Limbus, Inc., is a set of five novellas by Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Jonathan Maberry, Joseph Nasisse, Anne C. Petty and Brett J. Talley all set in the same universe, involving the same mysterious employment agency. The stories vary in quality, and have a frame that is used inconsistently It’s a cool concept, but it loses something in the translation from idea to page.
The prologue describes how Ichabod Templeton takes a leather-bound book to a used bookstore owned by Matthew Sellers. Matthew is facing the prospect of closing the bookstore and getting a “real” job when Templeton comes in and asks him to publish the book. Templeton explains that “they” are after him, but that their secrets must be exposed, and only his book can do it. The four stories that make up Limbus, Inc., are the contents of Templeton’s book.
The first story, “The Slaughter Man” by Benjamin Kane Ethridge, is about a man known to us only as “the Sticker,” who works in a slaughterhouse. His work is described in excruciating detail; you may never relish a steak again. Certainly the Sticker hates what he does, even though he is very good at it. His wife has just left him, and he’s doing his best to get her back, but things look bleak. And they get bleaker when he’s fired for excessive overtime. He gets his revenge on his employer in a disgusting but hilarious way, and looks up the employment agency that’s been posting notices in his break room and whose representative had approached him on his way to work. The agency seems strange; why do they ask what location he’s calling from when he’s right outside the door? He’s sent to a job the representative tells him is dangerous, but hey, it pays $450,000 a year. The representative walks him to the “membrane station,” the means by which he’ll be traveling to his job, and he suddenly finds himself somewhere . . . else. And killing things in quantity, things that he’s never seen the likes of before, for an appetite unlike any he’s ever imagined. It’s going well enough until the Princess — his employer — gets a taste for him. It’s funny and horrific and disgusting all at the same time.
“The Sacrifice” by Brett J. Talley is Ryan’s story. Ryan is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and he’s haunted by what happened there. That’s why he attends a support group, which is where he meets Katya. Katya seems to be pressing Ryan to find a job through Limbus, Inc., but he’s thinking of going back into the Marines. All goes as well as can be expected, which isn’t really all that well, when he’s robbed and stabbed in a nightclub one night. All he’s left with is a business card for Limbus, Inc., that he doesn’t remember receiving. That’s the last push he needs to visit the employment agency, which has precisely the right job lined up for him: the rescue of a kidnapped girl. But this is no normal kidnapping. The girl has been kidnapped in Salem, Massachusetts, and it is an ancient evil that has taken her, no mere human kidnapper. The story has a Lovecraftian flavor to it, if not the eldritch language, and its sadness balances out the humor of the first story.
After a short interlude with the frame story, Joseph Nassise is up next with “One Job Too Many.” Nate Benson has lost his job at General Electronics in the wake of a war that has left a third of the Earth a barren wasteland. And that his girlfriend has left him and completely cleaned out the apartment, down to the last stick of furniture. While Nate is trying to drown his sorrows, a friend leaves him with a business card, and yes, it’s from Limbus, Inc. So Nate calls the number on the card, and is offered an interview on the spot. The interview is so strange that Nate concludes that he’s being recruited as a spy. Still, the money’s good and the tasks he’s assigned aren’t difficult; he travels through a farcaster, takes a photo or drops off a package or does something equally easy. But the timing starts to look off. A photograph he took just a few weeks before is said on the news to have been responsible for a guilty plea by a man who has just finished serving a ten-year sentence for passing classified information to a foreign agent, for instance. It seems Nate is traveling in time as well as space. Paradoxes start manifest as soon at Nate realizes what is happening to him, and things start to unravel — but not so much for Nate as for his recruiter, from whose perspective we also see what’s going on. It’s a stronger story than the first two, with more muted horror; this is a thriller with some SF thrown in, a nice mash-up of genres.
In “We Employ” by Anne C. Petty, Dallas has resorted to extreme measures to get some cash when he comes across the now infamous Limbus business card. He needs to get cleaned up after living on the street before he can go in for an interview, but he’s determined to do that, so much so that he’ll risk visiting his mother. But as he prepares, the card’s slogan changes, and changes again (a trick noted in other stories in this volume, but not so prominently). When he finally gets to the Limbus offices, he finds, as others have, that the agency has a job especially tailored for him: he’s to be a temporary dog walker. The pay is exorbitant for such an easy job. But, of course, there’s a catch; there always is with a Limbus job. It’s an exceptionally talky story, comprised of long conversations punctuated with short periods of intense action. And the ending, coming after we’ve spent some quality time with Dallas and gotten to know him, is a serious letdown.
The final and strongest story is “Strip Search” by Jonathan Maberry. It begins when Hunter, the narrator, finds a Limbus business card on the floor of the office of his private investigation business. As seems to be the case in most noir detective stories, the narrator doesn’t have any work, money is a rare commodity, but there’s always time and money enough to buy liquor — in his case, Yuengling beer. This detective, though, has a special ability: a form of blood magic, an ability to track anyone or anything from the smell of its blood. (Maberry plays with us a bit by telling us that the ability runs in the family, and that his grandmother Minny is the best at it; a reference, I think, to Mina Harker, who plays a large role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) The Limbus recruiter who visits his office is the dame from every private dick story ever written:
She had the kind of face that you read about. The kind of face that if it looked down at you from a movie screen you’d absolutely believe you were on your knees in the Temple of Athena. The kind of face Hollywood women pay a lot of money for and never quite get. You’re either born with that face or you spend your life in therapy because it’s just not going to happen.
It goes on from there, and it’s lovely writing. You can practically hear Humphrey Bogart saying the words as you read them.
Limbus asks Hunter to investigate a series of grotesque murders — sixteen young women, all dead in the most gruesome way, runaways who have worked as prostitutes. It’s a mystery why these murders haven’t been in the papers and all over social media, but even the Limbus operative doesn’t know why. In fact, reporters who have attempted to investigate the story have all died. And the FBI agents have met similar fates. Limbus believes it has pinpointed the woman meant to be the next victim, and it wants Hunter to save her.
The story takes all the twists and turns you would expect of this genre, including the visit to the strip club, Hunter’s philosophizing about the purpose and meaning of strip clubs, hired muscle, reluctant witnesses. And then it changes, hard and fast, and we’re reading a different story altogether. I’m not going to give it away. Maberry’s writing is as action-packed as ever, with the overlay of the jaded noir detective, a tone that he gets exactly right. Maberry’s novella is worth the price of the book.
Limbus, Inc., may be uneven, and the bookstore frame may not be used as well as it could be. But horror readers will find plenty to like here. And who knows? Perhaps there will be another volume. There are a lot more employment opportunities one could write about, after all.