The short novel The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is Kij Johnson’s 21st-century rejoinder to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft. Johnson’s story features a college professor who is tasked with a quest in which she must journey to the “waking world,” so-called by its natives like Randolph Carter, who consider Kadath, Ulthar and its environs, Hatheg-Kla, Serranian, and the like to be “the lands of dream.” The story titles are not perfectly parallel: Unknown Kadath is a place, but Vellitt Boe is a protagonist.
Although far from uncritical of Lovecraft’s dreamlands, this story is also a fond homage to them, fully congruent with the narrative continuity established in Grandpa Cthulhu’s own tales, although taking place in a later period. By making her protagonist a native of the otherworld in quest of our own, Johnson put me a little in mind of Katherine Valente’s The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, but while that book offers its sojourn in the mundane quite early, Johnson’s takes almost the whole book to achieve it for Vellitt Boe.
There are a couple of subtle digs at Lovecraft’s racism, but the main conundrum of this Dream-Quest is gender: “Did women have dream lands? In all her far travelling, she had never seen a woman of the waking world nor heard of one” (50). Randolph Carter is supposed to have said it was on account of the “tiny,” domesticated dreams of women. But again, this book is not picking a fight with Lovecraft, so much as collaborating with his shade to build a framework that can open onto “another dream land, built from the imaginings of more powerful women dreamers” (72).
And it holds to the love for crystal cliffs and luminous sea-deeps, zoogs and gugs, subtle priests and sapient cats.