Back in 2018 I heard this novella recommended on The Coode Street Podcast as a good exemplar of the wave of contemporary takes on Lovecraftian horror. This was the first thing I read by Kiernan who has since become a favorite (I’ve read seven more). At the time I described it as a “good novella in the vein of Lovecraft with nods to Le Carre style espionage, Vonnegut, and Winnie the Pooh. Parts reminded me of Vandermeer (though anything with dangerous fungus reminds me of Vandermeer).” That’s not a bad short summary. I would make the Le Carre and Vandermeer links more strongly on this reread.
As I read more of Kiernan’s work I would become very aware that she was serious when she said that Ulysses should have freed writers from the tyranny of plot (paraphrase). She is much more concerned with language and with mood. That is not to say that she is not able to structure a book well. The story begins a little over a week after an aging cold warrior known as the Signalman who works for a spy agency that deals with the strange, the alien, the uncanny, and his colleagues invaded the compound of a cult that was equal parts David Koresh, Cthulhu and UFO. What they see there traumatizes them. He is in a diner waiting fearfully for an operative from England’s version of his agency. The narrative moves forward and back from the limited third person point of view of the Signalman or that of his opposite number, the first person narration of one of the cult members who seems to be losing her sense of self in the cult and the revelation it promises, and a weird omniscient narrator. The world that emerges is one which has had close shaves with destruction over the years and a sense of future doom. Over the whole thing wafts the scent of fungal spores.
I loved this. It makes the reader work a little, but the world it introduces seems too small for the relatively short word count. I picked this up again for a book club, and I’m glad I did. Since I last read this, I am far more familiar with Kiernan’s style and concerns and with Lovecraft, a major influence on nearly all her work. I did enjoy it more this time, but I still think this makes an excellent introduction to her work. I need to reread the longer sequel Black Helicopters as she has a third volume in the series coming out soon.
Rereads and Everything Else 2020 16/35