“Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft in the Lockport Public Library, in upstate New York—the collection of Lovecraft stories was large and unwieldy with a distinctive font, which I can “see” vividly if I shut my eyes. The stories that riveted me immediately were “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” At once I fell under the Lovecraftian spell—subsequently I have reprinted Lovecraft tales in anthologies of “literary” stories in the hope of breaking down the artificial barriers and unfortunate prejudices between genres.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft Unbound 

Joyce Carol Oates had written eloquently about Lovecraft in The King of the Weird (1996), and curated a collection of his best fiction, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (1997). Two of her novelettes have appeared in the Lovecraftian anthologies: “Commencement” in Lovecraft Unbound (2009) and “Shadows of the Evening” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2015). Neither is a story of the Cthulhu Mythos. Oates does not partake of the shared creative universe created by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, her works are not set in and do not expand on the setting as Tina L. Jens does in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” or Margaret L. Carter does in “Prey of the Goat”; she does not reference Lovecraft himself as Joanna Russ in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket…But By God, Eliot, It Was A Photograph From Life!” or Adèle Olivia Gladwell in “Hypothetical Materfamilias.”

What is a Lovecraftian tale, without the Mythos and without Lovecraft?

LovecraftUnboundEllen Datlow, editor of Lovecraft Unbound, states in her introduction that she had read and enjoyed Lovecraft, but:

I’ve also read the multitudes of pastiches in anthologies of work “inspired” by Lovecraft, but most—for me, at least—are too obvious and bring little new to the table.

It’s a fair observation, and goes hand-in-hand with Oates’ remark on the prejudices of genre fiction. Lovecraft is more than just a bunch of strange and evocative names, and in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, the Providence gentleman himself observed:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Lovecraftian pastiche may replace “bloody bones” with “eldritch tentacles” and the “clanking chains” with the Necronomicon, but the same principle applies: what writers are trying to recapture should not be the outward form of Lovecraft’s Mythos, but the central mood or essence. This is what Oates tries to capture in her tale, without recourse or reference to any of the outer trappings of the Mythos.

“Commencement” is a work of weird allegory. It is time for Commencement at the University, the annual academic ritual through which graduates get their degrees. There are no names, for even though this is a special event (the two hundredth anniversary of the University), it is also somewhat timeless, a ritual repeated every year without fail. The formula of the university commencement gives the shape of the story. As the pomp and symbolism of the ceremony slowly unfolds, so too do we get a glimpse of the broader setting—advancements in human genetic engineering, cloning, hints of hard science fiction—and the themes of continuity, of the marriage of ancestral strength to contemporary progress.

Then comes the climax, the conferring of the honorary degrees. The mystery of the Pyramid, foreshadowed slowly and with a slow build up of suspense Lovecraft would have approved of, is revealed but not explained. The viewpoint character for the story is the Assistant Mace Bearer, a nameless protagonist that harkens back to the initiates of “The Festival” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—unsure and unready for what transpires, as the Commencement continues in its final stages of the Recessional and Disrobing, they find the central truth to all such rituals: to participate in it is to experience a profound change. Like the protagonist in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” they accept this new self that they have become.

The crux of Oates’ conception is the subversion of expectations; the fact that the ceremonies of medieval universities are still used in the present day are taken as granted. Lovecraft could not have contrived a better source of robed cultists or strange rites than reality provides. What Oates adds is the secondary layer of meaning—the mystery that the outward forms hide and disguise—and then drives it how during the climax. The horror of “Commencement” is not in the visceral details of the conferring of the honorary degrees, but in the culpability of the thousands of attendees, the group acceptance and participation which normalized such bloody exercises as the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, Madama la Guillotine during the Terror, the Salem Witch Trials, or the sacrifices of Xipe Totec atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Tenochtitlán.

Is it Lovecraftian? The University is not Miskatonic University, not as Lovecraft envisaged it. A story does not automatically become Lovecraftian because an editor includes it in an anthology. Context can color a story, suggest associations which the author might not have intended. If encountered outside Lovecraft Unbound—Oates’ novelette first appeared in Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction (2001)—would it strike the reader as Lovecraftian? Without any direct allusion to Lovecraft’s works, the average reader probably wouldn’t make that connection. Technically, the story does not even have any supernatural element. Yet the influence of Lovecraft is certainly in the piece, with echoes of his themes and methods. Critical readers would no doubt pick up on the Lovecraftian vibe, as Datlow appears to have done, and scholars might look at Oates’ own definition of Lovecraft’s fiction:

Lovecraft with the fusion of the gothic tale and what would come to be defined as science fiction, and with the development of a species of horror fantasy set in meticulously described, historically grounded places (predominantly, in Lovecraft, Providence, Rhode Island; Salem, Massachusetts; and a region in northern central Massachusetts to which he gave the name “the Miskatonic Valley”) in which a seemingly normal, intelligent scholar or professor, usually a celibate bachelor, pursues a mystery it would wiser for him to flee.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft viii

This is, if not exactly a synopsis for “Commencement,” at least highly evocative of the final product. It may not fulfill Lovecraft’s definition of a weird tale, and readers may never know whether or not Oates consciously had Lovecraft in mind when she conceived and executed this story, it certainly shows his influence. Not with tentacles or the Necronomicon, but by reproducing in form the shape and mood of Lovecraft’s stories, at least as she understands it.

So yes, “Commencement” is Lovecraftian.

 

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