If you have been following my reviews then you know that I love the Arkham Horror Series from Aconyte. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to read an advance copy of the latest installment Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel (during a perfectly timed thunderstorm, no less). While I wasn’t as taken with Secrets in Scarlet as I have been with previous installments, it was still a good, solid read with many enticing stories that all had that gothic horror edge to them.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Aconyte Books for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel contains some spoilers!]
The set-up of Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel
Secrets in Scarlet is another anthology comprised of short stories from various authors. They all revolve around two (or three maybe, it got a little fuzzy in some stories) secret societies that are dedicated to finding special “keys” that are hidden around the globe. These keys aren’t keys in the traditional sense. They are various objects that are imbued with supernatural powers that can, if used properly, be used to manipulate time and space. Used improperly they could cause massive destruction or even allow the ancient ones to conquer our world.
The Foundation is dedicated to finding these items and locking them away where no one can ever use them. This is the only way they see to keep our world safe. The Red Coterie is a bit more nuanced. Identified by a red item as part of their ensemble, they are also trying to collect the keys and protect humanity but they use the powers the keys contain to do so instead of hiding them away. Furthermore, there seemed to be different schisms within the coterie, with some members being more dangerous than others. Some may even be helping the “others” instead of opposing them.
The final story introduces a third secret group, the Black Chamber, a group within the Cipher Bureau in America. This group seems to have recently sprung up and become aware of the ancient powers endangering humanity. They are wary of the Red Coterie but are willing to team up with them for the greater good.
So each story introduces us to either a key one of these groups are trying to obtain, or to a member of one of the groups. Interestingly enough, none of these stories takes place in Arkham. One or two of them mention the place in passing but that is it. Another difference is that the ancient ones are not really seen in Secrets in Scarlet. Secrets is much more involved with the people and objects that are fighting against the ancient ones. The stories are still fascinating and contain an edge of dread, monsters, and fear that still technically make them horror stories, but they are much more subtle than the previous Arkham stories I have read.
“The Man In The Bubble”
In “The Man In The Bubble” by David Annandale we are introduced to the Foundation for the first time. They seem to be a “men in black” type organization that presents as a government entity but has no actual authority. When they find the man holding the key they confront him and like most powerful men he believes he knows more than everyone else.
Meanwhile, something can be felt coming closer and closer. It is drawn to the key and wants it back. The Foundation steals the key and escapes just before whatever is tracking it appears. And the key is safely locked away from whatever wants it back.
This is a classic cautionary tale about playing with things we don’t understand. The antagonist lived in a world insulated from reality by his money. The idea that there were things he didn’t understand, couldn’t have, or that could hurt him never crossed his mind. Too arrogant to listen to those who knew more than him and too greedy to give up anything he considered his, he loses everything in a very terrifying reality check.
“City of Waking Dreams”
This story by Davide Mana was a little harder to get into. Inspector Li Flint of the ICPC, and member of the Foundation, heads to Shanghai in search of someone known only as the Lady with the Red Parasol. Working through a tangled web of social connections Li learns her name is Tzu San Niang and where he can find her for one night. He gets very close to her, close enough to realize that she is a fixer of sorts for some very powerful men. Close enough to find himself in some real danger from a shadowy creature that seems to be controlled by the Lady with the Red Parasol. The battle is lost and the Lady slips away but Flint plays the long game and is determined to follow her until the job is done.
Mana’s tale feels like the middle passage between two points. The Lady holds a great deal of mystery and menace but the reason for Inspector Li’s pursuit of her was lacking. Similarly, she slips away without any reveal of a greater purpose. The conversation that’s overhead about her business dealings was rather mundane, just back-door labor deals to benefit rich men. If it weren’t for the shadowy entity that chased the inspector through the hotel I wouldn’t have felt any connection to the rest of the stories at all. Yes, both main secret societies are represented but the supernatural connection was lacking making this my least favorite of the stories.
Jason Fischer’s tale of blood and sacrifice was probably my favorite in Secrets in Scarlet: Arkham Horror Novel. Desi never really feels at home on his small island. His family has run a sugar plantation for generations but he’s always secretly feared the dark fields and the man who harvests them. A dangerous secret seemed to lurk in the fields. His older brother, Javier is supposed to take over the plantation but it’s obvious that Javier has more going on than sugar as more and more money begins to come into the home.
