Jason Bradley Thompson's Reviews > The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
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it was amazing

Many reviews of "Vellitt Boe" start with something like "I hate Lovecraft but I love this book" but as a fan of Lovecraft, and specifically "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (I drew a comic based on it after all), I'm here to say that I, too, loved this novel.

It's interesting that out of all Lovecraft's books, "Kadath", which Lovecraft didn't even try to get published and which many Lovecraft fans dislike (because it's too fantasy and not horror enough), has inspired no less than two critical re-envisionings: Charles Cutting's graphic novel "The Dream-Quest of Randolph Carter" and this, Kij Johnson's Kadath sequel/retelling. That's the weird thing: there's no subaltern subversive rewrite of "The Call of Cthulhu" or "At the Mountains of Madness" (AFAIK), but there's something about the lesser-known "Kadath" that inspires critics of Lovecraft to revisit & wrestle with it: perhaps because it's just a really good fairytale quest story (oddly, it shares a lot with "The Wizard of Oz", and even more with Dr. Seuss's "I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew"), or perhaps because the protagonist is so obviously a self-insert of Lovecraft, criticizing "Kadath" is like criticizing Lovecraft himself. Thus in Cutting's version Randolph Carter is a complete asshole, a racist snob, and the whole story is about waiting for him to get his comeuppance. But if there's one flaw in Cutting's beautifully illustrated adaptation (which you really should read), it's that reading a 108-page story about an irredeemable, clueless jerk is kind of a drag. In contrast, Kij Johnson upends the story in a much more hopeful manner: by entering it herself -- or at least, by making the protagonist a 50something female professor. This is Vellitt Boe, professor at Ulthar Women's College, who goes in search of a lost student, a journey which takes her all around the world of dreams.

For those who haven't read the 1926 book, the Dreamlands of Johnson and Lovecraft are a surreal fantasy world of weird beauty, accessible to a fortunate few in their dreams, and ruled by unseen, vengeful, frankly evil gods. ("Worship them? We placate them," Boe is told by a disillusioned priest.) There's none of the now-familiar Tolkienisms like elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.: the natives of the Dreamlands are people, strange people but still people, and the monsters on the borderlands are inscrutable inhuman creatures with names like gugs, ghasts, ghouls, zoogs. Or maybe not entirely inscrutable, for Boe must deal with and negotiate with such monsters as she goes beyond the peaceful garden lands by the River Skai, into underground worlds and ruined wastelands where the wrath of the gods has left dead cities smouldering in flame or encased in glass.

All this is just like Lovecraft's "Kadath", but Boe reveals other peculiarities Lovecraft never would have written about: Dreamland's sky has a vaulted ceiling with only 97 stars, and there are very few women there (we never find out exactly how few, but Boe is amazed at the idea of a world with equal numbers of men and women), and male dreamers like Randolph Carter -- only men seem to be dreamers -- often visit the dreamworld and make it a canvas for their fantasies. As a middle-aged woman traveller, Boe endures subtle and unsubtle reminders that she is an unwelcome outsider even in her own world (and, as she eventually discovers, the 'real' world isn't that much better for women). Boe knows how good dreamers have it because she, herself, was once the lover and fellow-traveller of Randolph Carter, now the King of the dream city of Ilek-Vad. Memories of their failed relationship occasionally come back to her, and their paths cross again on the course of her journey, not a journey of a Waking-World Man going into Dreamland for conquest and discovery, but a Dreamland Woman going into the Waking World to save the ones she loves.

There's much here about sexism, and the reasons for men & women’s failed relationships, and the Orientalist narrative tradition to which "Kadath" belongs, stories of privileged adventurers acting out in distant realms. But notably -- unlike all the reviews which, again, focus entirely on this aspect and make the book sound like some manifesto -- Johnson makes this all actually SUBTLE. Like "Kadath", this is a personal journey of discovery, not a heavy message story. One theme made explicit in Johnson's afterword is the almost total absence of women from the "Kadath" (and Lovecraft's fiction in general). Lovecraft's stories suffer from omission of women, although his asexuality means that at least he never exploits women as sex objects like most of his pulp contemporaries. Most of his male protagonists are so essentially genderless, it's easy to imagine substituting female protagonists in their places, turning Victorian adventurer Randolph Carter into a Victorian adventuress like Gertrude Bell or Alexandra David-Neel, or Vellitt Boe. (Easier, anyway, than substituting a PoC protagonist into Lovecraft's overwhelmingly white racist civilization-vs-barbarism worldview.) When we eventually meet Carter himself in a short scene, (view spoiler)

The really amazing thing about this book is the wonderful fantasy atmosphere and the great prose. Borrowing not only the quest structure but whole phrases and bits of language from “Kadath,” the prose updated just enough to remove Lovecraft's repetitive uses of words like "strange" and "cyclopean", Johnsson really gives the same feeling that of a long solitary journey, with beautiful descriptions of landscapes, color, nature, architecture, weird customs, disturbing glimpses of unseen dangers, strange names of places just over the edge of the map. Take this snippet from the very beginning:

Vellitt paused when she came to the top of Never-rye Hill, panting a little from the long ascent. Ulthar behind her was achingly beautiful in the rose-pink rays of the new sun: the Six Hills crazed as a tumbled quilt, a random patchwork of red gabled roofs frilled with ornamnetal iron chimneypots and lightning-rods, and the dark gaps that were roads and gardens. Crowning the highest of the hills, the Temple: a tower surrounded by a grassy field, bright with the first tents for the great Sheep-fair, which was to commence in three days.…

Never-rye Hill was capped with a little shrine, knee-high and fashioned of porphyry so worn it was impossible to know what god it honored, whether Great One or Other or some being altogether different. It was traditional to leave a nut when one left Ulthar, and the shrine was half-buried in hazels and almonds, walnuts and acorns, everything much picked over by squirrels. She had forgotten to bring an offering, but a century ago, some thoughtful stranger had planted a walnut tree close by. It took but a moment to find a fallen nut in the long grasses and lay it among the others.

The small black cat from the College had seated itself upon the shrine’s stained offering slab (for it was not always nuts that were offered here) and was cleaning its ears with complete absorption. It was unlike cats to travel like this, but she also knew that cats lived according to their own schemes and agendas. “It grows harder from here,” she warned the cat, but it dropped to the path and walked forward as though to say, You are wasting time.

It gets weirder and darker as it goes on, but it’s always about introspection and the allure of the road. Completely in the spirit of “Kadath” (and Lovecraft’s own inspiration Lord Dunsany), this stands on its own, but it’s also the best Dreamlands-themed fiction in decades. Though a subversion of "Kadath", "Boe" is also a love letter to it.
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September 13, 2016 – Shelved

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