Cult of the Spider Queen
I’m always excited to review books published by Aconyte Books, one of the most impressive and exciting new publishers to establish themselves in the past few years, and even moreso when it’s a title written by an author whose works I’ve previously enjoyed. Such is the case with S.A. Sidor, whose Arkham Horror novel The Last Ritual was published late last year, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, finding it to be a suprtly written, deftly plotted and highly imaginative take on the Arkham Horror setting, demonstrating Sidor’s innate understanding of how the decaying, sumptuous decor of Jazz Age Arkham hides a horrifying underside. It was a fantastic addition to Aconyte’s Arkham Horror range, and as such I was thrilled to find out that Sidor had recently published another Arkham Horror title – and one that was peripherally connected to The Last Ritual. As the back-cover blurb for Cult of the Spider Queen tells us, Arkham Advertiser reporter Andy van Nortwick (survivor of Sidor’s previous novel) receives a mysterious film reel through the mail, with a note that simply states ‘Maude Brion is alive’. Brion is a famous actress and film director who went missing years ago during an expedition into the Amazon in search of the fabled Spider Queen. Intrigued, and sensing the prospect for a huge story, Nortwick gathers together the funds for his own expedition, recruiting explorers and a folklorist to accompany him on his own expedition in pursuit of Brion. But as the expedition battles through the steamy undergrowth of the jungle, Nortwick slowly realizes that this may be a journey none of them come back from as they enter a web of terorr where reality and dreams blur together into one. I couldn’t wait to see what Sidor had in store for me, and jumped right into the story.
As the novel begins, novice reporter Andy van Nortwick risks his career to have a mysterious package assigned to him, intensely curious as to why someone in the depths of the Amazon rainforest would be sending a package to the Arkham Advertiser, and even moreso why they would label it as something that needed to be urgently opened. It seems strange, certainly, but after his experiences in the Silver Gate hotel (during the events of The Last Ritual) he’s more inclined to believe in strange and even unearthly things occurring. Andy’s gambit pays off, the package being delivered to him at his desk, and he opens it to discover a film canister – and that cryptic note claiming Maude Brion is alive. The film real inside the canister showcases a bizarre tale – Maude Brion and her party of explorers and film crew making their way up the Amazon, filming the strange, eerie ruins they find, covered in unusual spider motifs, only to encounter a group of strangers who seem to ambush them as something that looks worryingly like a gigantic spider web threatens to cover explorers and ambushers alike. The film cuts off there, with no indication as to whether Brion and her party survived, or who sent the film to the newspaper.
Desperate to find out the answers to these questions, Andy embarks on a desperate attempt to gather funding for an expedition from his newspaper and a mining tycoon, aided by a mysterious anthropologist who claims to have a link to the region and the Spider Queen cult itself, and a pair of veteran explorers and guides roped into the expedition by promises of funding and finding out the truth about the Cult of the Spider Queen. Successful in gaining the money needed, based on the dubious concept of finding hidden gold mines alongside the missing filmmaker, Andy assembles his small group of explorers and leaves for Brazil. However, the journey appears to be an uphill battle from the start: the inexperienced Andy struggles to keep the peace between the members of his increasingly-fractious team, and the journey into the Brazilian interior is exhausting, perilous and slow, without any clear goal in sight. Once a sinister and antagonistic rival is added, the rakish and deeply untrustworthy Ashley Lott who is also leading an expedition into the Amazon; as well as the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the anthropologist and her eerie connection to her dead partner, lost in the Amazon some time earlier in search of the Spider Queen, it rapidly becomes clear to Andy that he may be over his head – and on a one-way journey to meet with the Spider Queen and her minions.
