By Caitlín R. Kiernan
The first chapter of Agents of Dreamland kicks off like a slop-bucket filled with thriller clichés:
HERE'S THE SCENE: It's Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it's 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground....
And it goes on:
Across the street, outside a defunct and shuttered movie house, there are two guards standing watch like rejects from an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Her guards, even though the deal was they each come alone, no entourage, no backup, no fucking fan club, and he's honored his end of the bargain. But fuck it. There's no profit in making a fuss, not at this late date. He's here, she's here, and the only way out, kiddo, is straight on till morning....
"You ever been to the Salton Sea, Ms. Sexton? The lid's on fucking tight, okay? The CDC would get a hard-on, the lid's so goddamn tight. Neiman Marcus would be proud of our fucking window dressing."
Chapter 1 nearly defeated me with its glib sub-par dialogue and stream-of-consciousness schtick.
Chapter 2 is free of this smirking pot-boilery noxiousness, but the author introduces us to the novel's pivotal character and predicament with all the subtlety of a slap:
....I don't know what half of it means, and I don't pretend I do. I can understand without a perfect understanding. He's shown me that. I can pop the cap and inhale deeply and fill myself with the gifts of gods who never were gods. Back in Old Lost Angels, before my deliverance to this deeper Cali-dirt expanse of lizards and diamondback seraphim, wildcat bishops and roadrunners, I shot sweet Afghan heroin into my rotting arms, between my toes and fingers, but I'm free now. You think this isn't Paradise? You think this isn't Eden? Then you better think again, little Chloe. You better think again. Drew is a Titan. You know a Titan by the thunder in his belly and the fire on his chapped lips....
Only with Chapter 3 does Kiernan calm her narrative yips and begin to beguile.
Her operative, the Signalman, recalls Adam Hall's Quiller: competent, capable, and without any illusions into the institution he serves. The current assignment has suitably cosmic implications:
....If he concentrates on shaving, maybe he can stave off the memory of what they found at the end of that hallway and, a little later, huddled on the roof. The sight of those bodies, and the smell.
It's actually a number of species of fungus existing together in a symbiotic mass, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, often referred to by a more colorful and more pronounceable moniker, zombie fungus. It attacks a particular family of tropical ants, known as camponitids, or carpenter ants, entering the hosts' bodies during the yeast stage of its complex reproductive cycle. The fungus spreads through an ant's body, maturing inside its head—and this is where things really get interesting. It eventually takes control of the infected insect, forcing it to latch on to the underside of a leaf and bite down in what we call the grip of death. Then atrophy sets in, quickly, completely destroying the sarcomere connections in the ant's muscle fibers and reducing its sarcoplasmic reticula and mitochondria. At this point, the ant is no longer able to control the muscles of the mandible and will remain fixed in place. The fungus finally kills the ant and continues to grow as hyphae penetrate the soft tissues and begin to structurally fortify the ant's exoskeleton. Mycelia sprout and securely anchor it to the leaf, at the same time secreting antimicrobial compounds that ward off competition from other Ophiocordyceps colonies.
....And get this, okay? These doomed ants, these poor dying bastards, they always climb to a height of precisely twenty-five point twenty plus or minus two point forty-six centimeters above the jungle floor, in environments where the humidity will remain stable between ninety-four and ninety-five percent, with temperatures between twenty and thirty Celsius. And always on the north side of the plant. In the end, sporocarps, the fungal fruiting bodies, erupt from the ant's necking, growing a stalk that releases spores that'll infect more ants. It's evolution at its best and, yeah, at its most grisly, too. Mother Nature, when you get right down to it, she's a proper cunt.
But these weren't ants. These were human beings.
Well, sure, and this isn't Ophiocordyceps, either. We're not even sure if it's an actual fungus. No one's ever seen anything like it. Jesus, if I didn't know better, I'd say it came from outer space....
One of the most pleasant conceits Kiernan gives us in Agents of Dreamland is the lost/cursed film about a certain 1927 on a Vermont farm.
....English director James Whale's little-known and once-believed-lost The Star Maiden (1934).
