The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
Release Date: August 16th, 2016
I've read a lot of short stories in the past year that consist of re-interpretations of H.P. Lovecraft's work. It makes me wonder if there's a mini-renaissance of Lovecraft recognition occurring over the past few years, almost as if the over-saturation of Cthulhu in popular culture has sprouted an interest in his other works and his inspirations (For example: a new film version of Stephen King's It is being released this year, which is one of King's most "Lovecraftian" works).
I plan to talk more about my personal interest in Lovecraft at a later point, but for now I'm content to read these fantastic original re-imaginings of his work and legacy. Previously we've looked at Cassandra Khaw's Hammer on Bones, Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom, and Caitlín R. Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland, and now we're looking at Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. One thing to note about these works is that they are all written by women, transgendered, and/or people of color, which goes to show the influence that Lovecraft and his circle still have on creators today despite his extreme xenophobia. Lovecraft was an abject racist and sexist, to the point where other racists thought he went a bit too far (and this was 1920's we're talking about here). He rarely wrote about women, which brings us to author Kij Johnson, who read Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" as a child and noted the complete and utter lack of women in the story. As a response, we have the lovely short story, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which returns to the Dreamlands established in several of Lovecraft's works.
Vellitt Boe is a distinguished professor at the Ulthar Women's College, awakened one night to terrible news: Clarie Jurat, a talented, striking student and one of the college's star pupils, has absconded with a man. And not just any man: he's a Dreamer, one of the special people from the waking world (our world), who has figured out how to bring Jurat back with him. Jurat's father is one of the college's trustees, and her absence could spell doom for the college, which acts a refuge for women who want to experience a lifestyle beyond the orthodox world they inhabit. Boe, a former traveller who wandered across the Dreamlands in her youth alongside many strange companions (such as the dreamer Randolph Carter), takes it upon herself to track Jurat down and bring her back to the college safe and sound. As she continues on her adventure, she receives information that Jurat comes from a very unique lineage, and her disappearance could mean more than the closing of the Women's College: it could doom all of Ulthar.
Johnson's main character is someone we don't often see in fantasy: a middle-aged female protagonist. As Boe treks across the lands once more, her quest brings to light a lot of questions about herself, such as what she truly values, what she misses about her younger self, and the very concept of a "home." It is a truly enriching and refreshing experience, and the dreamworld creates a perfect backdrop for these musings.
I'm not sure if Johnson is trying to emulate Lovecraft's writing style, but the two share a love of extended scenery description. Lovecraft's often strikes of exhausting purple prose, but Johnson's writing is more luxurious, painting the sights, sounds, and smells of this alien landscape while still paying homage to the originator (she even uses one of Lovecraft's go-to words, "gibbous," a few times). The Dreamlands are a place of danger, excitement, and mystery, and Johnson weaves Lovecraft's sense of existential dread throughout the very fabric of this universe. For one thing, the sky is an actual mass, made of swirling patterns and colors and only a few stars. Gods lounge in their uneasy slumber, and their fickle moods are felt and feared throughout the world. Space and time don't abide by normal rules here, as a trip that could take a few days could take several months at a later date. Horrific creatures loom everywhere: the zoogs, gugs, ghouls, and ghasts haunt the dark corners of the world, some filled with a malign intelligence and cruelty, while sea creatures larger than cities easily devour entire civilizations. And yet despite all of this, Johnson mixes a sense of mundanity throughout the quest, such as Boe's obsession with ensuring she doesn't misplace the accounts ledger she needs for the college bursar. It allows the characters and situation to remain grounded, even when faced with a menagerie of the fantastic.
While the entire journey is a worthwhile experience, it is ending where the quest draws to a close that really makes this story. It really is a perfect and bittersweet conclusion, and while part of me expected that something like this would occur, I didn't think it would happen like this. I should note, by the way, that I have not read "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," but I will be checking it out now that I've read Johnson's story. Even if you haven't read the short story, or any Lovecraft for that matter, I highly recommend The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. May it act as an inspiration for you as its predecessor had for so many others.