A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.
In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible — the Children of the Next Level — and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.
A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.
And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
Tor.com, with books like Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, have made something of a name for themselves as a home of good modern-day Lovecraftiana. Caitlín R. Kiernan, acknowledged master of horror writing, should be a great fit, then, and Agents of Dreamland is her turn to approach the formula.
Agents of Dreamland is something of an odd beast. It is perhaps the most true to Lovecraft of any modern-day Lovecraftiana: there’s a sense of horror at the strange, at the unknown; a sense of utterly inevitable, inescapable doom; a sense of total pointlessness in human attempts to stave off the end. At the same time, it’s much more of an espionage story than you might expect from Lovecraftiana; it’s very much in the mode of actual spy story, rather than just utilising government agents, with covert operations, covers, and interlocking international departments (think Charlie Stross’ Laundry series, but not pastiche). That gives it a strange sensibility that Kiernan executes really well, an odd atmospheric element that really does have impressive power to it.
Kiernan’s characters are part of that. There are three main characters in the novella; the Signalman, who is brilliantly hardworn, too-old-for-this not in the way of Top Gun but in the way of a man utterly worn down and beaten; there is Immacolata Sexton, a strange, unsettling presence in Agents of Dreamland, something other than human but working alongside and appearing to be human; and there is Chloe Stringfellow, naive devotee of a Lovecraftian cult with more than a hint of Manson to it. Each character is given a bit of a backstory, although not much, but they’re very distinct in their feel; the eternal age of Immacolata, the weariness of the Signalman, and the youthful enthusiasm and cultish devotion of Chloe are drawn very strongly, and suffuse their chapters powerfully.
The problem with the plot is one revealed about halfway through; Immacolata isn’t anchored in time, and goes to future events, that are inevitable. Agents of Dreamland doesn’t suffer from knowing that death, failure, and the coming of the Old Ones are inevitable; instead it suffers from demystifying that, making it far less strange and far more War of the Worlds than the rest of the book had it. Kiernan takes away from the creeping, creepy horror of the book to make it almost a straightforward alien invasion, that really doesn’t carry quite the punch it could do, because it’s so… understandable.
The other problem with this book is that it doesn’t really engage with the problems of Lovecraft. While the works mentioned in the opening paragraph challenge Lovecraft on one, or multiple, grounds of his bigotries, Agents of Dreamland just ignores them; arguably, indeed, by making a drug addict the only cultist we really meet, reinforces his absolute fear of the poor. Kiernan could have taken on Lovecraft’s prejudices by giving us characters of colour, or queer characters, or immigrant characters, or any number of other alternatives; instead, while not replicating the messages his stories sent, she doesn’t even think to challenge them either.
In the end, though, Agents of Dreamland does what it sets out to do: it is fanastically creepy and strange, and Kiernan has written a really unsettling novella.
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