I came away from Equoid feeling that something was just not sitting. On first impressions, it was what it said on the tin, a Lovecraftian horror story. Literally. The protagonist Bob works for a British agency that deals with all the things that go bump in the night. This time, he's sent to investigate a possible outbreak of nightmarish creatures in the countryside, armed with letters in which H.P. Lovecraft, Hisownself, described them as true unicorns, not the friendly sparkly version in popular culture.
Sure, I'm not a big consumer of horror, and I had quibbles with the protagonist and some instances of verbosity, but that's common, not enough to make me look sidelong at a story--and I was looking sideways at the piece for a good long while afterwards. The one thing that I couldn't stop squinting at was that the special victims, the ones not killed or eaten or merged but penetrated and possessed and enslaved, were exclusively young girls.
It seemed like an artifact, a relic of another time, and I don't mean just within the story's world. I mean the virgin sacrifice trope, which, for the record, I think is stupid and tired. Like I said, I had my quibbles, but with so much creativity and the subtle subversions of the Lovecraftian framework on which the story was built, the employment of this trope cheapened the rest of it, for me. It is used in a way that seemed uninspired, unexamined, and reinforced.
The trope is introduced in Equoid through the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, wherein he details his boyhood encounter with the equoid and its lure, a girl named Hetty. There are implications that H.P. is an unreliable narrator, "leaving stuff out, putting stuff in" and Bob had been sniping holes in Lovecraftian lore all along, but this one account remained unscathed. Lovecraft is never proven to have embellished a single gruesome detail of this ritual, as we are never given even a glimpse of an alternate version, like, say, the girls choosing to help their very own unicorn, or adults as vessels, or non-invasive mind-control, or the queen equoid evolving beyond the need for humans altogether.
So, if everything turns out as H.P. recounted, then Lovecraft couldn't have been just a "gynophobic" storyteller, himself just using questionable constructs. He was simply reporting the facts of nature, something that ever was and will be. Sucks to be you, little girls.
That's reinforcement. Happens all the time, but it's disappointing to find it at the core of a story so imaginative in every other way. Is it any author's job to fully subvert and dismantle tropes? No, but Charles Stross was doing a pretty decent job of it until we got to this. It's too bad, because the rest of the story, near as I can tell, is pretty successful horror and dark fantasy humor, well-crafted mythology and psuedo-science, and an intriguing bureaucracy caught up in the middle of it--action, suspense, thrills and chills. There's plenty to recommend, but I can't, not this particular story.
Have you read Equoid? What were your thoughts?