The thimbleful of readers who frequent this remote corner of the web are aware that Speculiction is no friend to H.P. Lovecraft. His political views (which in fact do not often appear in his fiction) are only one of the reasons however. More off-putting are the man’s writing style and relative cheapness of ideas. The irrelevance of humanity in the vastness of the universe is interesting subject matter, but when presented in the guise of cosmic horror (kettle drums roll…) is, well, cheap. And the prose… Thus, when hearing Kij Johnson was attempting a revisioning of Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, my ears perked. Johnson’s versatile sense of style, not to mention ability to keep her stories human-centric despite the abstract nature of the imagination, seemed to promise an interesting riposte to Lovecraft’s lunge. With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016, Tor.com), I was right on one account…
Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” tells of Randolph Carter, an everyday man who wants something more. Dreams give him distant views of the majestic city of Kadath, however, he is never allowed close enough to see its true splendor. Frustrated, Carter calls upon the gods for assistance, but is likewise denied. Taking matters into his own hands, Carter enters the Enchanted Forest to find the city. Descending into a dreamland of surreal visions, he wanders among strange and bizarre things, and eventually finds Kadath, just not in the visage he imagined.
The details of the bizarre are sometimes different (but more often homage), and the settings are juxtaposed, but Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe generally follows the same story arc as Lovecraft’s tale. Boe is professor at a women’s-only university in a parallel world. One of her students running away—eloping, in fact—with a man in the opening pages, Boe goes on a quest to find the woman and save the university from disgrace. Encountering all manner of the strange and weird, god-like and ghoulish on her journey, she, like Carter, comes to the object of her quest, but finds in it something significantly more than she expected.
For certain, much commentary on The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe will be full of praise for the story’s gender content. Johnson starring an elderly woman raised in a world of traditional (read: oppressive to women) values then setting her free, there is a strong feel-good element to the story’s conclusion—a conclusion that many contemporary liberals will pound their own kettle drums in response to. But for me, the real gender-specific accomplishment of Johnson’s novella is the contextualization of Boe’s traditional values within the socio-political reality of life in the West today. Not a bleeding-heart story of women don’t have this, and women don’t have that…, Johnson instead grabs the bull by the horns: Boe ends up in the political present, not the traditional past. In essence accepting the problems inherent to gender in history, the present is portrayed as a place of possibility, a place where legal and political equality exists for women, and everyone, male or female, has the freedom to attempt to make their dreams come true. The conclusion, which asks “Now what?”, is the final blow driving the nail of theme home. A lot of contemporary feminism addressing qualitative issues at best, it’s refreshing to see a story that recognizes the firm foundation of women’s rights that exists today, then challenges women: look at what you’ve got compared to your grandma, now what are you going to do with it?
Beyond the politics, there remain some technical aspects to The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe open to criticism. One is that Johnson chooses to utilize much of Lovecraft’s writing flair. Props to her for being able to imitate the man’s writing, but the question remains, is such an adjective-heavy style, loaded with run-on sentences relaying often useless background details, worth imitating? Like “The Dream-Quest of Uknown Kadath”, Vellitt Boe is overwrought, which in turn leads to issues with length: both Carter and Boe’s journeys feel interminable at times. The long road, readers who enjoy stopping to smell the flowers, and the bushes, and the fenceposts, and the wire between the posts, and the shiny, iridescent beetle crawling on the rusty, taught wire stretching between the moldy, aging fenceposts… will at least have fewer bones to pick than me.
In the end, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a story that lacks the sophistication of other of Johnson’s works. Stories like “Spar”, “Mantis Wives”, or “26 Monkeys, and the Abyss” possess a literary mindset offering multiple facets for the reader to chew over that Vellitt Boe doesn’t. That being said, Johnson more than accomplishes her goal of revising Lovecraft’s tale with a contemporary view to gender. The prose is simply an exercise in writing, and can be forgiven as tribute. But the content of the words is something to be taken seriously. A powerful challenge delivered at the story’s conclusion, Vellitt Boe, along with other contemporary stories revisiting and revising genre of old, lives up to my expectations for Johnson.