Title: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Author: Kij Johnson
Genre/Category: Fantasy, Multiverses, Alternate Worlds, Adventure, Lovecraftian Horror
Release Date: August 16, 2016
Note: I received a free copy of this novella from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in review are my own which should be clear because no other weirdo would admit to their desire to fist-fight Lovecraft as often as I do.
Normally, I stay far away from stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his writings because they do far too much reinforcing and celebrating Lovecraft’s racism and misogyny and not enough subversion of the tropes in his work. But there’s something so amazing about Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe that makes me want to read more of these purposefully subversive takes on Lovecraft’s work.
The title of this novella comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s own, 1927(ish)’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Indeed, many characters, concepts, and creatures from Lovecraft’s original work are reimagined in Johnson’s work.
Despite the Lovecraft connection, I feel as though this book is as far from a love letter to Lovecraft’s works as you can get. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe actively and actually pushes back against several of the negative tropes and problematic aspects that Lovecraft’s writing and worldbuilding were rife with rather than romanticizing them.
I think that the best ways that Johnson does this is by making Vellitt Boe – a middle aged woman (coded to be a woman of color in a world where no such designator is likely to exist) — the protagonist of the story and the main focus in a world where women are seen as afterthoughts or parts in men’s stories.
Additionally, the book really has a great message on aging as strength and some lovely, powerful language that Johnson uses to describe Vellitt Boe’s features and the way that while she’s aged, she’s still stronger in many ways. While Vellitt had traveled the world before (sometimes with partners like Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter and sometimes on her own), the experiences that she had as a young woman and the knowledge gained as an older one shape the journey she’s taking now.
So it’s not just that Vellitt Boe is a middle aged brown-skinned woman with threads of grey in her hair, but that her age and experience gives her power in this world. It gives her strength and keeps her tongue sharp as she deals with mess after mess.
This novella revolves around the titular Vellitt Boe’s journey to rescue (or at least find) one of her charges at the college where she works before the scandal is widely known and harms the college – as this is set in Lovecraft’s patriarchal world, her initial main worry is that the scandal would cause the men in charge to decide that women really had no place in schools and with learning. Later in the book we find out something else about the missing Claire Jurat that makes Vellitt’s quest a little more important than before, but at first, Vellitt’s desire to protect both her school and Claire Jurat alone are the big issues.
One of the things that stood out to me about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is Johnson’s worldbuilding in conjunction with essentially writing the world after Lovecraft. By now, you all should know that I’m a sucker for sumptuous and descriptive worldbuilding. If you create a world that I’m reading, I need to be able to visualize it.
And Johnson makes that possible thanks to incredibly rich language and all of the details that you could possibly want, keeping up a steady stream of info and description (that shies away from the usual epic fantasy infodump that tends to clog up similar books) through traveling alongside Vellitt across oceans filled with monsters and the lightless under-realms that are home to ghouls, ghasts, and gugs.
She gives Vellitt Boe a cat for a companion (and it’s seriously the coolest and cleverest cat out there) and has her run through a forest with things like zoogs on her tail. She describes ship travel for Vellitt, connecting it with a loss in her childhood and with other memories of her childhood. It’s some seriously good stuff!
I just want to pause here to gush over some things that I found absolutely charming about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Now I never got into the Lovecraftian mythos despite many attempts from my college roommate and her boyfriend who were huge fans of the man and his work. I knew of some of his creations like Cthullu and Narlathotep as well as his impacts in the world of literature and his personal views, but that’s about where I stopped because you know… Lovecraft. Dude kind of sucked.
Johnson, in fleshing out Lovecraft’s world and putting a spin on it, has managed to make me care about creatures and characters that I never thought I would. Me, the person known in the English department of my university for how much I want to fight Lovecraft. I found myself feeling for six-limbed gugs and becoming fascinated by the culture of ghouls.
There’s a fight/battle scene near the end of the book (and you’ll know it when you read it) that left me on the edge of my seat and seconds away from dropping my tablet because I was just a big ole ball of tension. I knew that I was going to like this book from the second that Vellitt met the cat that insisted on coming along with her on her journey. It felt very Studio Ghibli-ish to me and it worked.
But during those tense moments when Vellitt and her loyal gug friend are fighting against ghouls out to kill them?
That’s when I found myself wanting more.
The ending of this novella is set in the waking world – our world – and it really makes the book stand out. At the end of Vellitt’s quest, she finds Claire but she is not the same young woman that she was at the start of her journey. Neither of them are to be fair. Vellitt has spent four months traveling over a dangerous world and Claire has spent the same time period in a world that, while still painfully patriarchal in many parts, still offers her more freedom than Ulthar ever could.
The interactions between Vellitt and her former student are amazing and a little heartbreaking, but at the end, there’s a hope for the dream world to change under Claire’s vision and hope for Vellitt to have further adventures in the waking world.
I’ve been describing The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe as a 90-page-long road trip and on some level, that’s what it is. It’s Vellitt Boe traveling across her world (and parts of ours) in order to reach her final destination. And on the way, Johnson unfolds this world in deep detail, fleshing the world out bit by bit until it becomes, in its own way, kind of real. Authorial intent being a misty, murky thing means that I don’t know if Kij Johnson intended to subvert Lovecraft’s mythos with this tale or if she’s paying homage to it by writing a story that’s set several decades after his Dream-Quest. That’s something I’d like to know more about (so I’m going to keep an eye out for author interviews closer to the book’s official release date and you should too!)
I enjoyed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe far more than I expected to and while I’m unlikely to search out any Lovecraftian-inspired fiction on my own, I’m actually super pleased with this book. I think that if you’re like me and you’re rightfully wary of new takes on Lovecraft, this book will pleasantly surprise you.
Bonus: The cover for this book, by artist Victo Ngai is seriously dreamy and I’d love a poster to hang up in my room. It fits the book perfectly.