Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan is a novella that mixes together Lovecraft’s mythos with men in black suits and Area 51 (the Dreamland of the title). In one sense the novella feels like a throwback to the 90s when the X-Files was popular and every second slice of pop culture had something to do with the Illuminati, the masons, deep state conspiracies or the dreaded, unknowable greys. But Agents of Dreamland is not a journey into nostalgia or a satire on some well-worn tropes. It might be influenced or inspired by those ideas but it’s very much it’s own thing.
The novella opens by introducing us to the Signalman, your typical Government special agent, a seasoned campaigner who has seen it all, has a liver fermenting in alcohol and is close to either blowing his brains out or disappearing into the desert. He’s anxiously waiting in an Arizona diner for his contact. If we pause things at this point inspite the superior prose there’s a familiarity to both the character and the setting. And then in enters Immacolata Sexton, the woman the Signalman has been waiting for, and almost immediately the tension amps up and the familiarity of the scene takes on an unexpected and darker shade.
I’m going to leave things there partly because who reads plot summaries anyway – you’re interested in my thoughts on the novella, not my witty recap – but mostly because one of the great enjoyments of this very smart, sometimes gory story is piecing together what exactly is going on. Kiernan doesn’t make it easy, there’s a deliberate avoidance of exposition, but all the pieces are present. Let’s just say that the outlook for the human species aint great. Also you might never eat a mushroom again.
With a prose style that seamlessly moves from weary noir, to hallucinatory lyricism, to visceral horror this is high quality, literary story-telling that doesn’t spoon-feed, that’s anything but escapist. I’m always impressed at how Kiernan, with an economy of words, blows your mind and punches you in the gut and leaves you wanting more. Another fantastic novella from tor.com.