Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Like The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe is a revisionist take on Lovecraft. Unlike that other novella, it is a companion piece rather than a retelling. Both approaches are really effective. I first read this last year, without having read The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Lovecraft work on which this is based. Rereading this after finally getting to the original gave me a much greater appreciation for what Johnson pulled off here.

Unknown Kadath is a frustrating work; it was an unrevised early draft. It has some really creepy and some really wonderful moments but can be a bit of a slog. Randolph Carter, a human dreamer, sets out across the lands of dreams to find the perfect city he glimpsed. He encounters all sorts of creatures and gods along the way. I can’t remember if he encountered any women or not, but, if so, they were in very minor roles.

Kij Johnson noticed that last bit and wrote an excellent companion piece in which a woman, a professor at a university at Ulthar, a town filled with cats, sets out in search of one of her students who has run off with a dreamer from the waking world placing the woman’s college’s status in jeopardy. It’s not a sequel per se, but another story in the same world. In her youth Boe travelled with Carter for a time, and she does meet with him at one point in this book. It’s a neat trick, setting up a quest the equal of Carter’s and thereby subtly critiquing Lovecraft’s work’s lack of women. Johnson is too good a writer to get didactic about it; the story does the work.

Johnson is also a better prose writer than Lovecraft. It might not be fair to judge Kadath given its unrevised state. Still, having read several works by both, it’s a true statement. Vellitt Boe’s quest maintains the fear and wonder that Carter’s did, but is paced much better. It didn’t drag at all. I like her The Man Who Bridged the Mist better, but I like it better than most things. This is an excellent novella, well worth reading if you’re into Lovecraft mythos stories at all.

Highly Recommended.

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