“Some people change the world.” – The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (REVIEW)


Disclaimer: prepare yourself for some heart-on-the-sleeve gushing.

HP Lovecraft, arguable big daddy of one vein of weird fiction, is known for a lot of things – unfettered racism and a discernible lack of female characters among them – but sheer breathtaking magic that warms the heart and gets it racing at the same time isn’t exactly one of them. With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson takes Lovecraft’s Dreamland setting and reinvents it with so much skill that I could genuinely, and without a sliver of hyperbole, cry.

Especially in light of recent dramas directed at the weird fiction community, there’s a certain amount of baggage that comes with expanding – and especially subverting – Lovecraft’s universe. Personally, I’m all for it. First, old HP’s flaws and prejudices can’t just be ignored, and they can still be addressed while appreciating the more positive elements of his work. And second, the very act of recalibrating Lovecraft’s seminal universe with a more diverse and inclusive world in mind has given us some absolute gems over the past few years, including but not limited to Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I reviewed here), and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. What Ruff and LaValle’s works did for African American characters in a Lovecraftian universe, Johnson’s does for strong female characters.

Set in the Dreamlands introduced in Lovecraft’s short story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson’s busy novella follows Professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at the Ulthar Women’s College. After Clarie Jurat, a student and the daughter of one of the university’s trustees, runs away with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt is tasked with retrieving her, on a journey that will span the depths and heights of the Dreamlands in all their magical and treacherous variety.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I read Kadath, or any of Lovecraft’s other Dreamlands-set stories, so my memory of such wasn’t exactly fresh when I dove into Johnson’s novella. Thankfully, prior knowledge or context is far from necessary; there are some fun references to Lovecraft’s original stories here, but both die-hard fans and those to whom names like Randolph Carter and the Plateau of Leng are utterly unfamiliar will enjoy this story just as much.

Setting the bulk of the novella in the Dreamlands themselves allows Johnson to give it a fresh flavour while maintaining most of Lovecraft’s established geography and mythos. But these never impinge on or shape the story Johnson is trying to tell. The narrative’s borders do expand as we follow Vellitt Boe’s perilous journey, but despite the sense of growing danger and the bitter scheming of elder gods, her quest keeps all those unspeakable, madness-inducing elements in the peripheries.

Vellitt Boe’s 55-year-old female protagonist provides a unique and utterly engaging perspective; in her younger days she was a fervent adventurer, trekking across most of the Dreamlands, coming face to face with danger and wonder both. As an older woman engaged with retrieving one of her students, she might be a little less physically up to scratch, but she’s just as capable and much wiser than her more free-wheeling younger self as she retraces some of her earlier footsteps. Her age works on both a practical level and a philosophical one, giving her the tools and agency to navigate the dangers, monstrous or human, that she encounters on her journey.

To say this is a book about female empowerment is too reductive. It absolutely is a book about female empowerment, and Johnson addresses the failings of Lovecraft’s original Dream-Quest in ways both direct and subtle, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it.

There’s a freshness to Vellitt Boe’s journey, a kind of fragrance that places it somewhere between a fairy tale and a fantasy adventure. It moves at a wonderful pace and fits in a lot for its short length. It’s also a fun, and – unlike old HP’s work – heart-warming story. All of this sets Johnson’s book apart from Lovecraft’s work, despite the shared setting and mythology. There’s a distinct lack of horror or sense of cosmic indifference – at least in the usual Lovecraftian sense – and as much as I enjoy those things in a lot of fiction, Johnson’s choice to remove her work from that was an inspired decision. It stills thrills and terrifies often, but without the sense of inescapable doom that hounds Lovecraft’s thinly-drawn characters.

Instead we get a book that celebrates the depth of human perseverance, wit, and experience, and the things we carry with us as we age.

Ultimately, there aren’t enough adjectives in the world to properly encapsulate how I feel about this book. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, if not decade, and it has one of the most resonant and beautiful and thrilling endings to a story I think I’ve ever read. What it ends up being about is something so far removed from Lovecraft’s original stories that it renders its inspiration almost unrecognisable, because for all its magic and wonder, for all its deft fantastical elements and beautiful dream-logic, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is about people, in all their fallible and unique incarnations.

As one character says to the protagonist: “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.” Vellitt Boe might be the latter, but with her writing, Kij Johnson is undoubtedly the former.


Racism, Black Magic & Transformation: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom

[Contains some spoilers.]

For all his influence on weird fiction, his insinuation into pop culture and his insemination of so much fictional homage (of varying degrees of quality), it’s fairly well known by now that HP Lovecraft was also a racist piece of shit, an unfortunate quality that also shines through in much of his fiction. This is apparent not just in his portrayal of squirming, unspeakable monsters, but pretty much any description of non-Aryan characters, although ‘characters’ might be overstating it. Rancorous descriptions abound of the “hatefully negroid”, “unclassified slant-eyed folk”, and the “blackest and most vicious criminals”, and all this in just one story.

