It will come as no surprise that I am not the world’s biggest Lovecraft fan. The flagrant racism and xenophobia that fuels and flavors his work is a big turn-off. And the fact that I am of the demographic that HPL saved some of his more hateful descriptions doesn’t help matters. (Sorry, but I can’t overlook the doggrell “On the Creation of Niggers,” to bask in his supposed genius, as some purists insist. In fact, such a suggestion–that I overlook HPL’s racial hatred–are borderline abusive and is a perfect example of racist gaslighting).
However, I am a fan of the recent flood of revisionist Lovecrafian mythos. They make me a Lovecraft fan-by-proxy. I gobbled up Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom with eagerness. Kij Johnson’s entry into Lovecraftiana examines gender issues where Ruff and Lavalle examined racial ones.
Velitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college and former explorer of the Dream Lands. When one of her students has left the college in the thrall of a man of the Waking world, Boe tasks herself in bringing the student back. The student’s disappearance has cataclysmic implications, as well as being a more mundane, university-level scandal. The novella follows Boe as she travels the perilous Dream Lands as a middle-aged woman.
But the plot of the novella really isn’t the point, in my opinion. It’s a meandering travelogue where Johnson gets to explore Lovecraft’s wonder-filled creation. Johnson is a graceful stylist, and chooses her words with precision. Though there are moments of terror, they are still rendered in a painterly way. As a result, she imbues a bizarre beauty to the various nightmare creatures. The gugs, gaunts, and ghouls aren’t just chattering chaotic evil. They have a hinted hierarchal structure and an alien moral code. In this way, rather than outright polemics, Johnson undermines the incipient xenophobia that’s a feature of Lovecraft’s fiction.
Johnson’s novella has done the nigh-impossible: it makes me interested in reading the source text!