Caítlin Kiernan, Tinfoil Dossier books (2017-2020) – Horror! When it comes right down to it, a lot of the things that a lot of my friends like — not just like, define their lives by — are things I don’t like or, more often, that passed me by like a ship in the night. One of those things is horror. First, I was scared. Then, after years of reading about war, I was indifferent. I felt superior to those intrigued by — it was sometimes right to say “fans of” — mere serial killers. Their body counts were nothing next to what goes on in war, and their tedious psychological contexts always seemed dull next to what goes into war. Eventually, as my differences from others came to take on a somewhat less overweening position in my sense of self, I came to understand what my friends saw in horror movies and fiction, or at least to listen to them more. And some of them have been good enough to listen to me. In some respects, we draw similar things out of our respective generative uglinesses.
So I didn’t turn away when I started hearing about Caítlin Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. Among other recommendations, it combined what they like — horror, specifically material drawn from the Cthulhu mythos and The X-Files — and something closer to what I like: investigations, conspiracies. Cult stuff is one place where the horror kids interests and mine connect productively (not unlike antifascism as a bond between me and that other group I was always around but one of, the punks). The Tinfoil Dossier is a series of three short novels about rival conspiracies. From what one can tell, some seek to preserve the world against threats from outside of the knowable parts of space-time, some seek to hasten the end those threats can bring to human existence, others pursue obscurer ends.
I say “as far as I can tell” because Kiernan does not usually condescend to clarify. Sometimes, that frustrates me in writing, but Kiernan has the writing chops (one key- she doesn’t drag shit out, a little confusion goes a long way!) to carry it off with aplomb. You’re seldom sure who works for whom. The closest thing to a stable pole in her world is Albany (named after the city in which they’re inexplicably, but compellingly, based), the super secret Men in Black style organization that tries to prevent the end of the world and usually only just barely succeeds. Albany people, sometimes called “Agents of Dreamland,” go back and forth across the world trying to keep cultists and whackos, often with weird creepy powers, from completely destroying the world by summoning Cthulhu or implanting those zombie mushrooms in everyone or sinking the world to commune with dark sea god Dagon, on and on.
Unlike Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, agents like The Signalman (named after his large silver pocket watch) do not, in fact, make this look good. Albany routinely manipulate what few people with “special talents” that they can find who aren’t already spoken for by an Elder God to work for them, often using blackmail, brainwashing, or addiction. And even with abilities like being able to summon “the Hound of Tindalos,” a post-Lovecraft addition to the mythos that’s a sort of messed-up energy being that comes out of angular space and turns you into blue goo, they still mess it up a lot. Terrible stuff happens to them, all the time. And they’re not even dealing with Illuminati-style organized conspiracies! Just, like, small generational cults of fishy Welsh women who, admittedly, can do some fucked up magic. Kiernan writes a good action set piece, along with the other fun aspects of her writing. My favorite is when one of the Welsh ladies summons dark cold ocean water into a private jet going over a desert. That was freaky!
Kiernan tells the stories a-chronologically. Bits and pieces of the past, near-present, and future blob in and out of the narrative according to their own logic. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything major when I say, Elder Gods or not, humanity is still fucked. The waters rise, with or without Dagon, even if the human story goes on, unpleasantly human, to the Lovecraft cultists of the world. These were fun! I will read more horror, or anyway, put horror stuff in my rotation as I have been. ****’