The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

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.

Horrible. Perfect.

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.

End *SPOILERS*.

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.

Work In Progress: Last Days of Loneliness

I’ve shared my thoughts on this with you before (here too), but I have some more material.  It turns out that I still haven’t solved some issues I was nattering about back in November:

So, I’m still seeing this big problem looming in front of me.  I’ve got this wonderful ending all set up at the moment, with Amanda and Doug Felber working together to try to burn the eggs in order to destroy them.  I really like the whole idea of the flamethrower, and think it’s pretty awesome.  But WHY THE HELL WOULD THEY KNOW TO USE A FLAMETHROWER?

That’s one big issue: I don’t presently have a reasonable path for them to follow to even discover that fire would be necessary to kill the stupid eggs.  Nor do I have a reason for why anyone would tell them this.  Nor do I have a reason why they would think that the whole town might be destroyed, nor do I have a reason for why they might find out that destroying the eggs would result in destroying the town.

To sum it up:

  • No reason to know to kill the eggs with fire
  • No one with a reason to *tell* them to kill the eggs with fire
  • No reason to know that killing the eggs destroys the town
  • No one with a reason to tell them that killing the eggs destroys (or might destroy) the town.

In some ways, that last one is the easiest to solve.  If one of them tells someone that knows the Mother about the plan to destroy the eggs, that person might wig out and tell them that it’s a stupid idea.  Problem is, anyone who did tell them it’s a stupid idea would also then know that they were thinking about destroying the eggs.

All of that is potentially solved through sufficient idiot-balling, with Amanda fooling Rick/friend into thinking that she’s going to join the cult and getting a tour of the eggs and asking questions (“If they’re so important, why aren’t they better protected?  What would happen if someone broke them?”).  But that feels like it could be more than Amanda would be willing or able to pull off, and it would require the other person not to twig to the very suspicious questions.  Don’t like that idea.  See top for previous intro of this concept, which I’m now mostly dismissing.

Should I just kill my darlings and do away with killing the eggs with fire, and even do away with having the town be destroyed?  What would that look like?

Ditching both schticks

Amanda goes to town on the eggs with a sledgehammer, breaks them open and kills them, the town’s covenant is broken and the cult’s connection to Mother is destroyed (or maybe the cultists were all just crazy to begin with and that was all just them being super fucked in the head).  There’s a big anti-climax in the massive-wreckage department (have to rewrite the beginning again).  Amanda then has to burn down her house or something in order to ensure that her parents don’t try to come home, and flees town.  Another option would be going home and hoping that no one knows that she’s the one who broke the eggs, but that seems really boring because it doesn’t resolve the panic and tension of risking being discovered.  Which has been building since the middle of the book.

Ok, this seems possible, but the only interesting version of this that I can see at the moment is having Amanda burn down her house to force her family to move afterwards, and there’s just not as much horror there (unless, maybe, she murdered some people in the course of breaking the eggs, in which case now she’s also wanted for murder).

Quick question: what’s freakiest?  I think the most horrific option, and the one which best showcases her determination and how far she’s gone in terms of leaving conventional morality, is for Amanda to KNOW that she will (or might) kill everyone in town if she carries through with her plan.  She could find this out at the last minute, which wouldn’t change how bad what she does is, but knowing further ahead of time leaves more of the blame on her.  There’s no argument for the “heat of the moment” defense or whatever.

But “accidentally” destroying the town is pretty bad too, especially if she appears to feel little remorse.  And that opens up some potentially interesting scenes.

So then…

Keeping the “TOWN IS DESTROYED” schtick

I could keep the whole ‘town is destroyed thing’ and instead have it come as a surprise to Amanda.

Maybe she still planned to leave town because she thought she’d be discovered and killed, along with her family, so she sent her parents to NYC for their date, and then planned to burn down the house.  Turns out she didn’t have to burn down the house and tries driving away instead of sticking around for an earthquake that seems like seriously bad news.  Not as horrifying because Amanda doesn’t intentionally kill the whole town, but still pretty good overall.

OR

She thought she could get away with it and didn’t have plans to leave the town, so she just set up a date to distract her parents while she runs around all night.  If the date was in town, she finds them and hustles them into the car or desperately tries to convince them to leave (maybe at gunpoint).  If the date wasn’t in town, she just books it from town?

The ‘parents at gunpoint’ scene sounds pretty good, but the rest of it doesn’t feel like it has as much tension.  This would extend the physical threat of the climax, but (apart from holding her parents or others at gunpoint) wouldn’t do much to heighten the emotional climax.

One thing I definitely *don’t* want is for Doug to know that the town will be destroyed while Amanda does not.  I also don’t want him to know that it could happen and then inform Amanda.  That makes him as much (if not more) a villain as she is, and makes him just as complicit in the destruction of the town.  Besides, if he knows all these things, why hasn’t he acted on them?  If he would destroy the eggs himself, Amanda becomes at worst passive and at best an instigator rather than a decisive actor.

I do like the ‘holding parents at gunpoint thing, and I like the ‘town is destroyed’ thing, and I especially like her knowing ahead of time that the town will be destroyed (though I still would have to solve that stupid problem of it making no sense).  What about killing it with fire?

Pros / Cons of KILLING IT WITH FIRE

First of all, the scene (which has changed a good deal) originally came to me as something that involved a homemade flamethrower.  There was something almost too horrifying about having Amanda kill people with the flamethrower, something that really made the scene stand out in my mind.  Plus, if you’re looking at Cthonian eggs according to the relevant source material (which is fictitious bullshit anyway, so who cares), it’s made pretty clear that fire is definitely the best way to kill them.  Thinking about what you’d have to do in order to break a round, smooth-ish, and occasionally squirming rock… you’d be pretty likely to see your sledgehammer bounce or deflect in some possibly vicious ways.  For all that it requires more work beforehand and is more complicated overall, killing it with fire is definitely a lot simpler in the actual execution.

