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GUEST POST | Mark Teppo On the Spectacle of Magic

Fellow bibliomaniac Mark Teppo should be no stranger to visitors of Mad Hatter's Bookshelf since I've covered his first two novels Lightbreaker and Heartland, which have a different temperament than most Urban Fantasy fair.  Mark's use of magick (that's with a k) in his writing has always intrigued me so I was pleased to see Mark decided to write on that topic. Enjoy!

On the Spectacle of Magic by Mark Teppo


There's a great profile with Ricky Jay in the New Yorker magazine. It opens with one of my favorite anecdotes about Jay. Jay, David Mamet, Gregory Mosher, and Chris Nogulich are in a bar, and Jay has been exhorted to do some card tricks. Now Jay is probably the best sleight-of-hand man alive, and "hey, man, do some card tricks" is akin to asking Itzak Perlman to if he knows any fiddlin' tunes.

Jay, consummate straight man, goes through a routine of card manipulation tricks--nothing terribly spectacular, but still, head-scratchingly wonderful stuff--and then spreads the deck out on the bar, face-up. "Concentrate on a card," he says to Nogulich, "but don't tell me what it is."

Nogulich thinks of a card, and Jay gathers the deck up, shuffles it, and makes two piles. He points to one of the two piles, and asks Nogulich what his card was. Nogulich says that it was the three of clubs, and when he turns over the top card, that's what it is.

Mosher, thinking he can fluster Jay, pipes up: "You know, Ricky, I was thinking of a card too."

Jay, after a moment of silence--and if you've seen Jay perform or in any of his roles in David Mamet's films, you've seen this silence from him--says, "Well, Gregory, that's interesting, but I only do this trick for one person at a time."

Mosher won't let it go. "I really was thinking of a card."

Jay isn't terribly happy. "This is a distinct change of procedure," he says, and then finally, he relents. "Very well. What was your card?"

Mosher says: "Two of spades."

Jay tells him to turn over the top card on the other pile. Mosher does, and it's the two of spades.

Penn & Teller like to pretend that they're letting the audience peek behind the curtain. They have a routine where Teller runs through a series of sleight-of-hand gags with a cigarette, and then they run through it again from the other side so that the audience can see how it is done. Somewhere along the way, Teller slips up and seemingly screws up the routine, but what actually happens is an even more clever bit of sleight-of-hand in plain sight of the audience.

As audiences become more aware--more cynical, more jaded--it becomes more difficult to bedazzle watchers with making cigarettes disappear, with making cards change their pips, with seeming to be in two places at once. There are some illusionists, certainly, who play to the Bigger! Louder! Faster! crowd, but the ones that leave a lasting impression are the ones who produce something out of nothing. Their magic is an astounding act of creation--there's really no other way to explain it--and part of their wonder and charm is that they are incredibly subtle. Blink and you'll miss them.

What makes them so memorable is that they suspend our cynicism. For a few seconds, we believe; and, really, we all yearn for those moments when we are allowed to witness the impossible. When we get a glimpse of something we don't understand--that can't have happened!--and it becomes this intensely private nugget lodged in our memories. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes.

We've spent too many years in front row seats, rapt and wide-eyed, at the Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer Theater of Explosive Spectacle. Our entertainment must be thrown up on thirty foot tall screens, blasted at us through a bowel-liquefying, discretely-separated speaker stack, and filled with the dizzying hyperkineticism of rats on meth. Our sense of wonder is so moribund that it must first be shocked and pummeled back to life before it can be suspended. It's the First Rule of Modern Adventure Entertainment: shit must blow up.

(And I'm guilty of it, too. Don't think that I'm trying to take the moral high ground here. I blow up a lot of things in Lightbreaker. Not so much in Heartland, but I make up for it by moving all the cluster bombing to the landscape of the psyche.)
And we forget about the quiet magic. We forget about how little it can take to actually change the world. Aleister Crowley, the 20th century's most denigrated and most illusory trickster, defined magick as being the ability to create Change in conformity with one's Will (the extra 'k' to distinguish between this sort of sorcery and the more mundane trickery involving sleight-of-hand and misdirection, which in and of itself, is a bit of hand-waving and misdirection, but that's part of the insidious slipperiness of Crowley).

Go back and look at Ricky Jay's trick with the cards again. Look at it as if it were a subtle act of magick. Who created the change? Was it Mosher, who upset the world by asking his question? Did the change happen when he touched the second deck, summoning his card to the top? Or was it Jay, who exerted his Will over both men (without either of them being aware of it), planting in their minds the image of the card they would eventually name? Or is the change wrought by a need resident in our psyches, in our desire for it be "magic"?

Tomorrow, I bet you're going to remember the card trick. You're going to still be thinking about how it was done. You may never figure it out (though, if you do, let me know), but that won't detract from its mystery. It'll get more mysterious, the longer it lingers.

Urban Fantasy needs more of the quiet magic, the subtle bit of illusion that unspools over a long period of time in your brain. We may be drawn to the shiny bits that explode, but like all eruptions, these things will fade quickly. The real spectacle, the real magic trick, is the tiny gesture that peels back the curtain on the impossible. Only for a moment, mind you, but it’s long enough for us to desire to see it again.


You Might Also Like:
REVIEW | Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo
REVIEW | Heartland by Mark Teppo
INTERVIEW | Mark Teppo author of Lightbreaker
What's the Weirdest Book You've Ever Read?

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