Leave it to Yahtzee Croshaw to create gelatinous creatures that are simultaneously terrifying and endearing.
The author has a talent for tossing zany characters into insane situations (just pick up Mogworld, Jam or Will Save the Galaxy for Food), and his latest novel features another delightfully bizarre cast. Differently Morphous boasts everything from a crazy magician to said “otherworldly creatures,” resulting in a ridiculously entertaining read.
Intrigued? Here’s the description from the publisher:
A magical serial killer is on the loose, and gelatinous, otherworldly creatures are infesting the English countryside. Which is making life for the Ministry of Occultism difficult, because magic is supposed to be their best kept secret.
After centuries in the shadows, the Ministry is forced to unmask, exposing the country’s magical history—and magical citizens—to a brave new world of social media, government scrutiny and public relations.
On the trail of the killer are the Ministry’s top agents: a junior operative with a photographic memory (and not much else), a couple of overgrown schoolboys with godlike powers and a demonstrably insane magician. But as they struggle for results, their superiors at HQ must face the greatest threat the Ministry has ever known: the forces of political correctness…
Differently Morphous was released exclusively as an audiobook last year, and now Dark Horse Comics is publishing the print version. You’ll have to wait until April 10th to snag your copy, but you can read an exclusive excerpt today!
Check out the Prologue and Chapter 1 below, and click here if you’d like to pre-order the novel.
Henry Wollstone’s eyes flicked open when he heard a noise from downstairs.
He experienced a second moment of panic when he didn’t immediately recognize the bedroom ceiling, but he was just as swiftly eased by the sight of chintzy curtain fabric. He was in his parents’ holiday home in the Lake District. He’d come out here for the week to get away from work, and from having to listen to the high-pitched telephone voice of Janet in the cubicle next door.
Relatedly, he’d been midway through a dream about being attacked by a flock of screeching jungle parrots when some external noise had woken him up. Lying rigidly in place on his parents’ thankfully rarely used double bed, Henry strained his ears, waiting to hear it again.
After three anxious nights, he had finally learned to recognize the various harmless creaks and thuds the old house made when it was settling, and to associate them with something other than a pack of knife-wielding burglars besieging the back door. Until now, he had convinced himself that there were at least five miles of field, forest, and country road between him and the nearest human being.
He was just about to start untensing to settle back into sleep when the noise came again. It was no creak, but neither was it the heavy footfall of an assassin on the stairs. It sounded wet. More like a slosh.
He must have left the tap running in the bathroom. Yes, that was a sufficiently reassuring explanation. Relieved, he pushed the bedclothes aside and swung his feet off the bed, into the slippers he had carefully left in the ideal positions by the bed. He recovered his dressing gown from the back of the chair.
He paused when he was halfway to the door and the noise came again. Definitely a slosh. It sounded like a liquid thicker than water. Not a sound that a healthy drain makes. But then, he was far from civilization; he had to run the shower for at least a minute every morning before it would produce actual water, rather than a brown liquid that didn’t bear thinking about.
He pushed the bedroom door open cautiously, an inch at a time, on the off chance that he might startle a would-be murderer. The darkened landing was clear. Encouraged, he stepped through and passed into the bathroom, wincing with every creak of the floorboards.
Enough moonlight was shining in through the window to reveal that the bathroom sink was not even dripping. Neither, upon inspection, was the shower head. He wrapped one hand in tissue and gingerly lifted the toilet seat. The water beneath was as uninteresting as ever.
Standing by the window now, hands on hips, his eye caught a sliver of moonlight shining off the brick wall at the far end of the garden. That made him exchange a frown with his reflection in the mirror. How was he seeing the garden wall through the dense mass of unkept shrubbery that enclosed what passed for the lawn?
He took a closer look. Then he almost put his head through the glass before recovering enough presence of mind to open the window.
Every plant in the rear garden was dead. The grass was gone, replaced with brown, mulchy earth that stank of rot. The shrubbery was reduced to sticks, lying in crumpled piles.
It didn’t make sense. Everything had been typically green and over-grown when the sun had set that evening. Henry’s first instinct was to check his watch, to make sure that he hadn’t accidentally slept for a hundred years.
That was when he heard the thick sloshing sound again. It was coming from downstairs, not the bathroom. And it also probably wasn’t coming from the plumbing. It sounded more like a ball of wet clay being squeezed in a giant fist.
Terror seized Henry’s limbs. But he was spurred to action by the thought of having to explain to his father that something had happened to the entertainment center. He darted out of the bathroom and stopped at the top of the stairs, gripping the banister rail to brace himself.
The expanded living area below was in total darkness. All he could see was the main light switch on the wall near the foot of the stairs, illuminated dimly by blue-gray light from the rear window.
Slowly, Henry crept downstairs, having to consciously unclench his hand from the banister with each step. When he was as close to the light switch as he dared, he stretched out his hand as far as it would go, took in a deep breath, and flicked on the light.
