This is quite a different story from Stross’s “Palimpsest,” and he deserves credit for his versatility. “Overtime” focuses on a poor schlub who has to cover at work over the Christmas holiday. The twist is that he works at a secret supernatural watchdog agency run by the British government. So, it’s basically “The Office” meets Torchwood.
There’s a fair amount of magical hijinks and supernatural horror here, but Stross plays it all pretty light. It’s a Lovecratian Christmas Comedy Special. The story is at its best when it captures the full absurdity of that juxtaposition. Rather than a jolly old man, Santa Clause is “the hideous threat of the Filler of Stockings, who oozes through chimneys and ventilation ducts every Dead God’s Birthday-eve to perform unspeakable acts against items of hosiery.” The wry takes on Christmas rituals, government bureaucracy, and office politics that take up the first half of the story are very fun. And, I enjoyed Stross’s depiction of magic (much easier in the Information Age, appartently). When the story bothers to try to have a plot in the second half, I did check out a bit. It’s not that it’s bad, but as well as horror and comedy can mesh, suspense and comedy don’t work as well for me. I just didn’t feel involved. And Stross does wander back into his world of paradoxes and causality loops. The last line was worth a chuckle though, and the whole was an enjoyable read (actually, listen, as Tor.com has it available as a podcast – again, I wholeheartedly endorse the audio short-fiction format).