Are there any real story or scene benefits to having Amanda use a flamethrower vs. Amanda using a sledgehammer or something?

I guess I had an easier time imagining her using a flamethrower just because it would require less active upper body strength, but I already know that she does martial arts and has for quite a while, and I’ve definitely had female friends who are quite capable of and enjoy using sledges.  So using a sledgehammer certainly passes the plausibility test.  It also fits with the whole “Amanda is a hardcore badass” thing I’ve got going.  Fighting people with one is a little more difficult, but she’s still got the same things going for her.

I would be sad to see the flamethrower go, because it’s a fear-weapon as much as anything else.  There’s something especially upsetting about having Amanda kill people with the flamethrower in the course of achieving her goals, and I like that.  It isn’t as easy as using a gun, and feels more personal while still being scary.

Thinking a little further, I was going to mention that a sledgehammer allows for Amanda to use her martial arts in the middle of the fight while the flamethrower doesn’t, but that isn’t quite true.  It would certainly make it easier for someone else to rush her and for her to then get in a physical fight with them, but that’s still possible with the flamethrower; her having a flamethrower just means that the people facing her have to be more desperate, or the situation has to allow them to get next to her without her burning them.

What if Amanda and Doug plan to use the sledge, but bring the flamethrower as a fallback plan?  This is good, and gives an opportunity for Amanda to try breaking the eggs in the mine and fail… but it doesn’t serve tension in any meaningful way (if there’s a flamethrower, the writer will *use* the flamethrower, thank you very much).

This reminds me of a side problem, namely that I’m not sure why Amanda isn’t trying to break the eggs while still in the mine.  My original thought on that involved her taking them elsewhere to kill them in a special way or with a time delay that would let her escape town, but *that* was predicated on knowing that killing them would result in the destruction of the town, which is still a problem that I haven’t solved.

Further Troubleshooting: Last Days of Loneliness

Turkey Day approaches.  I’ll be spending a bunch of time with family around then, and for the week after.  This means that I’m unlikely to post much in the next two weeks, though I’ll see if I can scare up a few more interesting posts for you.  This Wednesday will be largely occupied with travel.

Today’s post is going to be a lot like last Wednesday’s, so spoilers abound.  This time I’ll be working through how exactly Amanda ends up deciding to break the town’s covenant with its deity-figure.  Oglaf illustrates the concept quite admirably here (surprisingly SFW, though the rest of the site isn’t).  Enjoy!

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Last Days of Loneliness: Writing the Middle is Terrible

My apologies for the much delayed post, I’ve had a moderately busy day: my visit to the optometrist took a bit longer than I’d anticipated, and I’ve started writing this far later than I’d originally planned.  Today’s topic is all about how frustrating I find writing the middle of Last Days of Loneliness.

If you followed that link (or remember the other earlier posts), you should have a pretty good idea of the shape of the story that I’m writing.  Like those posts, this one is going to be full of spoilers… so if you really want to shield yourself you should probably just stop reading.  If you want to read my thoughts as I try to solve the trouble that I’ve run into while trying to make the middle of the book live up to the promise of the premise, you know what to do.

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Last Days of Loneliness, a YA horror story pt. 3

This is yet another post about the YA horror novel I’ve been working on, which I roughly outlined here.  Last time I gave you the very beginning of the story (which I’ve already altered again); this time I’m going to give you the very end of the story.  This ending will undergo further changes: I already know that I need to decide whether it makes sense to have italicized thoughts-of-the-moment within the narrative, and if I like them, decide how to alter other story sections to incorporate them holistically rather than as a last minute deal.

Here’s the action climax:

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Last Days of Loneliness, a YA horror story pt. 2

Like I promised, I’ve got some actual text for you today.  I’m a bit late because I’ve just finished pounding through Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance, which I rather liked, but hopefully this material will make up for it.

Keep in mind that this is all still rough.  I’m not even sure that the narrator’s voice is appropriate, so whatever ends up being final may look wildly different.  With that said… I do hope you enjoy it.  Also, please do comment if you think something works particularly well, or really needs to be changed.  The beginning of the story lies after the break…

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Last Days of Loneliness, a YA horror story

A number of years ago, one of my writer friends mentioned a story concept that she wanted to share with me.  She wondered what would come of a Lovecraft-inspired horror story in which the protagonist was a high school girl who had just recently moved to a new town.  I immediately latched onto the idea.  We spent a few hours bouncing ideas back and forth, and at the end of our brainstorm session I asked whether she would like to collaborate with me on the project.  She said yes.

I started writing material for the story, occasionally ignoring school work that I really should have been doing at the time.  I soon had a great deal of (questionably valuable) material to share with her, but she’d fallen into a work-hole and been unable to claw her way out.  She ceded the project to me, though we continued to share our thoughts on it.

Fast forward a few years: after finishing my thesis, graduating, and getting back into the swing of writing for a while, I dust off my old drafts of this nascent YA horror novel and get some other people to take a look.  The drafts are, to put it figuratively, mostly made of poo.  I’m now aware of the fact that I have little idea of how to write a teenaged female narrator, which makes looking at my past struggles all the more painful.  But there are some pieces that seem like they still hold some value.  The concept and the basic story beats still seem basically solid, and the story clearly has an excellent ramp up to the climax.  Now the time has come to strip the piece down to its bare bones and tinker with it for a while.  Oh, and write a variety of new attempts at a teenaged female narrator, while reading as many pieces with teenaged female narrators as I can (preferably from the right genres).

In case you’re wondering where this is going, yes, I’ve got some material to share with you today.

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