Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane edited by Jonathan Oliver
Magic is, almost by definition, esoteric and arcane; something known only to a few, kept secret from the masses, practiced only by initiates. Still, the grandiose title of this themed anthology of original stories may oversell it slightly, since many of the tales here are quite conventional. Jonathan Oliver gathered a shining collection of talent, though, and with fifteen stories spanning fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy and horror, most readers will find something to enjoy.
The book has a lovely cover by Nicolas Delort. It’s a simulated woodcut. A Victorian-era woman holds an infant with horns, while a hooded demonic figure stands guard, and the cover is replete with lilies, skulls and ravens. Editor Jonathan Oliver opens the book with an introduction that talks a little bit about each story. I wish he had written instead about the genesis of the idea and what magic means to him. The only thing I really learned was that Oliver loves the word “prestidigitation.” You can skip the introduction and not lose anything, especially since it is virtually reprised, paragraph by paragraph, as an introduction to each individual story.
Two of the best stories in the collection meld stage magic with metaphysical magic. In “The Art of Escapology,” Alison Littlewood shows us an ordinary family, with a son, Tommy, who pesters his dad to take him to the circus that’s in town. Tommy’s dad is a regular sort, who goes to his job each day and loves to play Scrabble. The dad agrees, and off they go. While Tommy is captivated by the signs, the posters and the promises, Dad maintains an ironic distance, commenting that “They like their exclamation marks, don’t they?” Once they are seated inside the tent, something changes. Tommy begins to see how the show was overstated; he recognizes the glue and glitter that hold together the illusion. His father, however, is captivated. When a strange magician asks for a volunteer from the audience, Tommy’s father is selected. That experience changes him. Tommy tries desperately to solve the riddle and get his father back. This multi-layered tale of magic, expectations, and a suburban marriage is beautifully done and leaves the reader with much to think about.
“Dumb Lucy” by Robert Shearman, follows The Great Zinkeweicz and his child assistant Lucy, in a world where “There was little magic left in those dark times. The world seemed cracked somehow, too weak for the magic to hold…” The magician and Lucy travel through a post-apocalyptic world, where we discover that a war between angels and demons has been raging. It is difficult for humans to recognize the demons, or the angels, or tell them apart. As the story unfolds, Lucy’s origin is revealed, and when the pair stops to perform in an actual town with an auditorium, things go bad for the audience quickly. Shearman’s compelling vision, complete artistic control and beautiful prose sweep this story along. It floats like a white rose petal on a dark river.
“If I Die, Kill My Cat,” by Sarah Lotz is a magical comedy that swirls together crime scene cleaners, druids, South African healers, vehicle traffic flow methodology and government corruption. SPOILER ALERT: No cats are killed during the reading of this story. SPOILER ENDS. In Rachel, the atheistic crime-scene cleaner, and her sangoma (healer) sister Naomi, Lotz had created a set of characters who could go on to helm an entire series. The unusual setting, South Africa, makes the involvement of Druids even stranger. I had two quibbles with this story; in order to get a sense of a punchline, Lotz stops the story more than ending the story; and her use of the word “white” to describe Naomi’s sangoma aspect — “a white sangoma” — confused me. Otherwise, this is a delightful, different kind of magical tale.
“Party Tricks” is also witty and funny, although much darker. Dan Abnett’s un-named first-person narrator tells what “really happened” during the latest round of British elections. Rakely, the man who becomes Prime Minister, is a virtual nobody. When a number of prominent party members are caught up in various scandals, Rakely emerges as the cleanest and least offensive candidate. In short order, he is surprising everyone with how effective he is. Is he really so clean, though? His displaced rival, Forester, comes to the narrator with an old scandal, and when the narrator investigates, he gets a little concerned. Could Rakely be the beneficiary of black magic? We know the answer, but the story is still entertaining, and chilling, when an unexpected plane crash changes things completely… or does it really?
“Mailerdaemon” by Sophia McDougall takes a word many of us are familiar with, and conjures a world of computer magic and demons. Grace suffers from terrible nightmares. Her online friend Seven Magpies offers her a solution; an e-mailed demon. To be polite, Grace accepts. Sure enough, once the e-mail is received, Grace begins to sleep better and her dreams change; they are good, but elaborate, full of vivid images that are somewhat tiring themselves. Grace’s waking life is filled with visits to the Job Center and a couple of failed relationships, but then, to her surprise, things change for the better. When she realizes the demon is protecting her at the cost of her romance with Jawad, Grace makes an interesting choice. The story ends well, but the final note of darkness is a nod to fairy tales everywhere.
Magic stories often deal with moral choices. Lou Morgan’s “Bottom Line” imagines a world in which people with magical gifts often end up working for organized crime. Donnie is a man with magic. The magic in this world is hard to resist, but also exacts a price, and magic users die young. Donnie has just gotten out of prison and is trying to live the straight life (although he works in a magic shop), but the crime boss he betrayed in order to lighten his sentence has unfinished business. Donnie must decide whether he can withstand the threats of Rudge, the crime boss, and his own addiction to magic, and do the right thing. This urban fantasy is marred by an ending that comes up too quickly, but Donnie’s voice is powerful and this is an interesting view of magic.