After Javier dies Desi discovers just what he was doing, removing ancient artifacts from a local cave and selling them. His venture has attracted some of our Red Coterie friends because they believe something incredibly powerful is buried deep within the cave. Desi follows an irresistible pull towards the caves and whatever is inside them, drawn deeper and deeper within by something calling him. Desi finds what he didn’t know he was looking for, the Mirroring Blade. The Red Coterie offers to help Desi navigate the strange new world he finds himself in and the Red Coterie gains another key.
There is plenty of hidden power woven into “Brothers Bound”. The dark danger of the sugar fields and the Mirroring Blade are surprisingly similar. Both offer a type of safety and protection to their owners and both require a gristly price. The cane fields were very alluring to me and I was unsurprised when Desi’s Uncle related the true price of their bounty. The Mirroring Blade is also alluring, it is extremely powerful but is a true double-edged blade. Desi is enthralled but I’m not sure his sacrifice is truly worth the power.
“Honor Among Thieves”
Carrie Harris’s tale of sister master thieves is, for this collection, rather fun and light-hearted. Rosa and Milagros Varela are a pair of master thieves for hire. They are very good but their current job has them both spooked.
The client has contracted them for a job the next day at a fashion show, stealing a coat and hat that seems both unremarkable and relatively worthless. Despite their misgivings, the sisters go ahead with the job. After some horrible mistakes, Rosa meets up with the buyer, who goes by the name of the Sanguine Watcher. He clearly has some bad intentions for Rosa so she uses the power of the coat and hat to escape, and runs into another member of the Red Coterie. He offers her protection if she joins their club and uses the crimson coat to help them gather keys. Rosa has always enjoyed the game of thievery so she becomes the newest member, La Chica Roja.
While there are some scary moments in this story, the main focus is on Rosa and her love of life. Everything is a game for her and she wants to win. She is billed as the frivolous sister but she has a lot of intelligence, she just hides it behind laughter and smiles. The way she adapts on the fly to changing circumstances and her quick understanding and mastery of the crimson coat show just how smart she really is. I really enjoyed Harris’s story and hope Rosa is doing well out there.
“A Forty Grain Weight of Nephrite”
Steven Philip Jones writes about Kymani Jones and the Xiamen Bi in his story “A Forty Grain Weight of Nephrite.” The Xiamen Bi is of course another Key and Jones is a member of the Foundation that wants to return to where it belongs before it can cause any trouble. At the same time, the Lady with the Red Parasol is trying to secure the Key for some less than innocent reasons. Jones must partner with a new acquaintance that they are unsure if they can trust in order to secure the Bi’s safety.
This story has a very Indiana Jones feel to it. There are puzzles to solve, labyrinths to explore, and a fantastic treasure that “belongs in a museum” (no, it belongs in China though and that’s where Jones is determined to return it). The Lady with the Red Parasol wields a terrible power in the story that is almost more terrifying than monsters in its way. Overall, a solid entry in the anthology.
“Strange Things Done”
Lisa Smedman poses an interesting scenario in “Strange Things Done”, what if things keep changing around you, but the only way you know they’re changing are notes you don’t remember writing? That’s exactly what’s happening to Rex Murphy. Rex is a journalist on a trip to Alaska, retracing the journey of his favorite poet, Robert Service, for a color piece for his local paper, the Arkham Advertiser. Rex interviews everyone he meets along the way and jots everything down in his notebook. He then types up stories from his notes each night on his typewriter.
Things are going great until he boards Martha, a sailing ship that will take him up the Pacific coast. From the first day, he notices things aren’t quite right. He seems to be mistaking, misremembering, and flat-out forgetting people and situations which, as a reporter, is quite unnerving. As time goes on more and more changes occur he realizes that his notes and stories align with his mistakes and memory problems, except that he doesn’t remember writing any of them! Lucky for him his cabin mate is a member of the Red Coterie and has an idea of what to do to save everyone on board.
