I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Published by Tor.com on February 28 2017
Genres: Horror, Science fiction
The nitty-gritty: Weird and wonderfully terrifying, and written in stunningly beautiful prose, this short alien invasion story—based on scientific fact—will scare the hell out of you with its creeping terror.
We have to carry her up to and down from the roof now, the girl from Seattle. In the gray light from the television, her skin shimmers with colors I don’t know the names for. She was afraid, a few days ago, but now I don’t think she is.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to crank out Agents of Dreamland over the weekend. I just knew I was glad to have something short to read in order to get a book review up today. But wow, I was not expecting this story to work its way under my skin. This is the first Caitlín R. Kiernan story I’ve read, and I’m actually saddened to admit that, because she’s an amazing writer who has been publishing since the early 2000s. Agents of Dreamland is short but powerful, and don’t be surprised if you have nightmares after reading it!
Kiernan doesn’t give us a straightforward, linear story. Instead, her tale weaves from past to present, and even into the future. An operative for a secret government agency known as Dreamland is investigating cult leader Drew Standish and the events that took place at his remote ranch located near the Salton Sea. The Signalman, as this agent is known, arrives at the Moonlight Ranch to track down Drew, but instead, he and his partner Vance find a horrific crime scene: the ranch house is full of dead bodies that have literally erupted and are sprouting toadstools. The ranch is immediately shut off from the outside world, and the Signalman and Vance are quarantined, but even then they aren’t sure if they’ve stopped the threat, whatever it is.
In alternating chapters that take place ten days before the discovery of the bodies, teenager Chloe awaits her transformation. She’s an ex-junkie who’s been brought to Moonlight Ranch by Drew, and she and the other cult members have been told that they are the “Children of the Next Level.”
Finally, the Signalman is called back to Dreamland headquarters where a dying Chloe is being studied. What exactly happened to her and the others? How is the event connected to other secret alien sightings and the infamous Area 51? And where is the missing Drew Standish?
Observing the entire thing is a woman (or is she?) named Immacolata Sexton, who meets with the Signalman to give him a briefcase that may or may not hold the answers to this mystery. Immacolata can travel through time and space, and what she observes is frightening to say the least.
Agents of Dreamland reminded me a little of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and at times I had flashbacks of both Alien and Torchwood, so if you’re familiar with those stories, you’ll have an idea of what you’re in for. Kiernan’s story takes some patience, as she doesn’t reveal what’s happening until nearly the end, and even then, the reader is going to have to piece things together. I love stories that make you work a little to understand them, and Kiernan obviously has the skills to make this style of storytelling work.
For such a short novella, Kiernan’s scope is surprisingly vast, and I have to say she did an amazing job of making everything work within just over a hundred pages. One of the more interesting things about this story is the character of Immacolata, an enigmatic woman who can see the entire history of alien invasion conspiracy theory in America. Through her eyes we witness the satellite New Horizons veer too close to Pluto, and several occurrences throughout history of sightings of “a cloud from deep space that swallowed the world.” Kiernan connects each seemingly disparate event to create a bleak future made up of many small events of the past, and like many successful alien invasion stories, hers is relentlessly terrifying.
As for what’s happened to Chloe and her other cult pals, Kiernan has based her alien invasion scenario on a real-life fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or the “zombie fungus.” I’ve actually read about this before, so when it popped up in the story, I felt my stomach clench. I won’t go into details but let’s just say I was happier before I found out that things like this are real. (I’ll let those of you curious and brave enough Google it!)
I’m happy to report that this novella is exactly the length it should be. I sometimes complain that novella-length works are often lacking in character development or detail, but Kiernan has clearly mastered the novella form. If you’re in the mood for an unsettling vision of what could be, then look no further. You’ve found it.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.