When I read that The Illusions is a historical novel (it’s set at the end of the 19th century) that combines a story about stage magicians with supernatural elements about people playing with actual magic, I couldn’t resist it. That’s the central idea in my own novella Dark Magic although that’s one of my contemporary books. I wanted to know how another author had tackled the same issues. In fact, Hyder’s story is more similar to mine than I had expected. It pits some regular stage magicians against an evil dark magician, in the same way that mine pits a company of stage magicians against a company dabbling with Black Magic. There’s an additional twist in The Illusions, as some of the stage magicians have real magical powers as well, although they do not reveal these to their friends.
All that said, The Illusions has very little in common with Dark Magic. For a start, Dark Magic is a novella while The Illusions is very long. I had an e-book, so I can’t say how many pages there were but it seemed to take a while to read. It also has quite a large cast of characters. As the story goes on you learn which of these characters are important and which are secondary and the relationships between the important characters become clear. At the start of the book, though, the characters are introduced one by one and it is not at all obvious what they have to do with each other.
The first person we meet is Arter Evans but he dies quite early on. The character who matters is his assistant, Cecily Marsden, always known as Cec. Cec appears soon after Arter, but the opening paragraphs are entirely from Arter’s viewpoint and this makes it difficult to immediately relate to Cec – a difficulty increased by introducing her in terms of what she has learned of magic, rather than how she feels about it.
No matter. A few pages later, Arter is dead and Cec flees to “the one person in all of Bristol that might be able to help”. So we meet Skarratt. There’s a hint that Cec does not like Skarratt. She’s right not to – he’s a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work – but we do not know why she dislikes him so much or, indeed, why he is the one person who might be able to help.
No matter (again), for we leave Cec and are introduced to Eadie. She is picking at a loose thread on her dress. She is, we are told, nervous.
I am not one to insist that it is always a crime to ‘tell’ rather than to show, but it would be nice to occasionally see things internalised. If we were in Eadie’s head we would see that she was nervous. We would not have to be told that she picked up a loose thread “nervously”, nor that she is “reassuring herself” that she does not need to be frightened.
Perhaps there simply isn’t time to get into Eadie’s head, for we are about meet another character, George Perris. They are both there for a séance. Eadie intends to expose such seances for the frauds they are. (I never quite worked out how but I may just not have been paying attention.) Perris’s approach is more direct. He breaks up the séance, causing real distress to the sitters. Eadie is angered by this and berates Perris but, already, she can’t miss that he is “one of the most handsome men she’s ever seen”.
Somewhere in the roomful of characters at the séance there is another significant person in the story, but don’t try to work it out because now we are in Paris at a performance by Valentin, who is seeing visions of a woman called Olivia who…
You see why I was frustrated at this point.
Once the characters have come together and we know the relationships between them, everything makes a great deal more sense. The plot is quite complicated but revolves around a feud between Skarratt on the one hand and Valentin and George on the other. Valentin and George are putting on a magic show intended to cement George’s reputation as the greatest magician in England, while Skarratt is set to wreck it largely out of spite and jealousy. Fortunately for George both Valentin and Cec possess real magical powers with which they are able to foil at least some of Skarratt’s evil plans.
The story draws in the early days of moving pictures (Eadie is developing new techniques, though we learn little of the technology), and a complicated series of relationships as the characters (except the loathsome Skarratt, of course) sort themselves into romantic couples.
The descriptions of tricks from the Golden Age of magic are fascinating, though I fear the author is often as misdirected as the audience. The thing about magicians is that they often seem to do things that appear impossible. This doesn’t mean that they actually do impossible things, but some of the descriptions of the tricks here clearly are impossible. This means that the distinction between the tricks that are being done by expert magicians are difficult to distinguish from those which are being done by expert magicians who are also possessed of genuine magical powers. That, I think, weakens a central element of the idea behind the book. By the end (no spoilers) stuff is happening that is clearly absolutely impossible. In fact, so impossible that you would think even the audience would notice. But perhaps they, like us, are lulled into a false sense that it’s all just a magic show by the number of impossible tricks they have witnessed from regular magicians. It’s still odd that Valentin is prepared to do some of these tricks given that he is supposed not to be letting his friends know about his magic powers. Never mind: it’s a dramatic ending to the book.