As with his classic Frankenstein, Whale chose the palette of Gothic horror for this science-fiction/fantasy tale set on an undiscovered trans-Neptunian tenth planet located beyond newly discovered Pluto, "near the farthest edges of the solar system." The special effects come courtesy Willis O'Brien, fresh off King Kong and Son of Kong, with an unnerving, distinctly modernist score provided by Max Steiner (another Kong vet), and a screenplay by none other than Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Star Maiden marks the only time that Burroughs would write for the screen.
...."Only our minds," says the alchemist, "need leave this sphere and make the long, cold journey through the dark. These bodies we wear are no more, my love, than tattered garments we've outgrown. In the new world we'll have new forms, new bodies."
....While the fact of her death is well documented, there are rumors that she'd become paranoid and left behind a diary with a very peculiar final entry, several pages that rambled on about nightly visits by "tall men in black suits" who came to the windows and watched her when they thought she was sleeping. They spoke in "buzzes and clicks," she's supposed to have written.
The actor who played the alchemist, he died the next year of a morphine overdose, after his homosexual love affair with a much younger screenwriter became common knowledge among his peers. He appears to have had connections to a number of hermetical and theosophical societies and to have corresponded during the last three years of his life with Aleister Crowley and other occultists.
As for the hero of the tale, he left acting in 1936 and moved to New Mexico, where he wrote a pair of science-fiction novels, Starlost and Sunfall, neither of which was ever published and both of which amounted to little more than barely coherent theories about life on Venus and Mars, a secret Martian base beneath the desert, and the role he believed aliens to have had in the emergence of Communism and the October Revolution. He was found dead in 1946, long after The Star Maiden was all but forgotten, the last print believed to have been destroyed in a Burbank theater fire.
And there was the cameraman who is said to have hanged himself during filming.
And the makeup artist who might have died a few hours after the premiere.
And the strangers said by some, including the director, to have haunted the set, men in dark suits who come off sounding an awful lot like the actress's Peeping Toms.
Make of this what you will or make of it nothing at all....
The plight of a young woman at a Salton Sea cult compound gives Agents of Dreamland poignant emotion heft. Chloe and thirteen other cult members are being prepared for a phoenix- like transformation.
....Last night, when I told Drew, when I only whispered about the ghosts because maybe they can hear me, he said it was a sign of the nearness of the star winds. That gave me chill bumps, sent something small and frightened scurrying across the grave that I will never have. And now, we sit here in the night with the television blaring white-static wasp voices and the night wrapped tight about the house like a wet towel. Drew reads to us from the Black Book. He has told Madeline (she has told me) that he found the book in Iran, where it had been hidden since the Achaemenid Empire, a.k.a. the First Persian Empire, in the year 352 B.C., when it was placed in the tomb of—well, he never reads the name aloud. Some things are like that, he assures us. You do not say some words out loud. You only know them, and you only dare mutter them in dreams.
....She was pretty once, and now, transformed, she is beautiful. No, that's still too small a word. "A flower," Madeline says. "She will fold open like a rose, and the star winds will come pouring down from the sky and down from the mountains to scour the rocks and lift her up to the heavens. As you each shall be lifted."
....I can almost remember being some other way.
He reads from the book the lines about the flood, and the lines about the crack in the earth that lies below the waters of the flood. The book calls the flood Jachin, and it calls the crack Boaz. We were all taught the wrong words for things, a sleight of hand perpetrated by the Old Ones who would forever delay our escape. We were taught to call the crack San Andreas, and we were taught to call the flood Salton. In names is all the power of a splitting atom, and if you steal names, you steal hope. I go down to sleep each night, and swim among the fish that swim the flood. The tilapia are iridescent angels that glide silently above the muddy, silt-shrouded bottom, and the sun filters down through the seraphim phantoms of croakers and orangemouth corvina. "On a day very soon," says Drew, "Boaz will shudder, and Jachin will murder her own. And we'll know, then, that the day has arrived....
The third pivotal character, Immacolata Sexton, is an operative for an organization in conflict with the Signalman's group. She is not, or is no longer, human. Her life will outlast the current conflict and its most sweeping ramifications. A protean figure, Immacolata definitely has more Jack-Reacher-potential than the Signalman himself.
I find Caitlín R. Kiernan a hard writer to like. Her breaking-up into shards of plotlines and timelines demands utmost attention. Yet her characters are sunk in stereotype when she saddles them with hasty genre cliches for insight and expression.
Still, there is much to like in this tidy horror thriller.
26 November 2019