In a land defined by dreaming men and bickering gods, there were no sure rules, but there was also no certain randomness.
—Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 133-134
You don’t have to have read Lovecraft or Dunsany to appreciate The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Without those references, it is still a very competent fantasy novelette. Johnson has a good eye for detail, characterization, description; the plot moves quick, never gets hung up too long in one place, one peril. Vellitt Boe is on a mission, after all.
That being said, without the historical context of Lovecraft and Dunsany, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is in danger of being misunderstood as a generic fantasy novel, of the sort inspired by a thousand sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, or Fighting Fantasy. This comes almost as a consequence of how you get from Lord Dunsany to Kij Johnson, and to really appreciate what she is doing in this novelette and how it got there requires a bit of background.
H. P. Lovecraft discovered Lord Dunsany in 1919. The Anglo-Irish peer had created an artificial mythology in his tales of Pegāna, which would inspire Lovecraft’s own mythos, and the stories of “Beyond the Fields We Know” in Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919) including “Idle Days on the Yann” and “The Shop in Go-By Street” would lay the groundwork for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.
It is important to remember that Lovecraft built his Mythos over time, defining and re-defining it as time went on and other influences came to bear. “The Cats of Ulthar” (written June 1920) was not originally set in the Dreamlands; it was a generic fantasy. The first actual Dreamlands story was “Celephaïs” (written November 1920). In later fiction, these early fantasies and their names and geographies would be subsumed into the Dreamlands—and the “Dream Cycle” with its vagaries and contradictions (were exactly is Leng?) have given compilers of Mythos-lore much to chew on and argue about.
Randolph Carter came into existence in 1919 as well, in “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” This early story had nothing to do with the Dreamlands either; Lovecraft recorded a dream in his letters involving himself and his friend Samuel Loveman. In turning the dream into a story, Loveman became “Hartley Warren” and Lovecraft himself became “Randolph Carter.” The character became a self-identified counterpart for Lovecraft himself in his stories, though he appeared in only a few of them, notably “The Silver Key” (1926), which is the only one that was a Dreamlands tale until The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (written 1926-1927).
Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest is fundamentally different from anything he wrote before or since. Maybe that is why in part it found no publication during his lifetime. Too long, too weird, too inexplicably full of adventure—it is this novelette which binds together Lovecraft’s “dream” stories, early fantasies, and Randolph Carter stories. Without Dream-Quest, you could argue the Dreamlands are still a part of the Mythos, but places like Ulthar wouldn’t be a part of it. This was the story that really gave the scope and connective tissue that bound much of Lovecraft’s early fiction together. In structure and conception, it is much more similar to David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) or E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922) than anything else.
There aren’t really any women in it.
Which is true for much more of Lovecraft’s fiction than just The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As discussed in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft does have female characters in his stories, but the gender balance is distinctly skewed towards male characters. In large part, this seems to be simply because Lovecraft seldom made a character female unless there was a reason for her to be female. Which is why the only absolute reference to women in Dream-Quest is:
It is known that in disguise the younger among the Great Ones often espouse the daughters of men, so that around the borders of the cold waste wherein stands Kadath the peasants must all bear their blood.
That’s it. There are other references to women in some of the other stories, if you look hard enough—the cat-killing wife in “The Cats of Ulthar” for example—but for the most part, women are implicit. Priests, but no priestesses. “Men” as a generic term for all persons of every gender, in the very 18th century sense. Rapacious gods of the Greco-Roman school, but no lusty goddesses bedding the handsome young men around Kadath.
It was in this context that Kij Johnson wrote her own Dream-Quest, and it is in many ways both a continuation of the tradition of Dunsany and Lovecraft, and a reflection on those works.
And I must of course acknowledge Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it.
—Kij Johnson, “Acknowledgements” in The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 167
Johnson did the work, sifted the stories. The story is set between “The Silver Key” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”; it references Lovecraft’s geography and zoology, but also subtly grounds and expands them. The Dreamlands are seen through the eyes of a native, an intelligent and experienced woman who knows more of how things work and finds delight in them. The skill of her construction is such that she never needs to cite a story specifically; it is never written that “In Ulthar no man may kill a cat,” because the idea is implicit in the story: no one even thinks of trying to kill a cat in Ulthar. It simply doesn’t come up. More amusingly and refreshingly, we get little anecdotes like how a young Vellitt Boe tried to climb Hatheg-Kla under the logic that it was only said no man could climb it. A neat bit which feels a bit like Éowyn taking a swing at the Witch-King of Angmar.
