How brutal is Agents of Dreamland? How much uncaring hostile universe shines through its pages in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s precisely elegant prose?
Friends, the answer is a lot.
I should really know better than to read Kiernan at this point. Even her pseudonymous lighter work has a track record of leaving me with nightmares: The bleak and blasted heath of a universe inimical to human life is usually the vision her work gives me, and honestly, I’m really bad at dealing with that. I can appreciate it as really well-crafted! But emotionally, I can’t connect to it at all.
Agents of Dreamland is an absolutely glittering novella that goes extremely dark places. A world-weary secret agent meets a foreign operative in a diner in a desert town. The second operative isn’t quite human. The secret agent has just seen the last stages of an apocalyptic cult, infected with a mind- and flesh-altering fungus. The spores they have set free will infect the world. And in the dark between the stars, something is stirring.
This is a gorgeous dark terrifying piece of Lovecraft-inspired horror. Including body-horror. Not for the squeamish, and definitely not for anyone looking for eucatastrophic endings. But really good at what it is.
I’m behind the times in talking about Kij Johnson’s Nebula-nominated The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. It is, I can tell you, just as good as everyone says it is. (It seems I’m going to have to stop saying I don’t like Lovecraftiana. At this point, the Lovecraftiana I’ve read and enjoyed—and in some cases really admired—significantly outnumbers the Lovecraftiana I’ve read and disliked. Although I still don’t like H.P. Lovecraft’s own work. Shut up, you weebly little racist, and stop using all those adjectives. Never managed to finish a whole text.)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is another item to add to the list of “Lovecraftiana that I love,” joining the forthcoming (amazing) Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys. Written—as the title gives away, and as Johnson’s “Acknowledgements” makes explicit—as a response to Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe follows Vellitt Boe, professor at Ulthar’s precariously-situated Women’s College, in quest across the dreamlands to bring back a young woman who’s absconded with a man from the waking world. If Vellitt cannot retrieve Clarie Jurat, the Women’s College may be shut down—or, she discovers, worse may befall. In a world with mad and destructive gods, Ulthar itself, Vellitt’s home for twenty years, is at risk should one of them awake and discover his descendant Jurat missing.
This is a quest story. With a sensible middle-aged professor as the protagonist, through a fantastical landscape filled with strangeness. There are ghouls and gugs and tunnels, ships and dangerous forests and the courts of kings. And a consistent undercurrent of hopeful kindness, of solidarity, of doing the right thing not for hope of gain but because it is the right thing, and finding that in time it has borne fruit.
“Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you,” Jurat says to Vellitt, at the novella’s thematic climax—a pair of lines that pack a powerful punch in context, for Vellitt has just realised that she herself cannot go home again—to her teaching position at Ulthar’s Women’s College, the place she didn’t realise was home until it was barred to her forever.
Gorgeously written and wonderfully characterised, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a striking achievement. I really loved it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.