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Many readers of The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe will be aware that the setting is largely taken from H. P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. That need not detain us from discussing the pleasures of Kij Johnson’s work. The dreamworld I encountered here is fresh, complex, strange. It is filled with beautiful words. Such words. Adit, ghenty, thoti, nephrite, opalic, hippocephalic, guilloche; extending to asphalt, bickering, Wisconsin, fescue, unancient. Oh, the delight of reading from a text with words like these, used well, embroidered, encoded, welded, hammered, melted into a vision of a strange land presented as normal and contrasted with the strangeness of a world the reader may think of as normality.

Vellit Boe is a professor, a fellow at Ulthar Women’s College. The practice of educating women is not well established in Ulthar’s universtity, so when one of the students, the daughter of a trustee, disappears, it is a threat to the future of the college. That this student left, seemingly of her own accord, with a man from the waking world, makes her recovery all the harder. And so, of course, Vellit takes on the duty. She is a far-traveller of old, “a great walker of the Six Kingdoms which waking world men called the dreamlands” (p. 15) until she found a resting place in Ulthar. She knows where the nearest gate to the waking-world is and takes up her walking boots and machete with something like enthusiasm.

As she travels, the tale soon makes clear that the quest of an adult is different from the quest of youth—particularly when that adult has chosen to stop travelling, to settle down and leave her former life behind. Vellit’s youth was one of travel to escape, to get beyond, to see over the next hill or to survive until the next meal. Now, she has something to protect, to save—and so a quest with purpose.

As she leaves Ulthar behind, the city is described in the terms of a fantasy mediaeval normality:

This was the old part of town: half-timbered buildings with overhung second stories and peaked roofs, the occasional shrine or public building of heavy granite or blocks of labradorite … the smells changed to new-gathered greens, spices, hanging pheasants, and the pork and mutton that already hung in linen-wrapped pink slabs in front of the flescher’s …  Ulthar behind her was achingly beautiful in the rose-pink rays of the new sun. (pp. 18-19)

What writing! Johnson evokes multiple senses in description, creating a specific place and engaging the reader with the protagonist’s emotional response. It is quite apparent why Vellit Boe has chosen to live here and that the quest involves leaving a place of comfort. As Vellit starts to travel, she also settles into the pleasures of the road—the open country, the aching in every joint which eases as her body becomes once more accustomed to this particular use. Would Vellit Boe have sung to herself Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”? “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” Perhaps, but Vellit Boe is not choosing her destination and her path becomes darker.

The next section of the story is beautifully constructed. The scaffolding is classic quest material: Vellit passes through a dark wood, escapes the creatures there, and reaches what she hopes is her destination. She is delayed at the temple where access to the waking world could be gained. She discovers that her targets have evaded her but meets an old friend and they agree she must engage in a much longer journey. And yet the details, the word-by-word construction, show the depth of this world. Her old friend is much changed by his life after they parted—so much more than herself that she both sees her own changes and her own constancy. They talk about the Six Kingdoms in a way that allows the reader to understand how grand, how terrible this place is, how Vellit’s journey so far is a hop and a step, how this is truly a gods-ridden world where nothing remains certain. And, indeed, that the quest of Vellit Boe is much greater: unless she can recover her student, a mad god is likely to destroy all of Ulthar. She is not just the champion of her college and her sex, but of all her adopted city.

We also learn that Vellit Boe travelled with Randolph Carter, a man from the waking world, in her long-ago days—and that he is the only one who might yet have a key to the waking world.

And then comes the true quest. Vellit travels the beautiful, strange, terrible world of dream, the only world she has known. Her chances fail her one by one, as vindictive gods send out their tools against her or a world at turns indifferent and nasty tries to kill her out of unconsidered spite. That powerful, descriptive writing sparks image after image into life, from glowing sea journeys to eternally dark caverns. Then, strangest of all for Vellit, another world—an empty blue sky that goes on forever, a satnav mobile phone. Her emergence into our world is as dramatic, as strange to her as a reader from the waking world should find her parlays with ghouls.  What we find banal is, to her, new experience: “She ate chicken—which was new to her; there were no chickens in the dreamlands—and drank cold tea” (101).

Which is not the end. You will want to read to the end yourself, as this is a pleasure from first to last. I won’t further foreshadow the experience here.

Instead, I must return to that, “detestable clopping” [1] which echoes through this text. Kij Johnson’s use of words such as pshent and hippocephalic are direct re-use from HP Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (written 1926/27, published posthumously in 1943). Indeed, Ulthar is recognisably the same city that, yes, Randolph Carter visited on his own quest, a place which Lovecraft evoked in similarly glowing terms. And yet, for Lovecraft’s hero, all this is just the stuff of dreams. Vellit Boe’s quest to save her adopted home shows up how Randolph Carter’s quest was purely personal and self-gratifying. Indeed, Vellit Boe recognises this in recollecting Carter as “attractive in the way of all dreamers, but always with an essential solitary coldness.” (p. 44) This story occasionally makes explicit points about the attitudes of Lovecraft’s work. In this dream quest, there are female cats; Lovecraft’s cats are male. Here “no man” is extended to “or woman” where Lovecraft did not consider women at all. Here, race is no signifier of characteristics.

I don’t know enough about Lovecraft’s time and place to know whether his attitudes on women and race were unusual, but it is clear they are different from what a reader of Kij Johnson is likely to find acceptable today. It is tempting to wonder whether more must have been lost from Lovecraft’s dark imaginings along with his dark attitudes, but I see no sign of it. Terrible things are possible in Johnson’s dreamlands.  The stakes are just as high for her protagonist as they were for Lovecraft’s, the insane gods just as dangerous and the outcome rather less certain. And she is in better command of the material. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe is a glorious entreport to Lovecraftiana but, I fear, a dangerous one, as I doubt many other uses of the material are as satisfying.

Endnotes

[1] actual quote from The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. [return]



Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appears in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector Magazine.
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