Mundane Horrors: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s recent contribution to the Tor.com novella imprint, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, takes the reader into the dreamlands of Lovecraft to tell a very different type of story. Vellitt, our titular protagonist, is an older woman, a scholar—and she is tasked with fetching one of her young charges back from the waking world, where she has gone with a lover, himself a dreamer in their lands. Except, no surprise, it’s hardly that simple.

There are two things that make me appreciate a twist on the eldritch weirdness of Lovecraft in contemporary fiction. First, the text has to address the political and social issues of the source material—get clever with it, subvert it, acknowledge the racism and sexism. Second, the text has to contain the same hair-raising discomfort and cosmic horrors that draw readers like myself to Lovecraft to begin with.

Kij Johnson does both. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a strong novella as Lovecraftian fiction and on its own.

To be frank, it’s just a damn good read. It’s smart, the prose is compelling and lush without becoming comedic, and the characters are a delight. From each angle—as a Lovecraftian story, and as a story about an older woman on a journey of self-discovery—this novella is a solid experience. The two angles also meld surprisingly well; noting them separately is more a critical function, to let me approach the work Johnson is doing, than a reflection of any kind of bifurcation in the prose.

Vellitt is reasonable, careful, and resourceful. She’s also sharp as a knife and witty as hell. I appreciated her point of view throughout the journey, as she comes to realize that she’s been a far-traveler at heart all these years despite settling down to become a professor. Her perspective—a woman grown, moved past adventure and romance but then come back to it again—is unique. It gives this tale a particularly compelling emotional arc, one I don’t see very often in sf. If this had been Jurat’s adventure, a young scholar who falls for a man speaking of a world with a million stars, we’d have seen it before; Vellitt, though, is another matter.

In a similar vein, the treatment of the familiar phrases and descriptions in the dreamland as real simple life is also fantastic. The gods here are mad, capricious, and all too common; the gugs and ghouls and ghasts have cultures Vellitt must navigate. The images given over to the tale from its Lovecraftian antecedent are breathed to a sort of eerie realist life. Instead of dreamlike, the horror becomes mundane, because it is mundane for Vellitt. The novella, then, balances itself between hallucinatory terror and pleasant plodding realism. For me, that was readers’ catnip.

Some plot spoilers whited out below. Highlight to read:

The young woman Vellitt is going to fetch, granddaughter of a god and ultimately going back to redefine godhood in their lands, is also given a nice turn. I appreciated that instead of being a young silly lover fetched up in a foreign land, she had broken up with the man she came to the waking world alongside and become a barista. She is passionate, smart, and hates giving up the life she sought out—but she’s willing to do it to make things change in the lands where she came from.

Vellitt, on the other hand, has travelled as far as it’s possible for her to travel. She cannot return, having earned the ire of the gods in the dreamlands; instead, she will take up a mortal waking-world life with her magically transmuted car and her world-traversing cat companion. She will be a scholar again, perhaps, or something entirely else. It’s refreshing that Vellitt’s life is clearly still growing and spooling out in front of her, as much as Jurat’s is.

Johnson’s novella has all the power and compelling drive of an adventure tale. It’s got a journey, peril, and mad gods—horrible oceans and skies that turn and twist, beautiful despite or because of that terror. But it also has meeting old lovers and companions, a woman in the prime of her aging rediscovering herself and moving on from a staid path, and a young woman finding her calling. As a tale and as a commentary, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe just works. I quite liked it, and strongly recommend giving it a read. Johnson has a deft handle on balancing her technique with her plot with her emotional arc; that’s on full display here, creating a novella at once fun and clever and thoughtful.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available now from Tor.com Publishing
Read an excerpt from the novella here on Tor.com, plus get a behind-the-scenes look at mapping the Dreamlands.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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