A governmental agent known only as the Signalman pulls into dusty Winslow, Arizona for an information exchange, brokering secrets with a mysterious woman. She knows more about what happened back on that Salton Sea ranch than he ever will—knows secrets of the past and future which he will never learn—but he needs answers, and fast. Because the doomsday cult that lived in that ranch unearthed the perfect form of suicide, one that may destroy the human race if the cult’s charismatic leader is not checked and stopped, somehow. And a deep-space probe nearing Pluto shorts out momentarily; unknown to its pilots, the probe has made first contact between humanity and an alien race—a race of beings which shift their fungoid carapaces, crack their chitinous claws, and stretch their membranous wings into space…
Caitlín R. Kiernan has always impressed me as one of the best authors writing horror and weird fiction today, and this tight-knit novella displays the full range of her skills. She uses a non-chronological structure to weave a complex story, hopping across time and between characters. These snapshots are brisk, like inspecting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for their fine details, put together so that you have everything required to form a chilling prediction of the threat the cult poses—and not an inch more. The novella revels in its mysteries, and exists to ask questions rather than answer them—something that may frustrate readers who aren’t comfortable not knowing a story’s every answer and reason. The novella’s ending does indeed conclude its story, but does not offer a sense of finality, because the future foretold is yet unwritten, and regardless its answers are unknowable to mere human minds.
Unless you’re a die-hard fan, you may not have picked up that the story uses the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft, making it something like Cthulhu gone spy-fi (reminding me a little of Lumley’s Necroscope series). In fact, you could probably read this without having read Lovecraft before and end up none the wiser—I enjoyed that compared to reading works which almost rub the readers’ noses into every Mythos element that’s used. I appreciated that subtlety, as I think it helps Agents of Dreamland stand on its own as its own story, a tale of a jaded agent struggling to figure out what kind of fungoid parasite the cult has loosed upon the world. While it uses Mythos elements, its sense of nihilistic dread and theme of human smallness in an uncaring cosmos, this story is much more modern and slicker than anything Lovecraft could have written.
Agents of Dreamland is a perfect blend of madness, cults, and foreboding doom from the stars. It’s a gripping read that, as a novella, I managed to read in an afternoon, though its disturbing imagery and haunting themes stuck with me for days to come. It’s not an easy read, requiring the reader to piece together the plot and comprehend its nuances. But once you’ve done that, there’s a worthy feeling of accomplishment, along with plenty of enjoyment from the novella’s gorgeous prose and attention to detail. I enjoyed it for sure, and give it a thumbs-up to like-minded readers who love a good feeling of impending doom.
Title: Agents of Dreamland
Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan
First Published: 28 February 2017
What I Read: Tor.com ebook, 2017
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and Tor)
MSRP: $11.99 pb / $2.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 0765394324 / B01JZ6SIVC