I have just finished reading the recently released Tor.com novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. As soon as I heard this was coming out I had to leap on it—because it’s a Lovecraft pastiche, and specifically one coming at his mythos with a feminine perspective. Which I love. I’m another of those readers who adores the Lovecraftian mythos in general but who has significant problems with the author’s racism and sexism, so every time I see a modern author taking a crack at interrogating ol’ H.P., I just have to take a look.
There have been excellent releases along these lines in the last couple of years. The anthology She Walks in Shadows, which came out last fall, is excellent. So is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, another Tor.com novella, which takes square aim at Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”. A third Tor.com release, The Litany of Earth by Ruthann Emrys, takes an entirely different look at the mysterious fish-folk of Innsmouth. (And is for that matter leading into a full novel in the same setting, which is due out next April. I’m very much looking forward to reading that.)
Vellitt Boe, though, hits me in the heart in a way these other works didn’t quite manage to do. And what did it was this quote:
She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.
“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”
The Carter here would be Randolph Carter, a recurring Lovecraft character, and in particular the protagonist of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I’ve read that work, and I have distinct recollections of coming out of it with a broad sense of “WTF did I just read?” even as I was quite impressed by the stream-of-consciousness fluidity of Lovecraft’s prose.
Kij Johnson does a splendid job of calling back to that fluidity with her own prose. Except this time, her protagonist is a woman. And not only a woman, but an experienced one who happens to be 55 years old. Vellitt Boe must set off to retrieve an errant student from her university, a young woman trying to escape out of the dreamlands into the waking world with her lover, which puts their entire city at risk of being destroyed by an angry god.
Her quest is every bit as large as Carter’s, underscoring what any woman of today who loves SF/F already knows: that all of us, regardless of gender, can dream without bounds or limitations. Yet at the same time, Johnson’s novella celebrates the waking world in ways you never see in Lovecraft. Yes, dreams can be amazing—yet so can the waking world be. Gods have power, but so does science. It’s a refreshing balance indeed.
Nor is Vellitt Boe the only female character active in this story, by a long shot. Several women of the university where Vellitt teaches appear at the beginning of the story. And several of the ghouls she encounters are in fact female, giving us a tale where it’s perfectly acceptable for the monsters as well as the humans to be so. And the student she tracks into the waking world, Clarie Jurat, is herself vitally important… though I shouldn’t say how, because spoilers. Instead, I’ll say, go read this novella.
Because, as every single one of the women who post here on Here Be Magic can tell you, women’s dreams can be large enough to rattle the world.
Angela puts her dreams under the name of Angela Highland for Carina Press, and Angela Korra'ti for her self-pubbed work! Right now, in honor of the forthcoming VCON convention which she'll be attending, you can find some of those dreams for sale for 99 cents each. Faerie Blood and Bone Walker are available on all major ebook vendors, as well as directly from Angela. Details here.