The failure to show us how the characters feel, rather than just to tell us what they are feeling, meant that they never really came alive for me. As a result, I found my interest slipping. On the other hand, I was drawn back in by the plot, which zips along. I had the impression that it was written more for younger readers who may be less worried by the rather two dimensional characters and more interested in the plotting, which is fair enough. If that’s you (or a young friend) you may well enjoy this book.
If you like the idea of seeing real magic and stage magic mixed together, but in a more contemporary context, you might consider reading Dark Magic. All the stage magic in the book is true to life (I’ve spent far too long hanging round with magicians) and the ‘real’ magic is gloriously over-the-top. Reading The Illusions, I did feel that there was an absence of real jeopardy. With all this magic and evil flying about, nobody seems to get really hurt. (There’s one broken limb but it heals rapidly and with remarkably little pain.) For me, a book with ‘real’ magic and a villain like Skarratt really wants to have some seriously unpleasant things happening. Be warned: Dark Magic does do horrible things to its equivalent of Skarratt. On the other hand, it is often laugh-out-loud funny (or so reviewers tell me). I’m not sure that The Illusions wouldn’t benefit from more humour, come to think of it.
Anyway, if stage magic and dark forces are your thing, why not read them both?
Dark Magic is available on Kindle and in paperback. The Kindle edition costs just £1.99.
During lockdown I home recorded Dark Magic as an audiobook. (You can buy it on Audible, Google Play and other outlets.) It was fun to do and, though sales could be counted on the fingers of one hand, it cost me nothing and during lockdown I had lots of time to experiment with new things.
After lockdown I arranged a better setup and wondered about recording Something Wicked. Something Wicked is quite a lot longer than Dark Magic and there were more demands on my time, so I never finished it. I wasn’t that happy with my first efforts anyway.
Something Wicked has been brought to the front of my mind this week because I’m going to Brompton Cemetery (where a lot of the story is set) to sell copies at their Christmas Fair on Saturday (3 December). That made me get out some of my first attempts at recording the story. If you click on the audio below, you should be able to hear the first 20 minutes. What do you think? Should I try again?
This week marks the culmination of the spooky season with Halloween on Monday.
When I was a child Halloween was not a big deal but nowadays, of course, it is huge. Every year, I read people complaining that it’s an American import although, of course, it isn’t. All Hallows Eve was a significant date even before the Pilgrims set sail to America. Over the centuries it was marked less in the UK than the USA (perhaps because, in the UK, Bonfire Night on 5 November became the main celebration of the season). In my lifetime the celebration of Halloween has grown more significant with a definite American element but still basically a celebration of the night when all the ghosties and ghoulies make their last great showing before being driven back to the dark places of the earth with the celebration of All Hallows.
While my local church campaigns against any celebration of Halloween because they associate it with devil worship, for most people it’s just a bit of fun and an opportunity to dress up and be silly. I’ll miss the skater Halloween party this year (I’m out of town) but I do enjoy it when I can get along. The costumes are amazing!
I’m marking Halloween by giving away my novella, Dark Magic, from today (Friday 28th) until 1 November. If you missed what I wrote about it at the beginning of the month, here’s what matters:
Tomorrow, if you’re reading this the day that it was written, it will be October. The days are getting colder; the leaves are turning brown; the evenings are drawing in. It’s the time of year when we begin to gather round the fire (or would if we could afford to turn it on) and tell spooky stories.
It’s a good time, then, to remember that when I’m not writing historical fiction I have turned out the odd contemporary Urban Fantasy. The first of these was Dark Magic.
