In the lands of Dreaming, in the city of Ulthar, Vellit Boe has given up a life of wandering to become a professor at a college for young women, but when the daughter of a powerful man runs away with her lover to seek a new life in the waking world, Vellit Boe must follow and face the anger of the sleeping gods.
H.P.Lovecraft’s “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” was an unusual novella. While closely connected with his horror stories and featuring his regular protagonist Randolph Carter, the story fits more neatly into the modern category of fantasy rather than horror. Published posthumously, it’s a weird trippy premise of a journey through a geography of dreams was re-embraced in the sixties.
Kij Johnson’s novella, flips the structure of Lovecraft’s novella. A denizen of dreaming sets off to find the waking world, she is a woman rather than a man and she does so because she has too. In doing so, the story revisits many of the locations from Lovecraft’s story, including a visit to his protagonist Randolph Carter. The stakes in Vellit Boe’s quest steadily increase as she discovers more at work than simply an absconding student and finally the story resolves itself with a bittersweet ending in the modern waking world.
Johnson more closely echoes Lovecraft’s style in her new perspective on an old story than Victor LaValle did in the Ballad of Black Tom. However, both stories use non-Lovecraftian protagonists to re-explore the assumptions of the originals – in the case of Vellit Boe the absence of women. Johnson takes that absence and makes it a feature of the story both in terms of the underpopulated human contingent of the world of dreams and the non-existence of women visiting from the waking world. Although niether are explained, she links them with the repeated contrast between the small number of stars in the sky of dreams and the millions of stars in the waking world.
You don’t need to have read Dream Quest of Unknown Kadeth to enjoy Johnson’s novella but you have to like the same style of wandering through strange locations and unnatural beasts in a sequence of episodes that blend into each other.
Enjoyable, weird and well executed.