by Kij Johnson Publishing


192pp/$14.99/August 2016

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

Victor Ngai

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

There is no question that H.P. Lovecraft's writing can be problematic. Aside from the obvious turgid prose, his tales contain casual and overt racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. At the same time, Lovecraft's stories have the ability to inspire. Shortly after they began appearing in print, other professional authors, with Lovecraft's approval, began writing fan fiction set in his world and publishing it, from Robert Bloch to August Derleth to Brian Lumley. Kij Johnson is fully aware of the difficult nature of Lovecraft's writing and chose to address it in her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

The title of Johnson's work evokes Lovecraft's own "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Both stories are set in Lovecraft's Dreamworld, separated from our own waking world, and both feature Lovecraft's Randolph Carter. While Carter is from our world in Lovecraft's Dream-Quest, Vellitt Boe, the protagonist from Johnson's story, is a native of the Dreamlands. An intriguing difference this makes is that to Vellitt Boe, the world of the Dreamlands is normal and not some sort of nightmare to be solved or explored. The Old Gods, while feared, are a natural part of her existence.

Boe teaches at a women's university, a rarity in the Dreamlands because, referencing the lack of women in Lovecraft's original stories, the male-female ratio in the Dreamlands is heavily screwed towards the masculine. The idea that the waking lands might have gender parity is a foreign concept to Boe. When a man from the waking world takes Clarie Jurat to his world and the university and surrounding city of Ulther are threatened with destruction should Clarie's Old God grandfather awaken and find her missing, Boe sets out on a quest through the Dreamlands to find an entrance to the Waking World to retrieve her.

By normalizing the world Lovecraft filled with monsters, Johnson offers an intriguing view of a world which was never really meant to be lived in. Johnson fleshes it out, but still leaves plenty of room for exploration. The gods are, for the most part, distant, forming a constant background fear, sort of like earthquakes or tornadoes rather than the eldritch horror Lovecraft depicted. People live their lives, own shops, engage in trade or learning, and don't view their world are malignant. Even when Vellitt Boe runs into the gug, ghouls, or ghasts of Lovecraft's writing, they are depicted as natural creatures, not the supernatural monsters that populated his works.

Eventually, Vellitt Boe's question takes her into our own world to find the run-away Clarie Jurat. Johnson presents a Dreamlander's vision of Wisconsin and twenty-first century America. In many ways, this is the most interesting part of Vellitt Boe's quest, although Johnson does provide her with a way of acquiring the knowledge she needs. Nevertheless, just as Boe's quest through the Dreamlands left areas which Johnson could continue to explore, so, too, does her journey to find Clarie Jurat once she arrives on our side of the gate.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe manages to stay true to Lovecraft's world and writing while refraining from entering the realm of horror, instead presenting the quest as a traditional epic fantasy quest. Johnson begins to address the problematic aspects of Lovecraft's writing, taking on his misogyny directly with her introduction of a strong female character to interact with Randolph Carter (and the stated previous interaction that Lovecraft made invisible), but Johnson left open the window to further explore the manner in which Lovecraft's attitudes permeated his fiction.

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