Dark Magic is a novella. It tells the story of two magic shows: the Maestros of Magic touring the country, playing provincial theatres, and the Carnival of Conjurors successful in the West End. When the Maestros learn that the Conjurors are using real magic – Black Magic – to do their tricks they decide that they must use their own, distinctly unmagical, stage skills to stop them.
I’ve spent far too much time hanging out with magicians and the story is based in the real world of stage magic and illusion but none of the magicians I know have made a deal with the devil.
There are some genuinely scary bits but the comments that come up most often on Amazon reviews suggest that you are more likely to die laughing than have nightmares.
Above all, the book is entertaining, with genuinely funny, although fairly dark moments.
I especially liked the author’s dark, sly sense of humour, this combined with the grisly incidents, made for a great escapist read.
Get ready to suspend your disbelief and enjoy this funny and macabre ride.
Dark Magic is just £1.99 on Kindle. I recorded the whole thing as an audiobook too: it’s available on Audible.
Last week, when the world seemed a very different place and people still went to the theatre, I saw ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ at the Vaudeville on the Strand. I know people who know people who advised the show on its magical content, so I was confident that I would enjoy the evening but I didn’t know what to expect.
What I got was a very traditional evening of magic, but
things did often go a bit wrong. Or very wrong.
If you’ve already read Dark Magic you will have some idea what’s going on. If you haven’t, let me explain …
The show that you get in ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ is supposed to
be a benefit for a charity set up to benefit the victims of magical accidents.
There are some famous real-life magical accidents. The bullet catch trick (and,
yes, that does feature in Dark Magic)
is supposed to have claimed several fatalities, most famously the Chinese
Magician Chung Ling Soo (in fact an American called William Ellsworth Robinson). Chung Ling Soo was shot dead on stage at the
Wood Green Empire in London in 1918.
Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy) was almost killed by a tiger in his Las Vegas act in 2003, ending his career. Houdini collapsed on stage after a student visiting his dressing room had hit him several times in the abdomen, something that Houdini could cope with when he was prepared in his act but was unable to survive when taken by surprise. (The student had had no ill-intent but hadn’t realised that Houdini needed to brace himself for the blow.)
Most magic shows,
though, pass without incident. Even in the cursed world of Dark Magic there is never a performance with multiple fatalities.
‘Magic Goes Wrong’, on the other hand, starts with the unfortunate demise of a
pigeon and builds up to a truly impressive body count. I didn’t believe the
trigger warning that starts the evening and which warns of a live bear. I
should have. And the people the bear (inevitably) savages should have taken it
more seriously too.
‘Magic Goes Wrong’
hasn’t a serious or meaningful bone in its twisted body. (Speaking of which,
the contortionist act is a minor highlight.) It is, however, consistently
hilarious. It also features some impressive real magic – much of which goes
unremarked by an audience far too caught up in the comedy to realise that they
really are watching things that should be impossible. Penn & Teller have
contributed an escape from a sealed water tank which I have seen them perform
as a major trick in their stage show. Here the magician apparently drowning on
stage is easily ignored while your attention is fixed on the antics of cast,
crew and unfortunate audience volunteer as they combine to doom the poor man to
a watery death. People vanish and reappear, girls are cut in half, and men in
small boxes are pierced through with spears. All you are concentrating on,
though, is the magician’s assistant opening the door of a vanishing cabinet
before the magician has left it, the stage set that closes just a few seconds
earlier than it needs to, or the sound effect that comes on at all the most
I was going to recommend that you all buy tickets but, of course, you can’t go to see it now. With any luck it will be back on once the present crisis has passed. It’s something to look forward to.
Meanwhile, if you want comedy based on a magic show with an unfeasibly high body count, you could read Dark Magic. It’s escapist fun and we all need that right now. It may be hard to get hold of the paperback as Amazon concentrates on delivering more important things, but you can still buy it on Kindle. It’s just £1.99 and will take your mind off things for a day.