Escaping Lovecraft’s Dream(land)s: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

“If you’re trapped in the dreams of another, you’re fucked.”-Gilles Deleuze

So last week I got to enjoy reading The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a new novella by Kij Johnson that takes off from the world of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. It’s part of a recent trend in SFF of writers reimagining Lovecraft’s work. The impetus for these reworks comes in light of the new critical scrutiny being paid to Lovecraft ever since the World Fantasy awards controversy back in 2014. These literary reexaminations could not be better timed, in my opinion. Apologists will argue that Lovecraft was just a man of his time and that his racist ideas died with him, but I have very little patience for that opinion following the election of Trump and the ascendancy of Steve Bannon and the alt-right. Those old school bigotries so powerfully thematized in Lovecraft’s fiction, so embarrassingly explicated in his letters, are still very much alive¹, and Lovecraft’s weird tales played a role in helping insure those ideas’ propagation in the American imagination. In a very real sense we are living in the dreams of Lovecraft, and the dreams of Lovecraft, as the man himself would readily admit, are nightmares.

Apropos to all this, I found it exceedingly fitting that Kij Johnson decided to focus her reimagining on Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. Our main character is Vellitt Boe, a middle-aged professor working at the grand university of Ulthar in the Dreamlands. Her quest begins when she learns that a student, Claire Jurat, has run away, eloping with some guy from the waking world. Johnson chooses to use Lovecraft as a vehicle to examine feminist issues more than racial ones, and accordingly, the main antagonistic force in the novel comes from some of the powerful men in Claire Jurat’s life, a wealthy father and a divine grandfather who could both cause real trouble for Ulthar and the university if Claire is not returned quickly. Vellitt Boe sets off to retrieve the girl, and the large majority of the book focuses on her attempt to get to the waking world, almost the exact inverse to Randolph Carter’s quest to find the sunset city of his deepest dreams in Lovecraft’s original. Vellitt Boe’s story, in overview, is an attempt to escape Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and this is a perfect metaphor for what Kij Johnson herself and other authors like her are trying to do in revising Lovecraft and renegotiating their place in his literary shadow.

So then, the crucial question: Does Vellitt Boe succeed?

On the level of narrative, I think the novel gives us kind of an unsatisfying ending. Vellitt Boe does eventually makes it out to the waking world and finds her wayward student working in a coffee shop. Claire Jurat has left her boyfriend, and both she and Vellitt realize that what really lured her wasn’t the guy, but the waking world itself, a world represented by Johnson as a foil to the Dreamlands. The Dreamlands are ruled by the caprices of malicious, paternalistic gods and the (exclusively male) dreamers from the waking world like Randolph Carter who use it and its people merely as a stage on which they can play out their own solipsistic fantasies. The waking world, by contrast, is represented as refreshingly atheistic and a place where it’s possible for a woman to determine her own fate. Unfortunately, Claire Jurat is still compelled to return to Ulthar lest her divine forebear go on a rampage and smite Ulthar in her absence. Meanwhile, Vellitt Boe herself decides that, having incurred the wrath of the gods, it would be best for her to stay in the waking world where they have no power.

I found there to be a certain cruelty in this resolution, regardless of Johnson’s attempts to explain it away. It’s not difficult to see that Dr. Kij Johnson, a 57 year old female professor, wrote Vellitt Boe largely from personal experience, and this ending where the older woman gets to enjoy the freedom of the waking world by sacrificing the young to the demands of the dreamlands’ patriarchal gods struck me as honestly kind of selfish. This ending, taken with the novella’s constant ruminations on aging and what is lost and gained with the years, seems to suggest that young women should just be willing to endure the worst inequities of patriarchy for the first half of their lives and then, after their youth and beauty has dried up, maybe they’ll be allowed to carve out a little place of personal freedom for themselves.

Johnson tries to assuage how unfair this ending feels by at the last minute painting Claire Jurat as a revolutionary who intends to use her power as the descendant of a god to overthrow the gods back in the Dreamlands, but I don’t find it convincing. Even if we accept that Claire Jurat’s little divine heritage as the granddaughter of a god did somehow pose a threat to the established deities, she would still be relying on and reinforcing the fundamental problem she’s trying to correct. Take this departing image of Claire.

“The gate was secured with a lock, shining like gold. They had no key, but Claire said in a god’s voice, “I will enter,” and the Gate burst open. “Live without gods,” she said to Vellitt, and stepped onto the silver pavement…Claire [turned] back to Reon, who had fallen to his knees before her. “Do not kneel,” said Claire Jurat in a voice like thunder, like earths breaking and stars forming. “No more gods.”

This is an extremely mixed image. Claire comes to herald the end of the divine order, and yet she comes dressed in all the terrifying garb of that order. Her proclamation that the time of the gods has ended comes in the form of divine fiat, an unreasoning command just as capricious as the gods she’s trying to subvert. These are not the images with which you organize a revolution. A coup, maybe, but no real revolution.

Leaving the larger plot aside, however, I think there’s a lot to be said for Johnson’s writing in itself, her treatment of the dreamlands. Kij Johnson has never impressed me as an artist with the ability to imagine really new worlds. Her strength as a writer comes from her ability to dive deep into our old worlds and look at them from new angles. Kij Johnson’s dreamlands just feel so different despite being based in the same continuity as Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s architectonic, Byzantine writing is replaced by Johnson’s crisp, clear prose, and his young, narcissistic protagonist is changed for an older one more in touch with the reality inside the fantasy. The change of perspective might not be quite a revolution or a new world, but it is a refreshing take on Lovecraft’s old pulp world, and it makes for a good read.

When asked at a roundtable discussion she participated in what inspired her to write a Lovecraft-based novella, Johnson said, “I was thinking a lot about the invisible women in literature, and wanted to write about them. All the master dreamers of the dreamlands are men, as though Lovecraft didn’t think women were capable of big dreams.”

For what it’s worth, Kij Johnson does make it possible for a woman to be a dreamer in Lovecraft’s dreamlands. As a writer, Johnson is still too much in love with Lovecraft’s ideas and Lovecraft’s world to really challenge that world’s gods, but she does force those gods to acknowledge her and address her as a subject, not just a background character or a prop. While Johnson as a writer may in the end remain trapped in the dreams of H.P. Lovecraft, she’s at least found a way to make them her dreams.

¹ Or perhaps instead of ‘alive’, I should say ‘undead reanimated nightmare phantasms come screaming out of the darkness beyond the edge of time.’ There’s something terribly Lovecraftian about the way race as an ideology reproduces itself in America. It always comes to us as this reanimated monster from the long past that thrusts itself upon us from out of its graveyards and ruins where all sane, rational conceptions say it should be lying long dead.

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