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.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

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Victor LaValle doesn’t rehabilitate HP Lovecraft; he takes all the good, sheds the malevolent dreck, and adds to the horror a heart and depth that HPL never managed to find. The Ballad of Black Tom (on B&N and Amazon) is a far better imagining of HPL’s The Horror at Red Hook; it has a humanity to it that Lovecraft couldn’t write, and is in every way a superior story.

LaValle uses the story of a young black man to artfully tie the everyday horror of injustice, and humanity’s easy inhumanity, to the overarching themes of cosmic horror and the pursuit of power. He does so while retaining the wonder and strangeness of HPL’s more evocative works, even as he roundly and repeatedly critiques HPL’s own prejudices both implicitly and explicitly. This story is a treat.

If you ever found any redeeming quality in a story by Lovecraft, any frisson of horror that moved you, I suggest that you read this book. If you steered clear of HPL’s work because of its noxious toxicity, but are willing to give horror with heart a try, I recommend this book a hundred times over.

It’s a shame that so much of cosmic horror is tied to HPL these days. HPL’s large collection of ‘-isms’ are so inextricably tied into his stories that they are themselves a source of horror. But Robert W. Chambers wrote cosmic horror before him (with The King in Yellow), and The Ballad of Black Tom is proof that there’s good cosmic horror after him. I’m glad to have a story I can wholeheartedly recommend which doesn’t cover or ignore HPL’s awfulness, but instead acknowledges and rejects it completely.

If you want more other stories like this, there’s a collection of four novellas (including The Ballad of Black Tom) called Reimagining Lovecraft. I haven’t read the other stories yet, but I will soon.