The story is at its best when it is showing rather than telling. Why not a woman’s college in Ulthar? Why not a female far-traveler? Nothing in Randolph Carter’s dream-quest required him to have a penis, so what’s to stop a woman from having her own adventure in the Dreamlands? Absolutely nothing.
The story is arguably at its weakest when it stops showing and starts telling.
She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.
“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”
Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers. (ibid. 71-72)
In narrative terms, the characterization of Randolph Carter as a bit of a straw-man serves its purpose only in highlighting Boe’s struggles as a woman. Even in the Dreamlands, there are gender norms and imbalances; the women’s college of Ulthar is the youngest and most vulnerable of the seven universities, and even a hint of scandal could see it closed, upper education cut off. In that sense, Johnson needed some character to personify the casual misogyny that Boe quested against as much as anything else.
Carter as a mouthpiece is problematic mainly because he never voices such views in Lovecraft’s fiction, and as he is implicitly Lovecraft’s alter-ego (though Johnson does not make this point) it can be read as Johnson putting words in Lovecraft’s mouth. While Lovecraft did evince a few chauvinistic statements during his life, he never wrote anything like what Carter says in Johnson’s Dream-Quest. The statement (“powerful women dreamers” is a great line) needed to be made at some point, if for no other reason than it sets up the finale, but the characterization seems off; rather like Ervin Howard in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. If a dead horse is going to be beaten, at least beat it for something it actually did.
There is a line in the story that may be uncomfortable, but then it would be a sad world where such a line would be otherwise:
As a young woman, when she had been beautiful and had worn her hair short and her clothes loose to conceal that fact, she had known all the signs of men and read them well enough that she had been successfully robbed only three times and raped once; but none of those had burned from her the hunger for empty spaces, strange cities, new oceans. (ibid. 83)
Nothing of the act, which happened sometime in the far past, is shown. Which is good; the last thing the story needed was an exploitative recap, some trauma porn of the effect and slow recovery. The event happened, it didn’t define her. It is also not the only mention of rape in the story; Vellitt Boe is traveling mostly alone in a quasi-Early Modern fantasy world. Sexual assault need not have a gender bias (the setting rarely hints at lesbianism as a possibility, and male homosexuality is completely absent from the text) but old habits die hard. How many women traveling alone today have the same fear?
Which is perhaps the one real criticism of The Dream-Quest of Villett Boe. It is great for what it is, but if the purpose was to have a message as well tell a story, it feels like it could have been that much better. Why aren’t there any female gods in the Dreamlands? Why aren’t there any female dreamers? Johnson wasn’t obliged to stick to Lovecraft or Dunsany in every regard, and doesn’t. Yet her Dreamland is almost too close to the waking world in some of its gender constructs and mores.
You might be interested to know that at the party one very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
—Joanna Russ, To Write Like A Woman 64
Russ, of course, wrote her own Dreamlands tale: “My Boat” (1976). Ironically, Russ’s story features a powerful woman dreamer (who also happens to be black), exactly the kind of character that Villett Boe lamented never meeting in her own Dreamlands. It’s a pity that the two characters didn’t run across each other—but the tales remain complementary. The Dreamlands is big enough for both characters, and more besides.
The book is at its most subversive when just letting Vellitt Boe find her own way, rather than being escorted by guards or ghouls or rescued by gugs. The Dreamlands through her eyes is a delight, and just having a female character be the protagonist of a Dreamlands story in itself is more of a statement that See? Women can explore the Dreamlands too! than any of the casual misogyny attributed to Randolph Carter (or, implicitly, Lovecraft). If Johnson’s goal beyond writing the story was to write a Dreamlands where the women aren’t invisible and mute, she can certainly be said to have succeeded. Above and beyond that, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a very rare thing: a good Dreamlands story, written in a way that is not a pastiche of Dunsany or Lovecraft.
Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was published in 2016 by Tor.