Here’s the thing though: most people remotely familiar with old HP’s work have digested these vile attributes as part of his problematic legacy, either disavowing him entirely or at least acknowledging the inherent problems with the man and his work; the only arseholes who don’t accept it are probably the same kind of people who are still saying, “Yeah, but her emails…”

Personally, Lovecraft will always be one of my major early influences, but both as a writer and a reader it’s essential to evolve, not only in general, but particularly in cases like this, lest one be caught up in Cthulhu’s white supremacist tentacles for untold aeons. That’s not to say that you can’t – or that I don’t – still enjoy a bit of Nyarlathotep or Shub-Niggurath goodness, because you can – and I do – but ignoring or excusing Lovecraft’s attitudes as a natural product of its time is not only lazy, but implicitly racist in its own way too. Recognising and calling out someone’s bigotry, no matter how long dead he is, doesn’t entirely negate an appreciation of the guy’s work or deny the scope of his influence on an entire genre, but it does acknowledge the issue with blindly idolising a writer whose racism wasn’t the only problem with his fiction.

Either way, contemporary weird literature has an obligation to move past and subvert the distasteful elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, at the very least. That there’s still so much Lovecraft-inspired fiction being produced really gives writers the opportunity to actively address HP’s bigotry, to tackle it head-on and present a Mythos story from the point of view of one of those minorities previously relegated to a “babel of sound and filth”. Which is exactly what Victor LaValle has done with The Ballad of Black Tom, essentially a remake of one of Lovecraft’s more racially inflamed stories, “The Horror at Red Hook”.

The original story deals with the occult underbelly of, you guessed it, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and the involvement of the “queer, corpulent” recluse Robert Suydam in kidnappings, illegal immigration and clandestine rituals. It’s not exactly HP’s strongest work, and is dragged down to the point of ruin by its flagrant racism and stereotyping, but there are a few great moments in “Red Hook”, particularly the lurid, teeming descriptions of “night crypts [and] titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” Really though, this is limited to a handful of fleeting scenes; even discounting the racism, the story is messy and more than a little dull.

For The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle seems to take the parts he likes, omitting entirely the weird tangential wedding from HP’s original. His version of the story focuses on black Harlem resident and not-very-good musician, Charles Thomas Tester as he gets caught up in the occult. Although it’s not necessary to have read Lovecraft’s story prior to this, LaValle interweaves characters and elements from the original to the extent that some knowledge of “The Horror at Red Hook” would benefit the reader, if only to be able to say “Oh, that’s cool, I see what he did there.”

The importance of LaValle’s novella cannot be understated, not just in terms of its response to the problematic ways of Lovecraft and his fiction, but especially in today’s climate of inclement ignorance and racial hatred. This is a great book in that it’s not simply playful or original in its subversion of Lovecraft’s fiction and philosophy, but that it digs deep. There are layers here waiting to be unpeeled, not the least of which is an excellent, subtle commentary on Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentist philosophy. Tester notes at one point that a “fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve”, which is a great way of examining the implications of the author’s supposed indifference relative to his racist views. This also brings to light Lovecraft’s often deliberately flimsy characterisation; with Tester, we get not only an interesting and unique character, but through him and the context of his race and circumstances, an empathetic one. The dynamic LaValle creates in rewriting a Lovecraftian story with a black character gives the mythos a fresh coat of paint with his different perspective and experience of the world, but it’s also infinitely more engaging in that we’re following a real, three-dimensional person rather than a character designed to simply convey the plot. Gone is the passive observer. Tester’s treatment – and subsequently the treatment of black people in general at that particular time and place – moves the reader far more than the realisation of humanity’s insignificance, a realisation that by this point isn’t all that groundbreaking. After all, “what was indifference compared to malice?”

Everything I’m saying here probably makes it sound a lot heavier than it actually is. Black Tom does tackle some serious issues, but LaValle is never heavy-handed in his execution. That he’s managed to wrap his poignant and subversive commentary on Lovecraft’s racism in a work of fiction that’s thrilling and electric and just plain fun is an enormous feat.

Where Black Tom falls flat for me, however, is in its inclusion of Lovecraft’s titular Mythos deity, Cthulhu. The original story had no overt connection to the tentacled beastie, nor any other of his squirming brethren, although its use of cults and monsters and eldritch dimensions still places it firmly within that universe. What I liked about “Red Hook” was the ambiguity and relative freshness of some of its horrors, particularly the “naked phosphorescent thing” that emerges from an otherworldly lake towards story’s end. Unfortunately this is one of the elements that LaValle decided to cut, replacing it with the more recognisable Cthulhu, which in some ways seems like a bit of a safer route, and ultimately a less engaging one.

About halfway through, the narrative switches from looking over Tester’s shoulder, to the detective Malone’s, Lovecraft’s equivalent of a mostly useless protagonist in the original. Although this tactic adds to the suspense and mystery regarding Tester’s actions and motivations, it definitely feels like the weaker section of the narrative after the tour de force of Tester’s opening. LaValle does explore the matter-of-fact racism expressed by Malone and company, but aside from his sensitivity to the supernatural, Malone is cardboard compared to Tester.

These flaws aren’t deal-breakers though, and in the end The Ballad of Black Tom is an engaging, original work that does the genre a service in its subversion of the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. It marks an important milestone in Lovecraft’s contentious legacy, and it’s a bloody great read, too.