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A good occult story doesn’t require the reader to believe in the occult. I can be scared by Algernon Blackwood without believing in ghosts, or get a chill down my spine from H. P. Lovecraft without thinking that ancient tentacled gods really control the affairs of man.
In fact, a great occult story plays on that friction between not believing, and wanting, just for a little time, to be convinced. The best stories in Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, published by Solaris Books, walk that line with perfect balance, while others fall on the wrong side of it.
The theme of the collection is magic, and while card tricks, escapologists and beautiful assistants do feature, it’s really supernatural magic of one kind or another that’s on offer here.
Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife) comes first with ‘The Wrong Fairy‘, playing on the relationship between madness and the supernatural, with a story featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, locked in a mental institution and compulsively drawing fairies, apparently at the behest of an actual one. Then there are tales of druids working on traffic congestion, modern witches who make bad mothers, reincarnated Houdinis and demonic babies.
I enjoyed Liz Williams’s ‘Cad Coddeu‘, set in a prehistoric time of druids and tribal magic. With its owl-men, women in deer form and sentient trees, it reminded me of the fantasy writing of Susan Hill or Alan Garner that I loved as a kid.
The Changing hissed and fell back, scrambling into the cave. The oak-man cursed and bolted after her: I followed them both, but a wood-warrior blocked my way. He was a holly man. His teeth glittered, even in the darkness. I discovered that I did, after all, care whether I lived or died. Behind me, I heard hisses and cries as the wood-warriors fell upon one another with the rustle of braches. I reached for the flint, nearly dropping it, and struck kindling. It was dry, the spark caught. I threw it. I saw the holly man’s mouth open in an O and then he was gone in a rush of flame. —from ‘Cad Coddeu’ by Liz Williams
Some of the stories are rewardingly dark and ambitious – Will Hill’s ‘Shuffle‘, about a card sharp with a shady past trying to lose his way to salvation, uses its structure to pull off a card trick of its own. Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Art of Escapology‘ plays off a child’s hunger for some magic in his life against the cruel reality of a distant father, and Christopher Fowler’s ‘The Baby‘, about a ill-advised attempt to mix magic and abortion, is satisfyingly gruesome.
But other stories in the collection do less to challenge the reader. Thana Niveau’s ‘First and Last and Always‘ and Storm Constantine’s ‘Do As Thou Wilt‘ both deal with rather teenage and domestic versions of magic – spells that involve hair and cooking and have love and boys as their focus. This in itself is no bad thing, but these stories seem to take for granted our acceptance of this stuff, and so do little work to convince us to suspend our disbelief. ‘Do As Thou Wilt’ ramps up within a couple of paragraphs from a bit of innocuous tarot reading and wholesome cookery magic to a sudden and unexplained manifestation of a “dark angel with a gun”. Gail Z. Martin’s ‘Buttons‘ similarly takes for granted the reality and efficacy of psychometric investigators and biddable voodoo deities.
Humour is also a welcome element of great horror and occult writing. Without a touch of it, a writer risks taking themselves far too seriously and allowing their story to get bogged down in joyless certainty.
Here, Dan Abnett’s ‘Party Tricks‘ gets the humour right – it’s the very convincing voice of his public-school educated political mover-and-shaker that’s diverting, as much as the suggestion of possible dark arts at work in Westminster’s corridors of power.
Sophia McDougall’s ‘MailerDaemon‘ is also a funny and entertaining take on the genre. A woman plagued by nightmares jokingly agrees to a friend emailing her a helpful demon who eats bad dreams but doesn’t like boys. Her dreams turn psychedelically beautiful, but when her dates start to have cripplingly bad nightmares in her bed she starts to wonder if humouring her friend was a good idea.
The only other side effects are the dreams. The leaflet in the box with the pills warns that this can happen, but anything’s better than the nightmares – and these are good dreams, really. It’s only that night after night they grow in detail and complexity, until they’re sometimes exhausting. A painted city carved into the walls of a canyon. A tunnel that’s also a garden, opening at both ends to whirling stars. Building a cathedral in a desert of blood red sand. Impossible shapes, and music she can’t remember when she wakes up. And there’s someone beside her yet half out-of-sight, a pillar of shadow with clawed hands that help her build, bright eyes that watch her climb. —from ‘MailerDaemon’ by Sophia McDougall
The final story in the collection, ‘Dumb Lucy‘ by Robert Sherman, leaves us on a high. Sherman plays with our expectations of the genre. Ostensibly a story of a travelling magician in a grim future world rift by magical battles, a sudden and unexpected shift in perspective from the fantastic to the personal makes us question this reality, and the nature of the darkness that seems to threaten him. This comes as a refreshing surprise after some of the more straightforward contributions.
And he realized all the darkness in the room was her, it was her, it was coming from her. He could feel it now, it was pouring out of her. With every breath she made she was spitting more of it out, and it lay heavily on her, and it lay heavy on him, and it was going to suffocate him unless he stopped it. He’d lost her. He’d lost her. She’d been swallowed up whole.
He got up. She didn’t stir.
He packed the truck with all the props he needed for his magic art, his costume, the takings from the last three weeks of performance. He drove off into the night. —from ‘Dumb Lucy’ by Robert Sherman
In his mix of illusion, the possibility ‘real’ magic and the darkness at the heart of a relationship, Sherman achieves that balance between questioning and wanting to believe.
The highs in this collection make it an enjoyable read. As the nights draw in and you’re thinking about curling up for the winter holidays with something spooky to read, this anthology is a good choice.