REVIEW: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Kiernan is a horror writer who denies that they write horror.

They don’t just deny that they write horror… they angrily deny it and then decide to accept horror-themed literary awards and allow their work to be published in magazines and anthologies with impeccable horror credentials. I mean… between you and me… if your work is getting re-printed in Lovecraft-themed anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi then I don’t think you get to be sniffy about whether or not you write horror. You might not only write horror but you’re writing horror.

Unlike Margaret Atwood, who famously denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was science-fiction on the grounds that it didn’t contain any space squid, Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label seems rooted less in economic self-interest and literary snobbery than in the nature of their relationship to the tropes that horror writers tend to deploy.

Caitlín R. Kiernan is an author that found their voice remarkably quickly. Go back and read their first novel Silk and you will find a story about the boundaries of madness, identity, sexuality, fantasy, and self-delusion that deploys horror tropes to represent the emotional landscape of fragmenting, marginalised selves. A similar set of themes and motifs recur in Kiernan’s most celebrated novels The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl but while Silk can feel diffuse and gestural, The Drowning Girl feels not just raw but downright uncomfortable.

I believe that Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label lies in the assumption that horror tends to be about monsters in a rather abstract and untethered way. Kiernan’s books are full of monsters, but the monsters are neither abstract nor untethered as Kiernan uses them as a kind of vocabulary for articulating their innermost thoughts and ideas. The real difference between The Drowning Girl and a lot of Kiernan’s earlier work was the clarity, legibility, and rawness of that self-articulation.

After The Drowning Girl, Kiernan seemed to drop back from the psychological coal-face. The raw brilliance of their past two novels was replaced by a series of extraordinarily ill-tempered YA urban fantasy novels in which the protagonist was continually bemoaning their presence in the story, as though the author felt obliged to produce the work but would rather have been working on something else.

First published in 2017 as the first in a series of three novellas, Agents of Dreamland marked Kiernan’s welcome return to longer-form adult writing but rather than a continuation of the work done in The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl, Agents of Dreamland feels like a step sideways and an attempt to reconcile the experimental and personal impulses that inspired Kiernan’s greatest work with the somewhat less raw and more conventional impulses that inspired the creation of early successes like Threshold.

In RPG terms, Agents of Dreamland is basically a work of literary fiction set in the world of Delta Green. The novella revolves around two characters: A grizzled and cynical Man-in-Black type known only as the Signalman and a somewhat ethereal trans-Atlantic presence known as Immacolatta Sexton. The two characters meet in a dried-up town in Arizona to discuss a confluence of events: A deep-space probe has fallen silent and a cult leader is preparing his followers for some sort of spiritual event.

The novella passes the narrative responsibilities back-and-forth between these two characters in a way that sets up quite an interesting tension: The Signalman is working in the present but he feels oddly out of place, like a character from a noir movie. Conversely, Sexton feels more rooted in modernity but the sections devoted to her actions are set in a variety of different timeframes. Initially, this makes the novella quite difficult to parse as it’s not immediately clear what the deal is with Sexton and her travels through time: Is she immortal and the events of the novella are being told out of order, or is she literally travelling back-and forth through time like Captain Picard in the final episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Kiernan never provides any clear answers but I suspect the idea is that Sexton is physically detached from the present in the way that the Signalman is detached culturally, meaning that she is able to move between different non-sequential timeframes and so investigate a chain of cause-and-effect that stretches back hundreds of years and extends out into a number of possible futures.

The plot of Agents of Dreamland is fine… this is a short novella and the fairly minimalist plot amounts to little more than an alien invasion story featuring intelligent fungi that seep into your pores and take control of your thought processes like the Zombie-ant fungus. While undoubtedly Lovecraftian, this idea stems from the pulpier end of Lovecraftiana and so feels a bit like a 1950s monster movie and that works really nicely with the noir vibes that radiate off the Signalman. This being said, plot is not really what Agents of Dreamland is all about.

As the Signalman is pulling together clues and trying to work out what’s going on, he happens upon a woman who was groomed to become the figurehead for the spiritual event that the cultists had all been working towards. The Signalman rapidly concludes that the cult is some sort of front for the Lovecraftian beasties that are masterminding the plan to take-over the Earth and he tries to get as much information out of the figure-head as possible and it’s here that we see Kiernan returning to the rawness of their earlier novels as the character of the cultist feels like someone had taken the protagonist of The Drowning Girl and boiled her in a pot until all that was left was a sticky brown residue: A purified sludge of madness, conspiracy theory, self-delusion and references to Lovecraft stories where there should be a fully-functioning human being.  This section of the novella is so densely-written that reading it is like wading through mud that is waist-deep and sticky: Every thought is an allusion to a suite of more complex ideas. Every sentence plays out on multiple levels and is subject to multiple interpretations. It’s almost unreadable but it’s also beautiful, dizzying, and profoundly uncomfortable like the very best of Kiernan’s writing.

Agents of Dreamland was really well received when it was first released and that has always struck me as rather weird given that contemporary SFF tends to frown on anything that smacks of either formal experimentation or darker thematic heft. Agents of Dreamland is not only a dark and difficult piece of writing; it also feels like an experiment that didn’t quite work out.

The problem here not just that Agents of Dreamland has both a core and a periphery; it’s that the relative importance of the core and the periphery have been reversed. The thematic core and substance of this novella is the interview with the cultist; it is not only the most carefully and brilliantly written section, it is also the section whose themes most closely relate to the rest of Kiernan’s work: The cultist is a woman who is using the iconography of genre horror to articulate the slippery boundaries between self, madness, and wilful self-delusion. This is not the first time that Kiernan has used this core-and-periphery structure as The Red Tree saw Kiernan take the thematic core of their novel and bury it in a section that is structurally parenthetical to the plot, like a short story that was accidentally cut-and-pasted into a longer document. The difference between The Red Tree and Agents of Dreamland is that while the foreground plot and characters of The Red Tree all pointed to the thematic importance of the short-story, the foreground plot and characters in Agents of Dreamland feel like a bit of an under-developed distraction: There’s a plot, but it’s a bit thin. There are characters, but it’s a bit thin. There are science-fictional ideas about mind-control and fungi, but it’s all rather under-developed as though Kiernan decided to include some of her notes. Had this piece been expanded and written about at novel length then I suspect that Kiernan would have had the space to develop the characters as well as the plot, and feed both of them back into the central themes but at novella length that process feels rushed and a bit under-developed.

Like an impossibly ancient yet existentially vibrant fungus forced to inhabit the drably limited flesh of a human, Agents of Dreamland feels like an amazing experimental short story embedded in the write-up of a somewhat underwhelming Delta Green adventure. It’s okay and there are flashes of brilliance to be found, but the book feels like a hundred pages of armour weighing down someone whose natural impulse is to cartwheel their way through a battle.

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