Laudanum Nights by Stephen Bacon
Review by Gary Fry
Bacon’s latest work might be best described as a love letter to fictions which gave him pleasure as a youngster, when he first explored the new territories of genre fiction. Set in a fictionalised steampunk-ish city in the past, it involves the disappearance of a child and one man’s quest to discover what has become of her.
I haven’t read much in this particular field, and so have few benchmarks against which to compare the novella. However, I will say that I very much enjoyed the central character’s investigative journey. Bacon is great at scene-setting – maybe his most noteworthy skill – and the territory through which his hero passes drips with atmosphere, is populated by colourful folk, and possesses an attention to detail which enhances verisimilitude.
I liked also the author’s reticent dealings with a private issue which preoccupies the central character. Bacon tackles this particular aspect with suitably tangential hints, never spelling anything out for the reader, but nonetheless demonstrating how the issue motivates the man to overcome obstacle after obstacle in his pursuit of truth. It feels as if he has some score to settle, and that, in doing so, he’ll realise something significant about himself and how he engages with others. All this is nicely done, and lends the narrative a nice layered dimension.
In front of stage, however, the novella is essentially a daring adventure tale, involving dark practitioners of the occult, creepy dolls, and nefarious ambitions. There’s an uncharacteristically explicit bit of exposition when our hero meets the book’s villain, but it’s relatively short-lived and doesn’t hold up matters too long.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed this strikingly written, affectionately pitched, and satisfyingly concluded work. Readers looking for some of the thrills offered by traditionally styled, alternative-world tales will do well to grab a copy and read it as autumn advances and the evenings grow dark and chill. There’s even an illuminating afterword, as well as a bonus short story which shares similar themes to the main event (and may even have provided the source for this novella’s extended exploration). Overall, a great little package.