Spinning Lovecraft Into a Feminist Dream Quest
H.P. Lovecraft is best known for his Cthulhu Mythos stories of cosmic horror, but he also wrote a sequence of more whimsical tales called the Dreamlands, about a magical realm that certain “master dreamers” can visit in their sleep. Fantasy author Kij Johnson read the Dreamlands stories as a child, and remembers being entranced by them.
“They were full of great wonders,” Johnson says in Episode 217 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I grew up as a little girl in Iowa, and we didn’t have great wonders. We had a lot of pigs and soybeans.”
But when Johnson returned to the stories as an adult, she was troubled by the way that Lovecraft handled his female characters.
“The only times that Lovecraft ever uses women, they tend to be very negative, very stereotypical,” she says. “They’re evil old grannies or the scared farmer’s wife, but even those are so minor. It’s as though he existed in a world without women at all.”
That realization inspired her new book, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, which tells a Dreamlands story through the eyes of a capable older woman. Given that Johnson was rock climbing into her fifties, she knows firsthand how formidable such a character can be.
“None of the people who write about grandmothers making cookies ever imagine that someone who’s grandmother-age could do something like that,” she says. “That’s not to say that all grandmothers can, but there are grandmothers who can, and it would be nice to see those people represented.”
Lovecraft is a writer who is equal parts brilliance and blind spots, which makes his worlds fertile ground for new approaches. Feminist takes on Lovecraft also appear in the recent anthologies She Walks in Shadows and Cthulhu’s Daughters.
“There’s so much going on with Lovecraft that can be explored or can be countered,” Johnson says. “You can reply to Lovecraft in so many ways.”
Listen to our complete interview with Kij Johnson in Episode 217 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Kij Johnson on Lovecraft’s vocabulary:
“I was a precocious child, and I was bored growing up in a small town, so I read dictionaries and encyclopedias. … So I did enjoy being able to use some of that vocabulary, and it was sort of trying to chime with the fact that [Lovecraft] would have words that, when I was a girl, I would look up, and I wouldn’t find them in any dictionary—not even the Oxford English Dictionary, that gargantuan tome. It wouldn’t even be in that. I was always a little in awe of that. In fact there are, I think, two made up words in this, which is sort of my tribute to the fact that I’m not 100 percent sure that he didn’t just make those things up.”
Kij Johnson on life experience:
“I wanted to write about a character who had a complicated and rich past. I wanted to write about an intellectual who had not always been an intellectual, because I find, as a new college professor, I’m pushing a lot against people who’ve never done anything but been college professors and college students. And there’s so much out there that they could have done that they didn’t do, and that’s what I wanted to talk about, was a woman who had done all these interesting things, made some decisions to do the right thing, the sensible thing, but still retained many of those skills—and also some of the nostalgia for that. When I had to stop climbing, it kind of broke my heart a little bit, because I was never going to be the person who climbed mountains the same way again.”
Kij Johnson on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:
“All of the dreamers are men, all of the gods are men. … So I really wanted to think about that. What does it mean to have a world where everything is male? I didn’t realize until after I had written it that these whimsical gods that change things all the time almost exactly map on to how it would have been for women in the ’30s—that they can shut down your college, they can beat you to death and not get arrested for it, they can do all these terrible things, they can take your goods and leave you destitute. … All the different, practical ways that men would rule women’s lives, and it all is mapped into the Dreamlands, where whimsical gods make things happen, and everybody else has to just cope, has to work around their bad days, or their need for rest, or their petty rivalries.”
Kij Johnson on Lovecraft’s legacy:
“I think Lovecraft has come to the foreground because of so much discussion about the World Fantasy Award, which is a bust of Lovecraft. … There’s a lot of discussion within the field of fantasy & science fiction about this. Does he deserve the amount of attention he gets? … I think that right now a lot of people are pointing back to Lovecraft and saying, ‘I loved him, but now I see the reasons why I was always uncomfortable’ or ‘I love him, and I feel like he merits a second look.’ I’m seeing so many different approaches now to re-addressing Lovecraft. I mean, I’m sure it’ll go away. It’s a trend, and five years from now we’ll be done with Lovecraft and we’ll be on to, I hope, Shirley Jackson or something like that.”
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