I absolutely adored the intriguing writing style that Sidor uses in Cult of the Spider Queen, which is so radically different to that of his previous Arkham Horror novel. Where the writing style in The Last Ritual was fluid, smooth, and almost languid in its approach – deftly reflecting the artistic atmosphere and background of the events of the novel – the style found in this novel is curt, clipped, almost staccato in nature that makes every page seem like a page from the script of a Jazz Era Hollywood film. It creates a much tenser and paranoic atmosphere as the narrative progresses, and things become far less certain and infinitely more dangerous for the intrepid journalist and his colleagues; and Sidor’s ability to adjust their entire writing style to match the requirements of the story is a clear demonstration of his immense talents as an author. Dovetailed with that narrative approach is Sidor’s ability to deftly evoke the eerie, often inhuman nature of the Amazon as both environment and backdrop, populated with strange, lethal wildlife and littered with the rotting, abandoned rubber plantations and rare metal mines that form the detritus of European Colonialism and its exploitation of the area and its inhabitants. Such is the author’s skill at evoking this environment – even before the more overt Lovecraftian elements are slyly brought into play and integrated into the narrative – that you often feel like you’re walking – and sailing – alongside the ill-fated explorers as they march through the relentless heat and cut their way through more vegetation while being harassed by the human – and increasingly inhuman – foes. As the story progresses, the physical, mental and spiritual begin to blur together with increasing intensity and regularity, with Sidor evoking some genuinely horrifying and deeply haunting sequences; particularly memorable to me now, even weeks after finishing the novel, are those moments featuring the items Sidor memorably nicknames the ‘Death Chandeliers’. Dog-faced ghouls consuming human flesh, gigantic arachnids that flit between trees and vines, and even stranger and more terrifying creatures are brought into play as Andy and his colleagues reach their final destination deep within the jungle and it becomes apparent that the veil between our reality and Lovecraft’s Dreamland has been permanently breached.
That brilliant narrative work and atmospheric writing is allied with some absolutely superb characterisation, easily matching Sidor’s previous work in The Last Ritual and in the process creating – in this reviewer’s opinion – some of the most engaging and memorable characters in all of Aconyte’s on-going Arkham Horror series. Andy van Nortwick was already an interesting character when he briefly appeared in The Last Ritual, and I’m glad that Sidor made the decision to put him front and centre of this next novel, because the Arkham Advertiser journalist proves to be a superb protagonist for the story. His naive yet relentless determination meshes well with the overall arc of the narrative, and his characterization as a whole nicely dovetails with that clipped, short writing style that’s almost like the sort of dictation-style text used by period journalists; Andy moves from one fact to the next while he chases the story that could make his career, even when those facts become less and less grounded in reality, and more and more ephemeral. He helps to ground both the story and the reader’s sense of engagement with the story, and thereby accentuates the increasingly unreal and disturbing elements introduced in the last third of the novel. That solid, three-dimensional characterization extends to the trio of female characters that form most of the supporting cast of the novel – and much of the time are actually far more interesting than van Nortwick. Iris Bennett Reed, an anthropologist with a hidden agenda and a complex past, is attempting to redeem the academic research conducted by her and her deceased partner; he haunts her dreams every night with eerie, feverish visions of how he was left, dying and helpless, in the jungle during a previous, disastrous expedition to locate the Spider Queen. Sidor does an excellent job of obscuring her exact motivations, and leaving us guessing until the last page as to whether she is friend, foe – or something else altogether. Ursula Downs is a veteran explorer obsessed with raising enough money to locate the elusive and esoteric Leng plateau that she has become obsessed with, only to find some surprising – and potentially lethal – links to the plateau and its strange inhabitants during their expedition into the jungle. Even the mysterious Maude Brion, who only has a relatively short period of time in the novel, has an intriguing backstory and some delightfully bizarre behaviour once the explorers finally track her down in the jungle. Taken all together, the brilliant characterisation is yet another factor that makes Cult of the Spider Queen such an amazing read.
Given the incredibly high quality of all of the novels published by Aconyte Books under the Arkham Horror imprint, it says something that Sidor’s Cult of the Spider Queen is perhaps the most accomplished and most impressive Arkham Horror novel in the series that I have read to this point. Superbly written, deftly plotted and imbued with an absolutely first-rate cast of characters that easily retain the reader’s attention until the very last page, Cult of the Spider Queen is a highly-polished and deeply impressive slice of Jazz-Era horror, with Sidor demonstrating his rapidly-increasingly skills and talents as an author, as well as his innate understanding of both the Arkham Horror setting and Lovecraftian Horror in general. It’s a superb entry in the on-going Arkham Horror series, which is going from strength to strength under the skilful eye of Aconyte Books editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, and I cannot wait to see more from Sidor. If that is under the Arkham Horror imprint then excellent – but I would also be deeply intrigued to see what he can produce on his own outside any strictures imposed by external intellectual properties. I think it would be even better than what Cult of the Spider Queen demonstrates he can create.