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Kij Johnson's novella, "The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe" is in many ways a response to H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," in which the protagonist, a man named Raymond Carter, first sees a mysterious city in his dreams and then finds a way to transport himself to this dreamworld full of magical places and terrifying creatures, where he undertakes a journey to find the city of his visions.

Johnson has set her story in that dreamworld. Vellitt Boe, a professor at Ulthar Women's College, is awakened one night to learn that one of her finest students, Clarie Jurat, has eloped with a man from 'the waking world,' as the inhabitants of the Six Kingdoms of the dreamworld call our reality. Because she travelled extensively in her youth, and because she knew a man from the waking world once - a man who, it turns out, was Raymond Carter himself - and knows the location of one of the gates that allows people to travel physically between the worlds, Boe undertakes to follow Clarie and bring her back. The stakes are high - Clarie is the daughter of a high official of the College and a socially prominent society; the College, and higher education for women, is not universally supported, and if Clarie is not recovered, there is a good chance that the College will be closed because of its inability to protect its students from scandal and impropriety. But there is more. Boe discovers that Clarie is the granddaughter of a god, and that the petty politics of the gods of the dreamworld may result in the destruction of Ulthar itself, and perhaps other lands of the dreamworlds as well.

This story is both labour of love, and critique, of Lovecraft's novella. As Johnson notes in her brief acknowledgements, "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."

Where Lovecraft has a young male protagonist searching for a vision out of his dreams, Johnson gives us a middle-aged woman fulfilling her responsibilities to an institution that gave her position, place and standing in a world - as created by Lovecraft - without much room for women, and to her student.

In the end, both Boe and the dreamworlds are changed by her dream-quest and its resolution, in ways that subvert Lovecraft's sexist and elitist imaginings but hold onto the wonder.

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.

[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books

Alex Brown,

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books

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More short stories and novelettes from around the net.

"The Shape of My Name," Nino Cipri, March 15, 2015,

This was an amazing story about creating one's own identity. The narrator is part of a multi-generational time-travelling family whose members have access to gene-coded time capsules enabling them to travel into any time between 1905, the year that the mysterious Moses Stone built the machine for the family matriarch, and August 3, 2321 - the significance of that date is unknown to the characters, but my guess is that it's the date from which Moses travelled back in time to build the machine that would allow forward travel. But that's not part of the story, really. The story is about creating identity and finding freedom from ingrained expectations.

"When It Ends, He Catches Her," Eugie Foster, September 26, 2014, Daily Science Fiction

One of the short stories that would have been on the Hugo ballot this year had the Puppies not done their thing, and Foster's last story, published just before she died. A poignant and evocative story of love, art and death, two dancers rekindling the memories of their greatest achievement in the midst of the ruins of civilisation.

"Litany of Earth," Ruthanna Emrys, May 14, 2014,

Another piece that might have been nominated fir a Hugo if not for the puppies, Emrys' novelette is a majestic and powerful reworking of the Cthulhu mythos, ever mindful of the fact that the winners not only write the history books, they demonise the ones who lose. Emrys presents the people of Innsmouth and other such communities as a race of immortal others among us, with a faith and a knowledge no more evil than any other, persecuted, incarcerated, experimented on and killed for their difference. A must-read for those who once loved Lovecraft but lament his casual racism.

"Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land," by Ruthanna Emrys, August 20, 2014,

I was sufficiently blown away by Emrys' "Litany of Earth" to want to read more. And I was not disappointed in doing so. "Seven Commentaries" is a perfect pearl. Told in seven vignettes filled with glorious detail, it is about communities of the heart and soul, the perseverance of imagination and hope, the healing and binding power of story, and seeing the spirit of your sister in a stranger's eyes.

"Kin, Painted," by Penny Stirling, July 29, 2015, Lackington's Magazine

Lackington's specifies that they are specifically interested in publishing stylised speculative prose, and I must admit to enjoying stylised prose (when well-done, of course), but more than just being stylised, this piece by Penny Stirling was a beautiful thing to read. An extended metaphor on growing up and making personal choices, notable for its references to persons of many genders and preferences.

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Or at least, that's what my choices of anthologies this year would seem to indicate. My beloved Lovecraft mythos and the eternally fascinating Great Detective are part of the mix, as is my perennial interest in seeing alternative sexualities represented in fiction.

As usual, in all four antholgies there were some great stories, many enjoyable stories, and one or two that just didn't grab me. Special mention goes to Brit Mandelo's fine editing, bringing together a solid collection that presents many perspectives and includes some true classics.

Ross E. Lockhart (ed.), The Book of Cthulhu

Joseph R. G. DeMarco, A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes

Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger (eds.), A Study in Sherlock

Brit Mandelo (ed.), Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction

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I read three anthologies in 2011, all of them theme-based and all quite enjoyable.

Mercedes Lackey (ed.), Under the Vale and Other Tales of Valdemar

What can I say? Lackey's world of Velgarth, and her stories about Valdemar, and its Heralds and their Companions are irresistible to me. I know, telepathic talking horses. But so what?

John Joseph Adams (ed.), The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is another literary creation that I find irresistible. so if you give me an anthology of stories about Sherlock Holmes facing adversaries more fantastical than most of those Arthur Conan Doyle created, who am I to say no? A really excellent collection (to be expected, given Adams' track record as an editor).

John Pelan & Benjamin Adams (eds.), The Children of Cthulhu

And yet another irresistible topic - the Cthulhu mythos created by H. P. Lovecraft. These are stories inspired by the mythos, and not necessarily drawing directly on elements of the canon, but there are some excellent horror stories here, with all the distinctive flavour of the Lovecraft originals.

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Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman

There’s a thread of sorts that runs through a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work, and that thread has a lot to do with the concept of the interaction of dual or multiple realities – dream worlds, parallel worlds, shadow worlds, otherworlds, and afterworlds. It’s the sense that no matter where you are, there is something else going on just over there, or under the hill, or through the mirror, or some other place that you are just barely aware of, that would turn your understanding of your own world upside down or inside out if you ever really noticed it.

Something else that Gaiman pays a lot of attention to is storytelling as an act, as a frame, as a way of providing context or counterpoint. When he writes stories in the first person, they are often the stories of a conscious and self-conscious narrator, who knows he or she is telling a story and is aware of how it sounds, how it is shaped. Sometimes his protagonists are storytellers, or his stories draw on the words of other storytellers for settings or images.

One of the reasons to enjoy Fragile Things is that there are lots of stories that are perfect examples of what Gaiman can do with these two themes in his work – separately or together. Stories about people telling stories about ghosts, stories about writers trying to tell fantastic stories about autocars and bank mortgages in a world where daily life is profoundly gothic in nature, wonderful stories about the art of storytelling while looking through a glass, somewhat obscurely. Many, but not all of these stories have a distinct flavour of the supernatural or of horror, and there are a good many stories that qualify as ghost tales - explicit journeys into the otherworld.

And for the reader who enjoys watching writers play with the issues, ideas, characters, themes and worlds of other writers writing otherworlds, there are some particular pleasures here, as this collection includes such stories as “A Study in Emerald” – Gaiman’s truly magnificent imagining of how certain characters from the Holmesian tales of Arthur Conan Doyle would behave were they to find themselves in a mirror world where the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft held sway – and “The Problem of Susan” – a story that asks the reader to consider the situation of Susan, the young woman that C.S. Lewis barred from the higher, deeper, inner Narnia (which is to say, Heaven) because she found lipstick and boys interesting.


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