In “Shuffle,” Will Hill uses three timelines to tell us the story of a gambler who cannot lose, the thing that lives inside him, how it got there, and how he is trying to get free. The alternate timelines add a crispness to this traditional horror story.
Storm Constantine’s “Do What Thou Wilt” explores the moral side of magic, as a witch whose encounter with a psychic vampire has left her withdrawn and lacking confidence. When a witch friend tells her the man has targeted another woman, Leah debates taking action, but it is a call from the man’s wife that galvanizes her. The lush visuals of this story — the description of the cake, and the ritual Leah undertakes at the end — remained with me after I turned the page.
Gail Z Martin’s conventional urban fantasy “Buttons” introduces supernatural investigators who locate and isolate cursed objects. She doesn’t bring anything new to the genre but the setting of Charleston, South Carolina, is charming.
Liz Williams and Audrey Niffenegger give us a pair of lovely historical fantasies. Williams’s story “Cod Coddeu” creates a Celtic folktale, in which a mad man who dwells in the forest comes to the aid of a woman who can change shape. The language is lyrical and Williams uses the alphabet of the trees to add authenticity. Niffenegger’s “The Wrong Fairy” is simply and beautifully written, telling a story about Arthur Conan Doyle’s father. Sent to a sanitarium to cure his alcoholism, Doyle prays for Death. Instead, he meets a fairy. This lovely tale goes a way toward explaining why the creator of Sherlock Holmes was infatuated with fairies.
Several of these tales are straight-up horror, with no paper umbrellas or fruit slices on the edge of the glass. Gemma Files provides a dark and witty bit of naughtiness with her sexually explicit tale “Nanny Grey.” We meet ne’er-do-well Billy in the loo of a club, where he is having sex with Sessilie, the petite and privileged aristocrat he just picked up. Billy’s plan to slip her a roofie, take her back to her home and burgle the place seems to him to be working fine, but we know better. Sessilie lives there all alone, she says, except for “Nanny Grey,” a sort of governess. This biter-bit tale gleams darkly with twisted sex and twisted wit. The origin of “Nanny” is addressed with great economy, in one sentence, but it is spot on. The pitch-perfect tone of the dialogue between Sessilie and Nanny as they set to work on Billy makes this creepy little gem sing.
“First, Last and Always,” by Thana Niveau, is a competently written horror story. Tamsin has a crush on Nicky, a fellow student who sings in a band. She does a spell to make him love her back. You probably have some ideas about what happens next, and you are right.
Christopher Fowler’s “The Baby” reminded me of the kind of story I used to read in Pulphouse magazine in the 1980s. Teenage Sasha is infatuated with Riley, a lead singer for a band. She “wins” a chance to meet him backstage, but the encounter soon turns violent, and Sasha must deal not only with her emotions in the aftermath, but an unwanted pregnancy as well. Her self-centered and emotionally distant father sends her off to have the pregnancy terminated, but at the clinic Sasha meets a creepy woman, Martitia, who offers a more respectful and “natural” way to get rid of the baby. This is a baffling story, because I can make the argument that the entire tale would work with no magical element at all. Every emotional turn Sasha makes on her journey, even the supposedly shocking ending, could be an artifact of her mental state. Is the horror element even needed? Sasha feels emotionally isolated, but her mother is alive, living not in Guatemala or Tibet but in Devon, and Sasha never reaches out to her. Even more confusing is a two-page opening that introduces a character, Sasha’s friend Tamara, who vanishes without a trace. This story could just as easily start with Sasha backstage. Fowler gets points for his attempt to portray a young woman in a horrible and all-too-common situation. He loses points for failing to integrate the magical/horror element completely.
“Domestic Magic,” is an urban fantasy by Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem. Felix is a boy with an eccentric mother and a younger sister, Margaret. Felix seethes with unspoken rage and helplessness. His mother’s strangeness and selfishness have led them to homelessness and a stint in a shelter, even though they are in an apartment now. He is old enough to take care of himself, he thinks, but Margaret is not, and his mother’s antics, all of which involve magic in one way or another, are putting Margaret in danger. When the mother sends Margaret off by herself into a dangerous part of town, Felix must admit to his own power in order to find her. He also needs to decide what to do about his mother, whose fixation on magic is endangering her children. This is an interesting effort. I think the Tems probably did some research on children in this situation, but Felix’s narrative voice did not work for me. There were also small details that weren’t explained, although they easily could have been. I liked the idea here, but the story was a miss for me.
Magic: an Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane is like a large box of chocolates. Because the fifteen stories span so many story types within the fantasy genre, there is something here for everyone.