Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.
The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.
Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.
Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.
But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.
There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.
Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.
There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.
Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.
I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.
Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.
Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.
Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.
Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.
Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…
The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.
Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.
On a small mountain rising out of the rain forest, nestled in an opening amidst thick-trunked gray-brown trees wreathed in lianas, a cool dark pond bubbles up from the rock below. Barely convex with the force of its spring, the pool does not reflect the light of the sky overhead, only the undersides of trees’ leaves. When rain falls, as it does every afternoon of the wet season, the sky’s water slides off the quietly bubbling spring and seeps into the rocky earth around it. It is only in those moments, when that thin sheet of sky-water oozes away across the pool like oil, that one may see the gray clouds or spotty blues of the sky overhead reflected on the pool.
The spring’s water is uniformly cold to the touch. Soothing on a hot day, local animals sometimes swim in it, never fighting while sharing the spring’s waters. Indeed, the local wildlife is larger, healthier, and more frequently docile than others of their kind. But a careful observer will note that no animal drinks more than a single sip from the pool on any visit, preferring instead to dip themselves in the spring without drinking from it. But the trees around the spring, watered by it, grow strong and tall. And these local animals eat freely from the small fruits hanging on those thick-trunked trees, casting seeds far and wide.
The spring is reputed to belong to the jealous god of life, growth, and small beginnings, a formidable being who is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or scorned. The story goes that anyone who drinks too fully from the spring offers themselves to this god of life, Tel, and invites Tel to work through them. Often, the story ends with an incautious and thirsty person clutching at their mouth in horror as mushrooms erupt from their skin and a small fruit tree with glistening gray-brown bark roots down through their feet and branches up through their skull. So it is that the spring is held to be both sacred and dangerous, a place to be venerated and, for the most part, avoided.
There are exceptions, of course. There are stories of some few more-favored by Tel who drank deeply from the spring and were blessed without becoming trees. And the people who hold the spring as holy do visit at certain times of year, as new growth burgeons and as seeds are sown, to make offerings and perform the rituals known to be pleasing to Tel. Those who are coming of age are bid to take one sip from the spring during these rites, in hopes of long and fruitful lives, while those whose limbs have been wounded, withered, or warped may sip in hopes that Tel will guide their limbs once more. But apart from these times, the spring is left alone on its mountaintop, a world apart from its surroundings, its strange reflections and turbulence unexamined and untouched.
Beneath the kindest branches of the go-now trees, ushered on by a warm wind now at one’s back, now easing the sweat from one’s brow, the most fortunate travelers wander on the Softest Road. It is not, it’s said, a route any may find by hunting it. It is rumored to be the least helpful road of all: only those who wander without urgent need may find it, and only those who continue on their path without worry may enjoy it. The focus and drive to seek a place, to rush from here to there, will lead any traveler on the Softest Road away from the giving earth which springs beneath their feet to deposit them on the hard and rocky dirt with no way to return. Those who stumble off the Road can find no path behind them, no hint of the Road they had just trod.
In fact, the only way to seek the Softest Road or remain upon it is to lose oneself in the enjoyment of one’s journey. Those who fall into a beautiful day’s travel, who marvel at the wonders around them and give in to the enjoyment of their surroundings, may find the ground beneath their feet shifting one step at a time, the land before them coaxing itself into a more even semblance of good footing and gentle travel. Slight slopes gain even grades and good gravel. Steep ones have regular steps, seemingly natural stones set perfectly for the walker’s gait. Dust never rises from the Softest Road, never choking and cloying, never thickening to sodden mud. Traffic, such as it is, is infrequent and rarely hostile. Beautiful vistas open themselves to the viewer on either side (or both) as the Softest Road meanders through gorgeous dells and sunny copses.
Trips which should have taken weeks may only require days on the Softest Road, though any given day’s travel might see one deposited early in a new place apart from one’s final destination, if the traveler gives over to dwelling on time or anything besides the joy of the journey. And there are stories of the opposite, of those who find themselves on the Softest Road for weeks when a trip should have taken an afternoon, too entranced by the marvel and relaxation of such perfect walking to find their way out.
There are stories of those who’ve found impossible places on their journeys on the Softest Road, visions of worlds unknown, of improbable structures and fabulous landscapes and even vast star-dotted emptiness. None know whether such places might be reachable, or found again, for none who’ve left the Road in their urgency to explore such have returned—at least, none who might be believed.
If nothing else, it is a certainty that the Softest Road does not traverse the space between two places. Those on the road are not seen by those off of it, except perhaps as momentary glimpses of travelers in strange places: striding upon high cliffs, stepping from tree to tree, or emerging from vast waters. The longer one walks the Softest Road, the further afield one may go and the stranger the things one may see.
It is not known who made the Softest Road, or if it was ever made at all. Perhaps it is simply some diffuse spirit of the vast universe finding its way to share with those amidst it. There are stories, tall tales told of some few who learned to find the Softest Road in one step; these folk strode without a care or a worry, passing from place to place in a joyous wandering, never staying long. They brought with them bizarre myths and ancient legends, and left behind them little relics of other lands before stepping out again never to return. Some say they’ve learned the trick of it too, but even these folk may lose their way from time to time, becoming too attached to a desire to truly live the aimless, wondering, wandering way of the Softest Road.