The British publishing firm Sphere Books had a really wonderful thing going for itself back in the 1970s: a series of 45 books, both fiction and nonfiction, curated by the hugely popular English supernatural novelist Dennis Wheatley, and titled Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult. This reader had already experienced seven of these novels in the natural order of things, in other editions – titles such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) and Carnacki the Ghost Finder (1913), Gaston Leroux’ The Phantom of the Opera (1910), Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933), and Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think (1948) – and so was left with a good 38 titles in this series to choose from. As it turns out, however, it was fairly simple for me to decide where to go next, as Marjorie Bowen’s renowned novel Black Magic (fittingly, Volume 13 in the series) is a book I’ve wanted to experience ever since reading a very laudatory review of it in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. And it would seem that I did indeed choose well, as Black Magic has turned out to be, surprisingly, nothing less than my favorite read of 2021.
Marjorie Bowen, it will be remembered, was just one of the pseudonyms of the English author nee Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long, who published her first piece of historical fiction, the hugely popular novel The Viper of Milan, in 1906, when she was only 21. From that year until the year of her passing, in 1952, she would ultimately come out with over 150 books – historical novels, mysteries, biographies, nonfiction and horror, under the Bowen pen name as well as the pseudonyms Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy and Robert Paye. Her rate of production was fairly staggering; with the exceptions of 1946 and ’48, she would release one to four books a year, for 47 years in a row! I have already written here of Bowen’s marvelous short-story collection from 1949 entitled The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories, which had only whetted my appetite for the novel in question. Black Magic was Bowen’s sixth novel, released when the author was only 24. The book’s first edition was thus released in 1909, by the British publisher Alston Rivers, as a handsome hardcover. Other hardcover editions would follow in 1912 and 1926; the Sphere paperback from 1974, the one I was fortunate enough to acquire, was the book’s fourth incarnation in 65 years, and there have been a good half dozen other releases since. And so, the novel should pose no serious challenge to purchase today, and that is a very fortunate thing, as my recent reading has revealed the book to be a genuine stunner, indeed.
Black Magic is set in the Europe of the Middle Ages; pinning down a precise date is impossible based on the information that we are given, but passing references to St. Angela, the Colonna family, and Teresa of Avila would make an argument for the 16th century. As the book opens in the ravaged town of Antwerp, we are introduced to two young men, the boyish Dirk Renswoude and the impossibly good-looking Theirry of Dendermonde. The two have met by chance and sense that they have something in common: They are both neophyte dabblers in the occult sciences. Wishing to improve their skills, the two men begin a course of study at the university in Basle, but must flee for their lives after accidentally killing a fellow student with one of their supernatural spells. The pair finds shelter in the nearby castle of the noblewoman Jacobea of Martzburg, a ward of the emperor in Frankfort. Theirry, who has had doubts about the evil path he has entered in on, is fairly smitten with the beautiful noblewoman, rousing Dirk to seemingly unreasonable jealousy, and indeed, the relationship between the two is decidedly of the homoerotic (albeit platonic) variety. Dirk and Theirry set out once again, robbing and almost killing the saintly monk Ambrose before arriving in Frankfort, where they reside at the home of a witch named Nathalie. (Contrary to expectations, Nathalie is not a withered old crone, but rather, a plain-featured, middle-aged woman.) In that imperial city, Dirk continues to master the dark arts, and Theirry takes a job at the emperor’s palace, a job procured for him by Jacobea. Meanwhile, the ever-jealous Dirk engages in two nefarious campaigns. First, he gives assistance to the empress Ysabeau, who knows of Dirk’s background and who now blackmails him into helping her murder her husband, the scholarly emperor Melchoir, hoping to make the handsome knight Balthasar her new mate in his stead. And if this weren’t enough to keep Dirk busy, he also hatches a scheme to make his rival, Jacobea, look a lot less saintly in Theirry’s eyes; namely, he bewitches her and compels her to tell her steward, Sebastian, to slay his wife, Sybilla, so that the two of them might be together. What follows, thus, are some truly horrendous episodes, indeed, leading to an estrangement between the two former friends.
