The Truth Is Out There
—X Files, “Pilot,” 10 September 1993
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908, when H. P. Lovecraft was eighteen years old. In his youth, he had formed a detective agency with his friends, inspired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and similar private companies. The Secret Service was the arm of the U. S. Treasury department, set up to crack counterfeiting rings and protect the president; the Black Chamber, forerunner of the National Security Agency, wouldn’t be formed until 1919.
Lovecraft had grown up in a world without G-men. With the passage of the Volstead Act and Prohibition, that would change. Hardboiled pulp crime magazines demanded more than just Sherlock Holmes-style consulting detectives, police detectives, Texas Rangers, federal marshals, or Pinkertons, though all of those characters had their place in the pages of magazines like Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett cut his teeth with The Continental Op, who worked for a fictional Continental Detective Agency modeled after the Pinkertons that Hammett himself would work for. Yet it was the rise of organized crime that came with Prohibition, and the personage of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the new Bureau of Investigation, that put their stamp on the idea of government agents in pulp fiction.
Which is why the opening to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” starts off as it does:
During the winter of 1927–28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting—under suitable precautions—of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.
H. P. Lovecraft didn’t invent the idea that governments conceal certain things from the public; the Great War impressed on the whole nation the importance of some things remaining secret. Yet it is important to place “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in that context of the rise of the G-men, of government agencies concerned with finding secrets and keeping them…and to understand that the roots of spy fiction in the Mythos, the whole cloak-and-tentacle business in Bruce Sterling’s “The Unthinkable” (1991), Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” (1994), Delta Green (1997), Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” (2000) and The Atrocity Archives (2004), “The Star that is Not a Star” (2016) by Lucy Brady—they’re all part of a continuing tradition, born out of changes in the United States government, world affairs, and the semiotic impact on an American culture that knows that its government is hiding things from it.
Which leads also to flavors and trends in spy fiction. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is flashy, emotionally damaged, fighting secret wars against terrorists with next-generation gadgetry; Len Deighton’s unnamed protagonist of The IPCRESS FILE is faced with something no less fantastic, but the syntax is different—James Bond doesn’t deal with paperwork and bureaucracy. Spy fiction tends to vacillate between the glamorous fantasy and the grungy reality. The staid George Smiley of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the psychologically damaged one-man-army of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, but they’re two sides of the same fictional coin, different iterations of the concept of the government agent, the finders and keepers of secrets.
Which is all background to set Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland in it’s proper context: the here-and-now of 2015, with a hazy secret history that extends out of knowing into past and future alike. The post-Cold War zeitgeist married the pre-war concept of G-men with the burgeoning fields of Ufology, the Shaver Mystery, Men in Black and Black Helicopters, and the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pulp fiction jumped the semiotic shark when conspiracy fantasies like Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum became more or less indistinguishable from the actual conspiracy theories being peddled in Fate Magazine. When The X-Files hit in 1993, based on the 70s journalistic exploits of Kolchak, the Night Stalker, it was a spike driven straight into the vein of the American collective unconscious.
People want to believe the truth really is out there…and that the government knows and is hiding it.
Post-X Files fiction in this vein is rife, everything from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Paul (2011) to graphic novels like Groom Lake (2009). Some are played straight, others for laughs—the bigger the cover-up, the more people and resources at play, the more it stretches the suspension of disbelief that any government agency can keep a lid on anything for any period of time.
Yet at the same time, everyone accepts that governments do successfully cover up things all the time. Documents are unclassified over time and reveal the details of events that happened in the shadows…and we know there are files still sealed. Secret histories under lock and seal. Anything might be in there—and that’s the attraction of the government conspiracy mindset. The imagination can populate those locked binders with any secrets—never mind that most of them are probably mundane things, like the sexual escapades of past presidents now safely dead, or the schematics for encryption machines rusting away in some government warehouse.
While his parents sleep, the boy is treated to Ray Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, and, finally, English director James Whale’s little-known and once-believed-lost The Star Maiden (1934).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland (2017), 48
Agents of Dreamland is the first in her Tinfoil Dossier series, which will probably be compared to Charles Stross’s Laundry series by default: both involve the Men-in-Black end of a government cover up, agencies working behind the scenes to investigate and contain the Mythos. The two bodies of work are distinctly different beasts, however. Kiernan’s point-of-view character the Signalman is on the ragged end of a career out on the edge of the spook world, a veteran of too many horrors. Not the smartest or the most clever, no Jason Bourne-style action scenes, just a bone-weary tiredness and a looming sense of desperation hovering over all.
That’s the mood. This is a war that can’t be won, because the people fighting it don’t realize it is a war yet.
The lore is stripped down; this isn’t a roleplaying game supplement about the Men in Black and their valiant secret war against the Cthulhu Mythos. This is grungier, grittier, more homely and with an air of inevitability. There are scenes and themes reminiscent of Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Lovecraft, for all that he created, was working within a late-19th/early-20th century frame of scientific understanding—and science has dug up some much stranger things since 1937.
Kiernan doles out the information from the black dossier in measured doses, switching point of view and time between chapters, balancing exposition and description. The idea isn’t to give the reader too much at once, to let the reader form their own connections, to feel the people that are in these places at these times. It’s a spy story written like a Cthulhu Mythos story, and by the time the reader finds out the truth about The Star Maiden, puts the pieces together and think they have a clue about where this is going…
The truth is weirder than you think.
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017) is the first in the Tinfoil Dossier series, and is followed by Black Helicopters (2018) and The Tindalos Asset (2020).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).