Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Review of Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan

Almost overwhelmingly, novellas offer middle-of-the-road genre consumables for the mass market. But there are exceptions—some sweet, tasty little nuggets to encounter in their catalog. Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017), despite its far-reaching milieu of magic-realism, Lovecraftian horror, satanic cults, and outright fantastika is one such nugget. It remains genre, but is genre taken about as far as it can be taken in terms of sophistication and depth.

Like a film chopped up and edited on the cutting room floor, so too does Agents of Dreamland present its story. Told through the eyes of three characters in a variety of places and times, the steady unravel of scenes slowly reveals a man, called the Signalman, trying to put 2 and X together in the hope of understanding strange events occurring in the American southwest. A second, mysterious agent named Immacolota Sexton also enters the scene, providing useful information, but appears to know more than she should about one particular gruesome killing they discover in Arizona. It’s the third character, a cult member named Chloe, whose viewpoint enters the novella to offer cohesion—of a sorts. From cosmic communications to tarot cards, fungus ants to black-and-white film from the early 20th century, the novella covers a lot of ground getting to the bottom of the mystery the Signalman and Immacolota are trying to solve.

In short, Agents of Dreamland is a tapestry of times, places, and people which slowly coalesces into a coherent dark fantasy. Missing perhaps only the kitchen sink, Kiernan somehow manages to combine genre past, present, and future without giving the reader the impression ‘everything is possible therefore nothing is interesting’—a real feat, that.

And style, oh style, it’s just implacable and impeccable. Kiernan is a born writer. Word by word, line by line she puts most other writers to shame. Constantly able to express two things at once, the reader experiences the narrative from a couple perspectives: the words on the page, and the meaning between them. Where a lot of cheesy genre falls flat with excess adjectives and simplistic diction (and in Lovecraft’s case, putridly purple prose), Kiernan gives the reader the chance to see that genre can be rendered with sophistication. Doesn’t change the underlying plot, but at least offers a dimension for readers wanting more.

In the end, Agents of Dreamland is a dark fantasy novella exists at two levels. The superficial level is, ironically, the meatiest, tastiest of the two. Kiernan’s quality diction and plot editing grab the reader, begging them to continue reading a story of strange this here, Weird that there, and something delicately horrific slowly spreading a shadow above it all. At the deeper level, however, the reader will not find much save Lovecraftian uber evil. As the minority of vocal commenters have informed me, there is a world of scholarship into cosmic horror that I would do well to become more aware of. While I too understand anxiety is a part of the human condition, I personally do not find any interest or value in metaphorical manifestations of this anxiety. Yeah, the universe is a big mystery, but so too are society, even the human heart. I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying fans of Lovecraft may enjoy Kiernan’s story. I think all can universally say her style and voice are better…

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