Caitlín R. Kiernan delivers another atmospheric, disturbing horror story with her novella Agents of Dreamland, published by Tor in 2017. Kiernan shifts between the tropes of secret agent thriller, creepy death-cult horror and Lovecraftian terror from space, as agents from two competing intelligence agencies try to parse a mass-murder atrocity that took place at Moonlight Ranch, on the banks of California’s Salton Sea.
Kiernan gets style points for including the Salton Sea. It’s a perfect metaphor for the idea of poisoned dreams and it functions well in this short work as an isolated place where a charismatic cult leader prepares his followers to be, well, I guess “transformed” would be the word.
The Signalman is the weary agent of an unnamed US agency, and Immacolota Sexton is the enigmatic agent of an unnamed British intelligence agency. They meet, warily, in Winslow, Arizona to share information that’s connected to a gruesome scene of death in California. Sexton and the Signalman are rivals; she bested him years earlier in a similar assignment near (ahem) Providence, Rhode Island, which led to the Signalman being disgraced. It is clear that Sexton is not, in some respect, an ordinary human, but we spend very little time with her. The primary viewpoint character is the very-familiar Signalman, although a cult member named Chloe chimes in from time to time.
The story includes spores from a trans-Neptunian space cloud, the New Horizon exploratory spacecraft, the tarot card The World, lots of fungus and a weird black and white movie from the 1930s that provides some clues as to what’s going on. Drew Standish, the cult leader, prepares his group of acolytes to be transformed and begin a new age on earth, and he’s not going to stop with them.
In flashbacks we see the cult, and we see the Signalman’s memories of Moonlight Ranch in the aftermath of Standish’s Phase One. Highlight here to see a spoiler: The Signalman and his crew manage to slow down the worst of the disaster that is coming, but by the end of Agents of Dreamland we are sure it hasn’t been stopped. [end spoiler]
Along the way there are many moments of brilliance. Kiernan successfully creates a mood, or a series of moods. She expertly draws the dynamic of mutual jealousy between Chloe and Drew’s second-in-command, Madeline. The sense of foreboding, of a bottomless hole just one step away, is well delivered, as is the straight up weirdness of the 1930s movie, for instance, and some scenes from Sexton’s point of view.
The Signalman is a well-revealed character but he is not a new character. He is a type. Kiernan did well with that type, but I’ve seen him, or a character like him, many times before. He likes whiskey. He misses the good old days when you could smoke in your hotel room. He rebels against authority, but he is a battered knight fighting for justice, and so on. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch character could step right into Agents of Dreamland. Sexton is more interesting, probably a genuinely different character, but she exists only to create some more puzzles and provide the reader important information. Highlight here to see another spoiler: Apparently, Sexton can “remember” the future as well as the past, so she knows what will happen if she and the Signalman fail. We see several future scenes from her point of view. [end spoiler] Drew Standish is a conventional cult leader and his cutesy phrases do not make him new, compelling, or frightening. I wish a little more time had been spent on how he came to be what he is when the story starts.
My biggest disappointment is that the relationship between Sexton and the Signalman is not on the page. Kiernan’s work often forces the reader to look between the lines, at what isn’t said, to infer what is happening, but it isn’t between the lines either. I don’t mean that I couldn’t figure out what had happened; I mean that I never saw what it meant for the two of them. A revelation the Signalman makes on the final page seemed less like a clever evolution of the plot and more like something thrown onto left field by a random onlooker in the stands.
Overall, if you like creepy fungus-based horror with a world-weary, embittered but insightful main character (the Signalman) you will like Agents of Dreamland. If you haven’t heard of the Salton Sea, Kiernan does it justice. I wasn’t knocked out by this story, but Kiernan’s prose is always in a class by itself and Agents of Dreamland delivered on that score.