In the second section of Bowen’s book, the action picks up 10 years later, in Rome. The penitent Theirry has been wandering throughout Europe and Asia during that time, seeking forgiveness for his previous sins, and arrives in the Eternal City to crave absolution from one of Rome’s holiest men, the Cardinal Luigi Caprarola. To his appalled disbelief, Theirry discovers that this holy man of God is none other than his old running mate Dirk, who has changed his identity (hardly for the first time), his hair color, his garb … but hardly his evil ways. Indeed, Dirk has decided that he craves nothing less than the papacy itself, and soon concocts still another of his wicked schemes; a scheme to remove Balthasar from power and set Theirry up in his place! Theirry himself has now decided that God must be nonexistent – how else to explain Dirk’s rising to such wondrous power? – and so reluctantly opts to go along with his former friend. And this only sets the stage for Rome turning into a demon-haunted, plague-stricken, almost literal Hell on Earth…
Now, for some obscure reason, Clute & Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy would have us believe that Black Magic is “a rather shallow novel,” a pronouncement that I just cannot understand. Of course, that statement is more than counterbalanced by Cawthorn & Moorcock selecting the book for inclusion on their 100 Best list; by Fritz Leiber, one of this reader’s favorite fantasy authors, calling the novel “brilliant”; and by Dennis Wheatley, who, in his introduction to this Sphere edition, uses such words as “thrilling,” “hair-raising” and “a great tour de force” to describe it. Personally, I found the book to be absolutely remarkable. Every one of the book’s 35 chapters contains either a fascinating discussion utilizing wonderful dialogue, an astonishing plot development, a shocking event, some shuddery supernatural detail, or an intensely dramatic confrontation. This really is an expertly controlled piece of work; readers will be stunned to recall that its creator was only 24 when she wrote it. One of the most accomplished authors of historical fiction in her generation, Bowen had already done enough in-depth research to give even this macabre work of the supernatural a patina of verisimilitude. Whereas another writer might have described a woman’s dress as being made of silk, here, the ladies are shown to be wearing gowns of samite or sendal. Theirry doesn’t just toss a coin to a dancing girl, but a silver bezant. Sybilla doesn’t crave absolution, but rather hopes to be “assoiled.” Castles don’t have turrets on them, but instead, tourelles. Bats are called flittermice; what to us would be the Colosseum is instead more convincingly called the Flavian Amphitheatre; and Crete is called by its ancient name, the isle of Candy. The complicated rites of the medieval Church are realistically set forth, and Bowen also evinces a sure knowledge of the geography and byways of 16th century Rome. As for her wonderful use of dialogue that I just mentioned, it is rendered in what I can only call a faux medieval diction, and the author can with all fairness be accused of overusing the words “belike,” “certes” and “wot.” Bowen’s book has atmosphere to spare, though, and the reader will surely find it a tale of the distant past that, despite its outre content, is somehow convincingly told. And, oh, how the homoerotic nature of Dirk and Theirry’s relationship must have shocked the readers of a century ago, added as it is to the other shocking events in this book!
Black Magic earns its place of honor on any Best Of Fantasy list despite the fact that Bowen keeps the actual supernatural events to a minimum, spacing them wisely throughout for maximum impact. Among the best of those bits: the two young novices utilizing a mystical mirror to peer into their future; Dirk and Theirry’s slaying of their fellow student in Basle; a bust of bronze that gives advice from Zerdusht (Zoroaster) himself; a hideous winged woman that Theirry espies in Dirk’s workroom; a gigantic black man (a “Blackamoor”) and his hound from hell, who visit Dirk while the ebon giant roasts his legs for warmth in a fireplace; the spectacle of Rome under the shadow of the Antichrist, besieged by “magicians, warlocks…and all manner of strange and hideous creatures”; the fact that four of the deceased main characters (this book does have a fairly high body count) return as angels; the thing that Dirk is ultimately revealed to be; and, of course, the very notion of a living Antichrist itself (the subtitle of this novel is “A Tale of the Rise and Fall of the Antichrist”). And Bowen likewise peppers her novel with some hugely memorable scenes of high drama, including Dirk and Theirry’s panicked escape from Basle; the robbing of the saintly Ambrose; the murders of Melchoir and Sybilla; and Dirk and Theirry’s initial reunion in Rome. Bowen’s story is at times brutal and always unpredictable; a tale in which the most innocent may be doomed to die hideously, and a murderer may get away scot-free. I found the book to be absolutely unputdownable, and the evenings that I spent with it were very pleasant ones for me.
I have very few complaints to lodge against Ms. Bowen’s work here, actually, and those two are barely worth mentioning. But here goes: In Rome, the footstool in Cardinal Caprarola’s chamber is said to be made of silver; three pages later, it is said to be made of ivory. I know, I know…who cares, right? More vexing for me, however, is the ambiguity of the final few pages of the book. Without giving away the story’s most central surprise (which is actually telegraphed several times leading up to the big reveal), let me just say that I wish we could have learned a bit more about Dirk’s background, and his, uh, unusual nature. But again, these are quibbles that in no way prevent me from giving Ms. Bowen’s work the highest grade possible here.
For fans of historical fiction, or horror, or fantasy, this novel should prove absolutely scrumptious. Other readers are urged to give it a try and prepare themselves for a truly extraordinary experience. As for me, there are at least four other volumes in the Wheatley Library of the Occult that I am highly desirous of experiencing soon; titles such as F. Marion Crawford’s The Witch of Prague (1890), Robert Hugh Benson’s The Necromancers (1909), J. W. Brodie-Innes’ The Devil’s Mistress (1915), and Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild (1929). Wish me luck as I endeavor to track them down, and let’s hope that they’re all at least half as gripping as Marjorie Bowen’s Black Magic…