The entire ground floor was crisscrossed with glistening trails, all originating from the cat flap at the foot of the back door. A mass of pulsating gray-pink matter the size of a beanbag chair was sitting in the hall, glistening in the new light like sweating flesh. It flinched as the light came on, rapidly extruding a forest of tentacles that thrashed in apparent pain.
The deep breath Henry had taken in was all let out at once as an involuntary squeal. His hand came away from the banister, and he tum- bled end over end, landing in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs.
From here, upside down and through the gap between his thighs, he could see the kitchen. There was another slime creature. This one was the color of swamp water, and was caught in the act of spreading itself over the disgorged contents of the upturned kitchen bin. Henry saw a pair of chicken bones extruding diagonally from its mass like a pair of antlers, before they were sucked inside with a slurp.
Henry tried to move, but his head was wedged in the corner, and then all his muscles froze when the creatures began to slither towards him. They rolled across the hall carpet like clumps of wet play dough, rapidly forming their mass into multitudes of temporary claw-like limbs to grab onto the floor and pull themselves along. The trail they left behind had the same rotting stink that Henry had smelled from the dead garden, but now it was alive, and warm, and all around him.
He was surrounded by walls of sweating, discolored flesh. He wanted to scream, but the growing stench in the air made his jaws reflexively clamp together. He pulled his thighs closer to his chest.
The creature that had been in the kitchen was inches from his face. It stopped there and formed itself into a flat surface, around which thin tendrils probed and sniffed at Henry’s quivering face. Three shapes appeared. Two circles and a curved line.
The voice sounded like someone had found a way to form coherent syllables by putting on wet latex gloves and wringing their hands, but coherent they were. It had very clearly said hello. When that fact penetrated Henry’s terror, he realized what the shapes were supposed to be.
A smiley face.
“Hewwo,” repeated the voice uncertainly. Henry’s eyes boggled to the creature’s left. The second monster had taken up position there, forming a “face” consisting of an X above a sideways capital D.
“Hi,” Henry heard himself say.
“Why,” said Brother Burling, before leaving a thoughtful pause, as if he hadn’t been planning his opening sentence since the moment he’d left the staff room. “Are. You. Here?”
He was a large man, clad in a baggy brown cassock that made him seem even larger. What little of his face that was visible behind his thick silver beard was wrought with laughter lines, so that his head resembled a clenched fist in a furry glove. His eyes tracked the room, sparkling encouragingly.
His students—a roomful of young people from all walks of life, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-three—exchanged glances. Experience had taught them that there were even odds whether Burling was actually expecting an answer or if he was about to launch into half an hour of excited rhetoric.
Eventually, the matter was decided by a voice from the back of the room. “I blew up me dog.”
Burling smiled graciously at the speaker. Craig Turbrook, a dull-eyed boy of sixteen buried somewhere in the folds of an ill-fitting hoodie of questionable necessity in the stifling classroom. “There are plenty of perfectly good borstals in the country for boys who blow up their dogs,” said Burling. “What interests us, the reason why you are gracing this jewel of the humble Devonshire coastline, is that you blew her up with your mind.”
Craig shrugged in a way that caused his head and shoulders to burrow even further into his hoodie. “Didn’t mean to.”
“No, of course you didn’t mean to,” sighed Burling, pacing between the students’ desks with his hands gathered behind his back. “That’s the other reason. You have magic inside you, and you must learn how to control it. How to use it. So, let’s get back to first principles. What is magic?”
A single hand shot up. Burling smiled and pretended not to notice. He scanned the room, contemplating which student to pick on of the many who were very deliberately avoiding his gaze.
Two faint knocks fell upon the classroom door, spaced a precise second apart. Then the knocker turned the handle, satisfied that they had made their intentions sufficiently clear. The door opened the absolute minimum amount to admit a man of below-average height and above-average weight.
“Adam,” said Burling, his beard spreading apart to unveil a grin. “Everyone, this is Adam Hesketh. One of my old students. He’s a big shot at the Ministry of Occultism now.”
Adam Hesketh was a pale man in his twenties with a complexion like uncooked dough. His copper-colored hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail that almost ran to the belt of his black trench coat. He returned the smile nervously and leaned uncomfortably against the wall beside the door, folding his arms. “Just…inspecting, pretend I’m not here,” he said. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“Not at all,” said Burling. He spun on his heel to face the majority of the classroom again, his robe fluttering impressively as he did so. “As we were. What is magic?”
Silence. Finally, he allowed himself to notice the single upraised hand, belonging to the only student who was sitting with their back perfectly straight. Alison Arkin, nineteen years old. Her face, framed on both sides by shoulder-length blond hair, radiated eager politeness.
Burling sighed and let his shoulders sag, surrendering to the assault of those wide, interested eyes. “All right, Alison, I think you’ve given everyone else enough chances. Go ahead.”
