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Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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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.
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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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Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
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Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide is one of Tor.com’s line of revisionist Lovecraftiana, alongside Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone and Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom: grappling the worst of Lovecraft’s legacy, his racism and hatred, as well as the best, his existential terror and horrifying vision of the world and of human history.

Winter Tide is a meditation on monstrousness, monstrosity, what makes one monstrous, and what others see as monstrous; it is also a story about found family and making one’s own family. The former theme is as much about the cultural relativism of monstrosity, and the things we justify because we psychologicall must, as it is about actual monsters; after all, as Emrys’ protagonist Aphra Marsh is at pains to point out, the Deep Ones (of which she is one, granddaughter of Obed Marsh) are as much humans as any homo sapiens. This also plays into the queer characters somewhat – what American society saw as monstrous in the 1940s, other cultures, including the Deep Ones, did not.

Emrys also ties in this theme of Winter Tide with racism; fear of the Other is hardly limited to non-homo sapiens, after all. The Deep Ones living in Innsmouth were, in this timeline, incarcerated in an internment camp in 1928, after accusations by Daniel Upton; almost all, except Aphra and her brother Caleb, perished by 1942… when the American government incarcerated Japanese-Americans in the camps, reusing the Innsmouth camp as one of its locations. Another character in the novel is FBI Agent Ron Spector, a Jewish man who has to deal with the antisemitism of his supervisors, especially in the wake of the foundation of Israel; another is a black woman, Dorothy Dawson, who has to suffer the prejudice of the white characters. Winter Tide centres on these characters Lovecraft was terrified of, and has them doing the work to keep humanity from abusing magic and the spaces beyond the world; Emrys very consciously pulls together a group whom Lovecraft could scarcely have despised more on sight, and then makes them shine.

Winter Tide is also about found families, of course. Aphra finds her first family in the camp, with the Japanese-American Kotos, whom she lives with in San Francisco after they’re released in December 1945; but over the course of the novel she builds another family, including the Kotos, people who are interested in magic and discovery, or in her friendship. Found families aren’t so uncommon in speculative fiction as they once were but Emrys’ novel-length meditation on developing one and the random chance encounters that lead to deep bonds of affection, and the way relationships can change as people learn each other better, is one of the more beautiful I’ve seen.

I’ve not actually mentioned the plot, and that’s because Emrys is at her weakest when it comes to the plot. Winter Tide is a novel of characters and relationships; the plot takes a very second strand to that, with many events just seeming to happen without any logical precipitating factor beyond the need for something to advance the story. The first three quaters of the book are a little slow and unfocused, as a result; and the last third feels like a separate novella stuck on the end, except for how it utilises relationships (not events qua events) from the earlier part of the book. The sudden change in focus isn’t smooth, but does work to really pull the reader to the end of the novel.

Winter Tide, then, is a beautiful, langorous book about interpersonal dynamics and relationships, about what it is to be human and what makes one a monster, and an elegant riposte to Lovecraft’s many vile bigotries. What Emrys has not written is a thrilling tale to pull you through it; that may put some readers off, but I’d urge them to keep going for the human core of the novel. It’s worth it.

DISCLOSURE: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com.

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We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison was the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time popping pills and not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by unreadable messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. Martin never takes of his sunglasses. Never.

No one believes the extent of their horrific tales, not until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these seemingly insane outcasts form a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within – and which are lurking in plain sight.
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The best horror is the creeping kind that builds, slowly; the kind where the characters can’t see what’s coming and the audience can just about see it, ever so slightly out of focus. Daryl Gregory, in We Are All Completely Fine, has written horror which works in exactly that mode…

This isn’t a long book, but for most of its pagecount, Gregory is simply wracking up the tension, slowly, and focusing the camera ever more for the readers. That isn’t to say We Are All Completely Fine is a dull book; the dual tracks of revelation, the misdirection of our attention with the focus of the novel, and indeed the ways in which Gregory ratchets up the tension are all powerfully used. The revelations of the different traumas of the different characters, and the links between those traumas, come out slowly over the two thirds of the book, while the second (overlapping) two thirds set up and carry out the main plot, reliant on those links and traumas. This is a novel of the interstices, the blank spots, the unexplained; Gregory isn’t trying to turn something small into horror but the whole world, and We Are All Completely Fine delivers a number of moments of shivering, where the reader looks over their shoulder, sees nothing… and isn’t reassured.

The characters are brilliantly archetypical. We Are All Completely Fine has the expected characters of a horror film, including the blonde, the hero, the manipulator, and the cranky paranoid one; but subverts every single one of these characters, reworks them in subtle and less-subtle ways, reveals characters as the story goes on, and generally achieves more development in less than 200 pages than some fantasy epics manage across all their volumes. It is perhaps unsurprising that a novel focused on a therapy group, with a strong sense of interiority around its characters and an interest in their personalities and interactions, is good at character; but Gregory really shows a singularly strong hand in writing distinct personalities that still somehow mesh fantastically.

In part this is achieved by the combination of narratorial voices; each chapter is introduced by a first-person plural narration that never gives away who, if any specific individual, is narrating, then moving in the third-person from character to character though largely focusing on one. Gregory combines this with a sort of jigsaw of the plot, in which each character has a part of the puzzle but can’t bring them together properly, to make the novel feel at once huge and really close.

We Are All Completely Fine isn’t your typical psychological horror novel, nor your typical Lovecraftian one; instead, Gregory looks at what happens next, and does so brilliantly. A really great piece of terrifying, revealing work.

Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Black Helicopters is Caitlín R. Kiernan’s first SF novella since 2004’s The Dry Salvages. Certainly one of her most ambitious tales to date, a narrative spanning one hundred and eighty-six years exposes a labyrinthine underworld of global conspiracy, secret societies, synchronicity, chaos theory, and interdimensional apocalypse. As a horrific plague unfolds on the shores of New England, two shadowy agencies are pitted against one another in a race to understand the consequences of a psychiatrist’s bizarre experiment involving a pair of albino twins. In this “game of chess,” even the most minute act sends infinite ripples through eternity, the struggle shaping the history of the future.
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Kiernan is best known for novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl – very queer, very strange psychological novels that focus on queer characters and encounters with the supernatural at the edges of sanity. The companion volume to The Ape’s Wife, Black Helicopters certainly deals with the edges of sanity, but it’s less markedly queer than those brilliant works.

This is a complex, slightly confusing novella; Kiernan jumps around in her timeline, revealing things and how they interconnect only slowly, allowing the logic of the story to unfold at its own pace and bending the mind of the reader while she does. Black Helicopters uses a chess motif an awful lot, and each chapter can be seen as another move in the game, drawing it towards a conclusion but at the same time in dialogue with the rest; that the focus alternates between the two different sides of the game heightens this impression.

The characters are surprisingly clearly drawn; Black Helicopters has a small but excellent cast of characters from Ptolema to Sixty Six, all very different, all somehow outside the cognitive mainstream, and some very far outside it. There’s a certain autobiographical element here, as Kiernan notes in the Acknowledgements; one of our viewpoint characters is a paleontologist, as Kiernan is by training. These are surprisingly extensively drawn characters for the short space Kiernan has available to tell us about them.

Black Helicopters may be confusing and strange, may verge on conspiracy theorism and Lovecraftiana, but is essentially a fun and strange novella with some brilliant ideas well worth your time.

A Man Not of Canaan by Alex Jeffers

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Alex Jeffers’ A Man Not of Canaan is an interesting story for me on a number of levels. It is a queer, kinky Lovecraftian story set in the Bronze Age Aegean, among the community of Thira at the time of the eruption; as such, it ought to be something I really enjoy. Instead, it has layers and layers of problems, rather than good execution; some are problems of research, some of presentation of alternative sexuality.

The story is the discovery by our nameless narrator that the man whom he has treated as his lover and who has introduced him to what we would call BDSM is also a Lovecraftian mage going by the name Nuh. Jeffers draws directly on the traditional Lovecraft mythos with the cry of the alien monsters Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and introduces an almost Ickeian race of humanoid crocodiles (worshipped by proto-Arabs, naturally) to build his horrific universe of uncaring beings; and he zooms out on the world to show us that the effects of human habitation are “scabs on the earth’s flesh… that would heal and slough off and leave no mark” (despite, even then, the clear effects of human habitation on the environment).

So, the problems – perhaps unsurprisingly – start with the degree to which Jeffers’ story hangs on a Gravesian model of the Aegean Bronze Age. Mother worship is likely true, and the trading cultures almost certain, but the lack of wars claimed in the story is unattested and based on an absence of evidence, not actual evidence of absence. Furthermore, the bull-dancing and the nature of social structures are drawn from equally early attempts to understand the Minoan civilisation, and feel more like the writing of treasure-hunters than of serious scholars. We’re even treated to our nameless narrator’s horror at the idea that the world is a gloe, despite attestations of that going back millenia, and despite it being a necessary part of the knowledge of a seafarer – indeed, Jeffers’ explanation of why the narrator finds it uncomfortable is exactly why seafarers knew the world was a globe: the horizon.

That’s without getting in to the ritual by which young men are kidnapped and married to older men as a rite of passage – notably, with no apparent choice in how those men are selected; A Man Not of Canaan completely refuses to problematise this and embraces it as a full-blown societal good, rather than rape; the narrator relates being
carried away at midnight from my mother’s house… made drunk on unwatered wine… made [to] swear awful oaths, and wed… to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then… my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.

That leads onto the problem with the portrayal of BDSM in the story. A central tenet of modern kink culture is Safe, Sane and Consensual – SSC. That means all parties must be in their right minds (so not drunk, drugged, etc), informed about what’s happening, must agree to the boundaries of what will happen in a scene, and it must be safe (the limits of safety are pretty flexible, though). Instead, A Man Not of Canaan presents a scene in which the narrator seems to this reader not in his right mind:
It was not clear in my mind… Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness
This is part of a passage in which the narrator doesn’t really understand what’s happening, is going beyond what he’s done before without any discussion, and doesn’t actually appear to consent; but again, none of this is problematised, even if it is also not heavily portrayed in an erotic light. Indeed, this scene is part of a magical ritual to allow Nuh to assume another form and travel; thus BDSM becomes not sex, but a dark magical rite. The subsequent part of the story, which describes our narrator’s lovers (including prostitutes) “horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me”, only cements this imperssion of BDSM as Other, dark and strange.

Having said that, A Man Not of Canaan does have its good points. The writing style is a smoother Lovecraft, with the personality and immediacy of his works but without the stilted prose; and the level of description, especially of the horrors encountered, is brilliant, as they’re conveyed in their horrific amorphousness and mutability. The descriptions throughout are beautiful and evocative of the far-off past, even where they strike even a half-serious scholar as outdated or outright inaccurate.

A Man Not of Canaan is one of those stories where the technical achievements are so at odds with the contents it is hard to assess; but in this case, the content is so poorly researched, and so offensive, that it wins out, and this story just ends up bad, sadly.

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