Tor, 2017 cover photo Getty Images, Design Christine Foltzer
“The Signalman lights another cigarette. At fifty-five, he remembers when it wasn’t necessary to disable the smoke alarms of hotels rooms. Too often, it occurs to him that he’s lived just long enough to have completely outlived the world that made sense to him, the world where he fit.” (38)
Agents of Dreamland a new novel by Caitlin R. Kiernan was released at the end of February 2017, a few days after receiving my preorder I sat down to read it. A few hours later after completing all 123 pages I got up. No breaks, asides, snacks etc. I may read a short story in one sitting but never a novel not even a short one. So yes, I think it is good, yes I think it is riveting, yes I think your should buy it (no borrowing), and read it. Not convinced, the long version.
It is July 9, 2015, the Signalman, whose nickname comes from the antique silver watch he carries is waiting in Winslow Arizona for a meeting with Immacolata Sexton. The Signalman is an agent for a secretive agency based in Albany, New York, Sexton an agent for a European group referred to as Barbican Estate (think Brutalist architecture). They are meeting to share information on a cult leader named Drew Standish. He has been on both groups radar for some time but now disturbing things have been found at the Moonlight Ranch, the current quarters of his cult located on the shores of the Salton Sea. Sexton’s group wants access to the site and Albany wants everything they have on Standish. There are a number of reasons for urgency in investigating this case not the least of which is as the Signalman reminds Sexton
“New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto five days from now. So you’II excuse my sense of urgency,” (19)
The story is told from the point of view of the Signalman, Sexton and a cult member called Chloe Stringfellow. Immacolata Sexton is the most interesting of the three, as her memory extends not just into the past, how long is unclear but she is adult at the time of the Vermont Floods of 1927, but into the future as well, so her character witnesses most of the events of the story. Kiernan has used this long lived incredibility competent and very dangerous female agent before, the Eygptian - Ancient of Days, El Judio Errante, Kundry, Ptolema (lots of names if you live a long time I guess) is central to Kieran's 2012 novella “Black Helicopters” but Sexton is even more developed. The Signalman, the hard drinking totally disillusioned investigator, is of course a fairly common character see my post on the district attorney Edward D. Satterlee in Chabon’s "The God of Dark Laughter” or for Kiernan’s previous use of this type of character there is the scrubber Dietrich Paine found in her brilliant 2004 short story “Riding the White Bull”.
That Agents of Dreamland is Lovecraftian is obvious. I wonder if it could not be considered a type of prequel to her “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven”, 2015 in Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, editor S.T. Josh. Not only is the New Horizons probe central to the events of that story but the Los Angeles Sexton will encounter in the future bears striking similarities to the USA depicted in “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven”.
However you need not read one to enjoy the other. In “Agents of Dreamland” Keirnan has a number of references that certainly led me to think of Lovecraft’s own work. Among the other items the Signalman provides Sexton with is an antique gold coin, part of Wizard Whateley’s horde from “The Dunwich Horror” perhaps. Early references to Vermont and Eli Davenport conjure up “the Whisperer in the Darkness” even before it becomes more overt. But Keirnan also goes further afield with references to Charles Mason, Area 51, the Enochian language of John Dee, Boaz and Jachin the metal pillars in the Bible, there are Beatles LPs playing and Standish refers to the cultists with names taken from the Heaven’s Gate cult. There are brief references to two of my favourite individuals Alfred Russell Wallace and Ray Harryhausen, but my favourite reference of all is to zombie ants. If you have not read about them previously read the book then look them up, I remember reading about them some years ago and it blew my mind. Keirnan has a science background and published articles in vertebrate paleontology before turning to fiction and I really enjoy the fact that she brings this scientific literacy to her stories. These references are not tossed in at random, they make sense in the context of the story, providing a depth and richness that would be lacking without them. I am sure I missed some, but I have read this novel twice and will read it again.
After watching the movie The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) as a child I also love any reference to the Salton Sea, sorry I am more like the Signalman than I like to admit.
Keirnan is interviewed in the great documentary “Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown”
and she talks of Lovecraft’s use of the motif of “Deep Time”, basically the vast age of the earth as a theme or pivot point for stories like “At the Mountains of Madness”, and one of my favourites “The Shadow Out of Time”. As a paleontologist Kieran would obviously be interested in this concept and she has investigated it in a number of works, indeed my TBR pile contains a copy of Kiernan’s Threshold: A Novel of Deep Time, It was while thinking about Kiernan's use of this motif that I realized that much of SF or cosmic horror is linked to this concept for what is space if not a manifestation of "Deep Time" when even the light reaching us from the nearest stars reflects a period immeasurably distant from our own.
Kiernan has written a number of pastiches, tributes, riffs on, Lovecraft, but what I enjoy is that they do not need to start with a forbidden book or the inheritance of dubious goods or real estate. She realizes that a cosmic threat can be a virus, a signal or even just the focus of the attention of something that was better left undisturbed.