also a very depressing book, read in a depressed tone in the audiobook, which did not exactly fit the up–cheery mood I really wanted to feel while recovery from an infection of lung–eating bugs.

image: The Delirium Brief book cover

The Laundry Files book series is set in Stross’s homage to the Lovecraft universe, with nasty monsters in other dimensions trying to break through to our reality to eat us. I’ve not read Lovecraft, and have no intention of doing so. I’m reading the Stross because the first book in the series, The Atrocity Archives, caught me. He writes solid, well–paced, and often witty prose, and his characters (unlike those in many book series) suffer, grow and develop as the series progresses. They are not unbelievable archetypical heroes, they are ordinary people who can do things, and have to do them.

This book is set immediately after the previous entry in the series, The Nightmare Stacks. It is not suitable as the first Laundry Files book to read: start at the beginning with The Atrocity Archives.

As my brain was being eaten my monsters from, well, not outer space, I had the shocking realisation that the book and series are really about madness. The madness is externalised as bizarre monsters, but it is madness all the same. People familiar with Lovecraft and Stross will probably consider me very stupid for taking this long to work out what’s going on underneath the surface.

There was a particular scene, near the end of the book, that caused this realisation. In it, the hero nearly goes insane as worry and events allow his symbiotic monster of madness from outside time to start pressing in on his sane mind, to squash the sanity and let the madness gain full control. I’ve had that experience, once. In the case of the book, the hero is held sane by a colleague using sergeant major mojo. In my case, I held on by force of will. Stross’s description was close enough to my experience for the realisation of the actual subject of the books to finally click. Like I said, I’m slow.

The madness here belongs to the leading characters, who struggle against it, with some success, and the baddies, who, of course, let the insanity win. Stross peppers his books with his fairly obvious sense of humour, so it’s not surprising, perhaps, that the baddies are a Christian fundamentalist sect with a sexual deviation problem. In this case, that deviation ultimately leads to their genital plumbing being replaced by monsters from outside time. Actually, it’s very well written (if I tried to do the same, it’d turn camp batman), to the extent that I’d strongly recommend this book is not read by virgins: the nightmares could badly screw up the start of their sex life. Well, they would have done mine.

I have no intention of reading Lovecraft. I do not like insanity, and do not particularly like books about insanity: perhaps I’m a coward. I will, though, keep reading The Laundry Files books, despite the depression, because I can’t let go of the characters. They grow as they learn to fight the world’s doom. They are never the same person at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. I believe in them.

I didn’t actually read The Delirium Brief, I listened to the audiobook read by Jack Hawkins. Narration is like writing software: if you do a good job, people don’t notice it’s there. I was absorbed by the story and didn’t notice the performance. That’s a recommendation.