“Magic is the essence of the Ethereal Realm,” said Alison promptly. “It’s created by huge creatures that live there, called Ancients, or Elder Gods, and it bleeds into our realm through cracks in the…in whatever it is that separates the realms.” She smiled apologetically.
“Correct,” said Burling. “It bleeds through and creates problems like you lot for people like me and Mr. Hesketh to deal with. So what is it about the Ethereal Realm that makes it a breeding ground for magic?”
“It’s alive,” said Alison. “Everything in it is alive.”
“Correct again. Consciousness is not as burdened there as it is here with the need for complex organic machinery to keep it going.”
Burling glanced at Adam Hesketh. He had been scanning the room when he had first arrived, looking over each of the students in turn. Now his gaze was fixed on Alison, as he thoughtfully chewed a stubby thumbnail.
“Think of Alice’s Wonderland,” continued Burling. “Where even the doorknobs and the playing cards can be alive and intelligent, with none of the biology we consider necessary. Take that concept to its logical conclusion. To a world where everything, right down to the tiniest particle, has its own spark of life. Now imagine a complex being like an Ancient, composed of billions of cells, each one capable of independent thought. Actually, don’t try to imagine it. What was it Scrollkeeper Dorth said about the Ancients?”
Alison took the initiative as the silence rolled into its fifth second. “‘Humans trying to comprehend a being like an Ancient is like a barnacle on the hull of a fishing boat trying to comprehend the fisherman.’ He said it in 1969, in a report to the Hand of Merlin on the problem of amateur occult investigators.”
Burling’s beard shivered, impressed. “I’ll need to look that up, but it sounds correct. All right, thank you, Alison, I think we know where we all are. Get out your focusing trays.”
The students opened the lids of their desks with varying degrees of haste; Craig Turbrook and his peers seemed to be competing at who could open theirs the slowest. Every desk contained a plastic tray covered in a half-inch depth of sand, as well as a number of birthday cake candles, a saucer of water, and a miniature ant habitat. For the remainder of the lesson, the students adopted comfortable slouches and stared fixedly at the objects in turn.
Discovering and honing a magical talent was an inexact science at best. The nature and effect of the magic that infused the individual, as well as the mental techniques required to harness and implement it, varied wildly from person to person. It was known that the most common magical abilities revolved around elemental forces and living things, so prolonged periods of staring at focusing trays was as likely to provoke a manifestation as anything else.
A dull, uneventful half hour passed, as Burling roamed the classroom, watching for the slightest stirring of sand or curious movement among the ants. Adam Hesketh hadn’t stopped watching Alison Arkin, who stared into the sand with a calm but intense confidence that not even the constant background whispering of the less dedicated students could distract.
Eventually the novice monk on corridor duty passed by the classroom door, loudly ringing the hand bell that signified the end of lessons, and there was a loud, obnoxious scraping of chair legs in response. Desk lids were slammed closed, notebooks were hustled into backpacks, and boys and girls alike were swiftly pouring from the room like sand in a noisy hourglass.
Rana, the girl who sat to Alison’s immediate right, leaned close to her as they assembled their belongings. “Alison,” she whispered.
“They’re talking about you.”
Alison glanced up from the careful filing of her possessions. The Ministry man, Hesketh, was engaged in hushed conversation with Brother Burling, who was perched on the edge of his desk with an expression of wonder slowly taking shape behind his beard.
“Oh, they couldn’t be…” said Alison, before Burling turned his head slightly and met her gaze.
“Alison,” he called, unfolding one of his arms to make a beckoning gesture. “Could you stay behind, just a moment?”
“Had a feeling you wouldn’t be here long,” whispered Rana as she shouldered her bag. “Don’t forget about us when you’re the top Ministry agent, okay?”
Burling waited until Alison had approached, and for every other student to file down the hallway out of earshot, before he spoke. “Alison, do you know much about the Ministry of Occultism?”
Alison glanced briefly at Adam Hesketh, who sheepishly dropped his gaze, before replying. “It’s the secret division of the British government. The place where they investigate magic activity and organize all of this.” She gestured to their surroundings, then clasped her hands behind her back like she was waiting for a pat on the head.
Burling’s smile widened. “Most of our most promising graduates end up working for the Ministry,” he said. “Adam here is one of the Ministry’s top field agents and talent spotters. He comes down here every now and again to check up on the new students.” He took an excited deep breath. “I was just telling him how fast a learner you’ve been, and there’s something he’d like to talk to you about.”
Alison’s excited eyes flicked over to Adam again. “Mr. Hesketh?”
The Ministry agent smiled awkwardly in response. “Yes. Erm. Ms. Arkin.” He coughed. “I’m afraid you don’t have any magical infusion whatsoever. Your entire education here has been a huge mistake.”
The brows, lower eyelids, and mouth corners of Brother Burling and Alison Arkin immediately dropped as if attached to extremely heavy weights. It happened with such suddenness that Hesketh visibly started.
“Oh, sorry,” he stammered. “I’ve totally been giving the wrong impression here, haven’t I?”