“Jasmine reached for the book, but withdrew her hand the moment she touched the wrapping. It hadn’t felt like cotton or hessian, rather something unpleasantly organic. Stealing herself against disgust, Jasmine snatched up the book, quickly throwing off its noisome shroud.”
—Jonathan Oliver, “Star Crossed”
“If I should try to write a story outside the weird area which engrosses my emotions and drama sense…Whatever I treated of would have to be dragged in from outside, & would consequently have to be handled without the innate fire which animates any true work of art, however humble.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, September 29, 1933.
Performative utterances, in the philosophy of language, are those sentences that not only describe a particular reality, but also bring about the reality they describe. Two recognizable phrases that do this are, “You are under arrest,” and, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” You can see how the words themselves do what they describe, or are performative. Prior to the officer or the minister uttering them, the reality they describe does not yet exist. But after they have been said, the whole ballgame has changed. In Jonathan Oliver’s summoning story, “Star Crossed,” he plays with this concept and the importance that words have when trying to effect some new change. Not just the words themselves, though, but the whole manner in which they are deployed. As the Bard proclaimed in Hamlet 3:2, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” “Star Crossed” is found in Jonathan Oliver’s debut collection, THE LANGUAGE OF BEASTS, available now from Black Shuck Books. I am grateful to Mr. Oliver for a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The plot of this medium length short story revolves around Jasmine, a young college student whose mother’s magic shop is in danger of going out of business. Her mum doesn’t do much real magic now but we’re given the sense that in the past, she could have performed actually wondrous acts. While digging through the basement Jasmine discovers, hidden behind a section of crumbling masonry, a text wrapped in cloth of apparently ancient provenance. It contains the handwritten spells and sorcerous illustrations of one Nathaniel Creed. But when she uncovers the long-hidden tome, its discovery reverberates through the magical planes and others who would possess its knowledge are made aware of its surfacing.
An ancient wizard named Arodius desires Creed’s grimoire and molds his decrepit form into that of a strange young man, that he might more easily meet Jasmine. Calling himself Richard, he ingratiates himself into her good graces, magically seeing to it that they are cast as the leads in the university’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Jasmine rebuffs his attempts to see Creed’s book, but eventually relents. Once he confirms for himself what they’re dealing with, Richard warns Jasmine she’s toying with power beyond her comprehension (we feel like we have been here before, but trust me…), “…the knowledge within this book concerns itself with something far greater. Magic is mere wish fulfillment; ludicrous ritual, offering, at best, a temporary salve to suffering…To involve oneself with true knowledge, one must entirely forget oneself. Humanity is nothing; less than nothing—a cosmic joke. There are beings out there that have terrible, infinite power. True sorcery, real magic, lies in attracting their attention.” You can almost hear the echoes of “tekeli-li” in the distance. What starts out as a story we all feel like we have read before shifts at this point into something special and the beauty of Shakespeare’s language begins to give Jasmine profound ideas about how to work the magic Creed wrote about, magic that Arodias/Richard heretofore has been unable to perform. For all his mansplaining, he can’t do what she seems like she’s going to be able to do, and that is a delicious development.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” If Jasmine can truly attract the attention of some otherworldly being, then perhaps she can save her mother’s store, their home and livelihood, their everything. Her motivation is simple, but strong and pure. However, this magic leads to no wish-granting djinn. Once Jasmine figures out that Creed got the formulas correct, but that his magic lacked poetry, the two threads of the story begin to converge. “The play’s the thing,” indeed, and this is what Oliver has been building towards all along. Combined, the poetry of the Bard and the formulations of Creed become performative and lead Jasmine to a completely unforeseen turn of events in which it becomes painfully obvious that the Dramatis Personae of the school’s playbill is woefully incomplete.
I loved the ending of the story, but I felt that it took a long time to get there. The build up is necessary, though, to feel the power of how Oliver flip-flops this narrative. He takes a trope with which we are all familiar, summoning the long-dead wizard, and uses it to make a point about the power of words themselves. Unintended consequences seem a narrative by-product of the pure beauty of poetic magic. Words, poetry, Oliver seems to be saying, have the power to cut and no one should be surprised when blood is spilled in their service. The typical Lovecraftian theme of antiquarian researchers lost in dusty tomes is twisted just right here to modernize it for a contemporary audience. Worldly necessity, rather than luxury, drives a female student to out-perform her ageless male counterpart. Then, he twists it again, and brings it home with a true Lovecraftian flair in which we hear the gods laugh.
Performative utterances are strange things. Some, like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” seem to require your participation in their calling a reality into being. Others, like “You are under arrest,” can see you wail and moan all you want against it, and it will affect it not. Yet in both cases the words themselves release a certain kind of magic, perhaps unfelt by you and yet unmistakably recognized by others. In “Star Crossed,” Jonathan Oliver has performed a similar feat, in which fans of Lovecraft will be treated to something they’ll think they recognize—all the elements are there; the gods, the names, the tomes, the antiquarians—but (to paraphrase Oliver himself), “unlike [Lovecraft, Oliver understands] the true power of words, how the sounds and rhythms they [make are] as important as their meaning.” There’s a new story being told here, a new way of thinking about literary magic and if Oliver had tried to write it in any other way other than his own, tried too hard to imitate the Old Gent for example, like so many pastiches it would have been“without the innate fire which animates any true work of art.” For the patient scholar, this tale is truly rewarding.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,