“Strange Things Done” has a special kind of terror to it. It’s the terror of not being able to trust your own mind. Personally, Alzheimer’s is a huge fear of mine and I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between that and Rex’s situation. It made for a pretty disquieting read.
“In Art, Truth”
James Fadeley introduces us to Ece, a researcher for the Red Coterie who is having her research shadowed by someone. As she races to find what she’s looking for before it’s poached, she’s approached by an eerie man hiding within a wall who tries to woe her away from the Coterie. This hints that it’s not just the Foundation and Coterie that are trying to track down the keys.
In reality, there are numerous different organizations with various levels of understanding trying to track down what they can of this strange world beyond our own. After her assistant is killed by one of these shadow organizations Ece comes to the conclusion that she cannot fight them on her own but she also cannot trust the Coterie to protect her.
This story is really just about the evil of humans. Even though Ece mentions some of the things that go bump in the night in passing they never materialize. The only enemies we see are greedy humans trying to steal knowledge they are unable to find on their own. It’s a different kind of scary when the enemy is so plausible in real life.
“Crossing Stars” by MJ Newman is different from the other stories in Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel because it takes place in both the “now” and in the distant past. We get to learn the story of Haresah and Razin, ancient lovers who traversed the desert to find an object of great power.
Haresah is desperate to obtain this mysterious object and its powers because her beloved, Razin, is already a great magician. She feels unworthy of him and believes that if he gains the powers promised by the mysterious object she will become worthy. Their story is being told to Luciana Diallo, a researcher, by her prospective patron, Amaranth. Diallo listens politely but is certain the story is little more than a fairy tale. However as Amaranth continues Diallo begins to realize that there are too many details, Amaranth knows too much about what happened so long ago, and she begins to think that there is more to her potential patron are her offer of support than Diallo had bargained for.
“Crossing Stars” offered a special terror of small places, as Haresah and her party traveled deeper and deeper underground to find the source of the terrible power she sought, I felt myself getting antsier and antsier. Of course, that wasn’t the only danger they faced down there. Ultimately Haresah had to decide if the power she sought was worth losing everything, including the reason she wanted the power in the first place. Her choice and the consequences offered food for thought long after this short story was finished.
“The Red and The Black”
Josh Reynolds offered up The Red and The Black as the final tale of Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel. In his story, Trish Scarborough leads a bunch of Red Coterie operatives on a fast-paced chase through Venice. She is trying to track down information left behind by a fellow Black Chamber member (not sure if this group is connected to the Foundation but I think it is) before the Red Coterie can find it.
When she finally faces off with the head operative Crimson Cavalier things don’t quite go as planned for him. He walks away agreeing to think about teaming up with the Black Chamber to fight against the forces moving against humanity and Trish leaves with the satisfaction of a job well done.
There is a lot of tension and fear in this cat and mouse story but once again it all came from the human element. Scarborough is chased and the entire city seems to be wearing red. Surely they can’t all be Coterie but there’s no way to know who is and who isn’t, making everyone an enemy and ratcheting up the anxiety in this story. The twist ending resulted in a huge cathartic release of that anxiety and made the story very satisfying, even without any supernatural elements.
Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkam Horror Novel is very different from the rest
Secrets in Scarlet was very different from the other entries I’ve read in the Arkham Horror Series. There was no central ancient one that the stories focused on. Instead, it was about the organized groups surrounding the ancient ones and the humans opposing and resisting their evil.
The keys were very interesting to me and I would love to read even more about them and their powers and costs. Even though this book was light on evil creatures there were plenty of evil people and menacing situations that kept me in that wonderful place known as disquieted, uneasy, or “spooked”. I wasn’t so scared I couldn’t be in a dark room alone but I did keep thinking over the stories after I finished them. And that’s my favorite kind of story, one that doesn’t leave me when I finish the book but stays with me, making me ponder the situations, characters, and feelings brought up in the tales long after the covers are closed.
My rating for this book: 8/10
Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Novel edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells is available October 4th. For more information please visit Aconyte books.
If you haven’t already, check out my review of another novel in this series from Aconyte Books, The Devourer Below: An Arkham Horror Novel edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells!