Funguspunk, Lovecraft, and You: A Review of Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Agents of Dreamland"

"This is the hour when moonstruck poets know/ What fungi sprout in Yuggoth..." -- H.P. Lovecraft, from his poem "Fungi from Yuggoth"

Critics, especially of speculative fiction works, get no small pleasure out of dividing and subdividing genres.  To wit: take note of the number of fields of sci-fi and horror that end with (-)punk.  The first, of course, was cyberpunk, that most wired of science fiction subgenres, which has probably been with us in some form throughout the 20th century but was codified by William Gibson in works like Neuromancer, Idoru and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A veritable bevy of -punk classifications followed, including the ever more popular "steampunk", its direct descendant "dieselpunk", and an increasingly indistinct litter of offspring including proposed variants like "dreampunk", "mythpunk", "godpunk", "nanopunk", etc. etc. etc. 

To this list I propose to coin another, "funguspunk", so that I can claim that Caitlin R. Kiernan's recent short novel Agents of Dreamland is probably the best "funguspunk" novel ever written.

If you are not familiar with zombie ants, you might want to click the link.  Suffice it to say that there is a species of tropical fungus that has evolved to take over the brains of certain kinds of ants, driving the ants to climb, spores flowering from their heads, to a certain height, clamp down on a leaf, and help disseminate fruited bodies.  These ants, which so resemble stories of Carribean zombiism, have influenced a lot of works of sci-fi/horror over the last decade or so, maybe most notably the excellent PS4 game The Last of Us.  

Another major example is M.R. Carey's Girl With All the Gifts series of novels and their film adaptation starring Glen Close.  Once again, the zombie infection isn't some wave out of space, or voodoo curse, but an infection of fungus.  

Lovecraft might well have been the first horror writer to think this way, for while fungus has always been a little creepy (suspended somewhere between animal, vegetable and mineral, what the actual fuck, after all, is it?) I can't think an example of its being used as a horror agent until the alien/vegetable hybrids Lovecraft called the "Mi-Go", which are described in the mythos story "The Whisperer in Darkness" and his Antarctic adventure nightmare novella At the Mountains of Madness.  

All of which is to say that, once again, Lovecraft was way ahead of his time.

And it is also to point out that Kiernan's use of Lovecraftian elements in her own novella is as natural as mushrooms and swiss on a burger.  But far from simply aping Lovecraft's ideas, Agents of Dreamland is an intoxicating brew all its own. 

Agents of Dreamland doesn't have much of a "story" in the plotted sense.  Its characters are few, and their histories only sketched in.  One of them is the Signalman, an otherwise nameless spook tasked with monitoring secret patterns and communications, currently on the trail of a dangerous Manson-esque cult obsessed with some kind of coming cosmic transformation.  He meets with a woman with the Pynchon-esque name Immacolata Sexton.  She is some sort of spook herself, apparently possessed with the power to travel through time.  And it is also the story of one of the young women in the doomsday cult, who has received a position of honor within the cult: she is to watch as, one by one, the fellow members transform into something else.  Then she is to dispatch them with a shotgun.  

 Plus there's more: several mentions of an early (and apocryphal) James Whale movie called The Star Maiden, about a civilization from beyond Pluto casting greedy eyes towards earth, a seemingly sentient cloud in space, and, of course, Dreamland itself, better known by its more mundane moniker, Area 51.  

When I say the story never coheres into anything resembling the traditional science fiction story, I mean it as a compliment.  There is no questing here, and by extension, no real hope of defeating the evil.  As a result, the overarching moods of Agents of Dreamland are dread -- and wonder.  

Kiernan, pictured with friend

Kiernan, pictured with friend

Kiernan's prose provides the greatest part of that wonder.  Achingly beautiful, always strange and never quotidian, she never lets the reader find any firm ground.  Fittingly for a story which involves a Manson-like cult, it feels hallucinatory, dreamlike.  And unlike most stories that fit, even peripherally, into Lovecraft's mythos, the story does not try too hard to replicate the feeling induced by the Master's works.  It feels like something Lovecraft might have written if he had lived long enough to see Eisenhower decry the military-industrial complex, or read Gray Barker and John Keel's writings on the mysterious "men in black".

In short, for those who know me, its a shot right across my bow.  But something tells me you might like it too.  Very highly recommended, and, again, the "moonstruck poet" Caitlin Kiernan may just have produced the greatest piece of literary "funguspunk" yet -- and though it shocks me that I'm saying this, that might include the Master's own attempts.