Reading Strange Magic made me think deeply about a number of issues I doubt Gord Rollo intended me to be thinking about. I wasn’t pondering whether good and evil are entirely human or whether there is a supernatural agency at work in some forms of evil (and good); I wasn’t thinking about addiction, its causes and cures; I wasn’t thinking about the redemptive power of love. Instead, I was thinking about whether a book can be considered good when it has a decent story but is poorly written, with numerous grammatical and spelling errors. I was thinking about the value of revision. And I was thinking about how necessary a good editor can be.
Strange Magic has a decent storyline that unfolds with fine suspense over the course of the novel. I liked its grounding in stage magic and the mechanics of escape artistry. I found the drunken clown who is the hero, Wilson Kemp, to be believably pathetic, and felt all the emotions about him — disgust, impatience, sympathy, understanding, hope — that I suspect the author intended me to feel. I was frightened by the Stranger, and more frightened by his trunk, a wooden traveling crate that used to be an important prop for a magic show but now seems to have its own consciousness, its own appetites. I found somewhat unbelievable Wilson Kemp’s ex-wife, who seems eager to take her husband back despite his lack of any real effort to stop drinking.
The novel opens with a scene of terror arising from both a human agency and a supernatural one. We learn through this scene, with its sacrifice of an innocent life, that the Stranger is looking for Wilson Kemp, but we don’t know why. When we meet Wilson Kemp in the next chapter, we get no clue why the Stranger would be looking for him; the man can’t even perform as a clown at a children’s birthday party without screwing it up so badly that he’ll be lucky to escape criminal charges, much less ever be hired again. Then we meet the third major character, who we know as Tom — as in Peeping Tom, a man who thinks of himself primarily as a pervert, but believes himself to be a powerful, frightening figure (and, indeed, he does bring a form of terror to the women of the town when he reveals himself to them from his various perches outside their windows). All three of these characters have little control over their lives, but instead are in thrall to their darker sides: the Stranger is governed by his desire for revenge, Kemp is the helpless captive of his alcoholism, and the man who transforms into Tom is a weak, frightened individual who can’t fight his sexual urges. Free will is an illusion at best, with or without an invasion by the supernatural.
And the events unfold mostly without the aid of the supernatural. It in only in the final chapters of the book that the inhabitant of the trunk plays a substantial role in the narrative. It is a fault in the novel that this supernatural force is ill-defined and a sort of diabolus de machina, one that forces what we thought was the climax to be relegated to the status of false climax, and making the apparent villain of the piece almost irrelevant except as a mechanism to get the trunk in the vicinity of Kemp. When the true villain makes his appearance, the suspense ratchets up. But even the second resolution seems to be false, for the final lines in the book suggest that there is more horror waiting in the wings.
It’s a decent story, entertaining enough to provide a few good hours of reading for any horror fan. But I was repeatedly pulled from the narrative by elementary errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling. One character is described as wearing a “Pittsburgh Steeler’s jacket,” for instance. In the thick of the action, this character’s daughter “rolled out of harms way.” Within a few pages, the good guy has lost track of the bad guy, sees the bad guy’s knife, and wonders why the man “had ran right past it.” And then that knife “must have tore through some vital organs.” Yikes! These aren’t errors made in dialogue by the characters; they are the author’s. It’s had to get caught up in the action of a climactic scene when one is constantly pulled back to the page by such elementary blunders. I have never read a published novel with so many basic mistakes. They make it impossible for me to recommend this novel.
There is one potentially redeeming factor to be considered. I purchased this novel for my Kindle, for which it was apparently self-published in 2013. Perhaps the text is not identical to the text used in the Dark Regions Press hardcover edition in 2009 or the Leisure Books mass market paperback edition in 2010. Take a quick glimpse through a hard copy of this novel to see whether any of the sorts of basic mistakes I’ve highlighted jump out at you — and a quick glimpse should be all that’s necessary, as they appear with great frequency. If not, and you’re a horror fan, Strange Magic might be worth your while.
I am pretty sure there is more than one Pittsburgh Steeler. Doesn’t anyone revise anymore? I share your hope that the print version is better.