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Jonathan Oliver's haunted house-themed anthology House of Fear was one of the best books of 2012 - full of scary wheat with remarkably little chaff. Now, he's got another themed collection out - Magic, An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane (which both mean the same thing, but never mind the pretentious title.)

I was charmed by the appearance of this book: Nicolas Delort's black-and-white line-drawings and the stylish layout prove that pocket-sized paperbacks can be just as classy as hardbacks or the annoying "trade paperbacks". My appetite for the book was, however, cooled instantly by a series of mediocre stories. Audrey Niffenegger is famous for being a Literary Writer, and I can only assume that's why Oliver let her begin the collection with 'The Wrong Fairy', a rather flat piece of speculative history about Arthur Conan Doyle's mad painter Dad. Yes, it's one of those slightly pompous stories that don't have a proper plot or anything frightening in them, because they're really about the Nature of Creativity and its relation to madness and magic. (Number of new insights contributed on any of these well-worn topics: zero.) Fans of felis cattus will be pleased to hear that Sarah Lotz' If I Die, Kill My Cat does not feature any actual cat death, but nor does it feature very much else. It is based on the real-life druids who were hired by the Austrian authorities to troubleshoot accident blackspots, but this interesting and contemporary theme doesn't get much of a workout and it all fizzles out in a dumb cliffhanger.

It soon becomes obvious that the magical practitioner in the modern urban environment is Oliver's main concern. The only story to deal with pagan magic is Liz William's 'Cad Caddeu'. Yes, professional online shit-slinger Williams has taken a break from her demanding day job of starting fights on the Internet to write a short piece of fantasy fiction about shapeshifters (pompously known as the Changing) and belligerent trees, but the results are pretty risible. This book is marred by the sugary paeans to each contributor featured at the start of each story, and in this case the encomium is almost vomit-inducing. Oliver provides a brazen pimp for Williams' wretched olde magicke shoppe in Glastonbury and also describes her writing as "brilliant", but then he also describes the tourist-ridden Glasters as "that most magically evocative of places", so it's clear that all systems are set to arse-licking here. Of course you could argue that Williams' entire body of work exists solely as a pimp for the aforementioned shop, and in fact that's probably the best way to view it: an extended advertisement with no literary value.

But surprising as it may seem, this sylvan offering isn't even the worst story in the collection! No, this time the wooden spoon (carved out of magical rowan-wood and thrice-blessed in a Wiccan ceremony, of course) goes to Gail Z. Martin with 'Buttons'. Oliver sees Martin as a worthy successor to the famous "psychic detectives" like Flaxman Low and John Silence, and I want some of what he's been smoking. This piece boasts the worst writing in the book, with some truly cringe-inducing attempts at speaking 18th-century American, and the word "button" appears so many times that I actually dreamt about the fucking things when I fell asleep that night. This is certainly a story that does what it says on the tin (BUTTONS!) But there is nothing to enjoy in the travails of psychometric antique dealer Cassidy Kincaide (yeah, I know, I should've stopped reading at that name) on a quest to purge a BUTTON of it's BUTTON evil BUTTON powers BUTTON BUTTON.

And this brings me to one of my main problems with fiction about the occult: the Special Snowflake, a practitioner of magic born with super psychic powers. Sadly, there are a few on display here – the Williams and Martin stories both boast psychic pixie dream girls, but there is also the maverick card sharp (Matt Hill’s ‘Shuffle', which tries very hard to be cool) and the supernaturally-endowed criminal (Lou Morgan’s ‘Bottom Line’.) Sophia McDougall’s ‘Mailerdaemon’ is the only one of these with any degree of originality, if you can get past the fact that large parts of it are written in computerese (it’s the first time I've seen LJ mentioned in fiction! There may be a reason for this!) And at least the Special Snowflake in that story seems to be having the f*ckawful life of isolation, apparent madness and poverty you would expect from someone who's constantly receiving unsolicited messages from the Outer Darkness.

But my personal preference is for occult stories that involve ordinary human beings becoming involved in the occult without the help of any freak accident of genetics. My favourite ever novel is based on this - M John Harrison's The Course of the Heart - so I was glad to see the theme appearing here. Thana Niveau’s ‘First Last and Always’ showcases her talent for vivid, bloody imagery but with a more coherent plot than some of her stories. It’s about a “normal” girl who decides to dabble in magic to attract a gothic bloke she's obsessed with, and is unusual in that it neither mocks nor idolizes the Goth subculture and doesn’t use it to generate Instant Darkness (just add Robert Smith tears!). Storm Constantine’s ‘Do As Thou Wilt’ features a more advanced witch who must deal with a psychic vampire, and it’s readable stuff though I detected a touch of wish-fulfillment in the creation of a heroine who does occult catering (the inevitable cupcakes with Tarot on the side are very popular). This is probably the most realistic depiction of the way occultists operate today, though it’s on the fluffy side.

There is also a subdivision of occult fiction that I didn’t really expect to see here, given Oliver’s enthusiastic approach to magic – stories presenting the occult and those who practise it in a negative light. Dan Abnett’s ‘Party Tricks’ has politicians using magic to behave even more scummily than usual, and Alison Littlewood also tilts at the myth of the great magician in ‘The Art of Escapology’, which explores what would happen if Harry Houdini returned from the dead. Possibly my favourite story is ‘Domestic Magic’ by Steve Rasnic Tem and his wife Melanie, a particularly savage look at a witch whose self-centred attitudes and behaviour has condemned her teenage son and his younger sister to a nomadic life of drudgery and penury as they struggle to cope in the modern world. And Christopher Fowler provides ‘The Baby’, a characteristically strong and very sombre story involving rape and abortion!

After the horror of 'Buttons', the collection does at least finish with a pair of good stories. I've read several good stories by Gemma Files in the past, and 'Nanny Grey', though not her best work, does have some virtues. Its magic theme isn't glaringly obvious, and while it has a certain trendy prettiness to it (some of the images could've been directly inspired by those awful "alternative" "artists" who only paint underage goth girls with huge heads in frilly dresses and artfully arranged blood spatter) 'Nanny Grey' does at least have a bit of bite. And the English posh-person dialogue is very convincing for a non-UK author! I also liked Robert Shearman's 'Dumb Lucy', which features a fairly frequent figure in horror and noir fiction: the failed magician (and his assistant.) In this case, though, it's the world that's failing rather than the magician, with audiences decimated by apocalypse. Fortunately Shearman knows that it's best to focus on human feelings rather than wasting too much time on describing the exact scientific nature of the End of the World, and despite his simple, almost fairy-tale style this story is more sophisticated than most of the stories in this book and contains more insights into the nature of magic than any amount of self-indulgent twaddle about young and beautiful shape-changers or thaumatwats.

But despite this final flourish, Magic is a rather weak collection, especially compared to House of Fear. It's a brave attempt to condense a very broad area of horror writing into one fairly short book, but ultimately it could've done with a few more frights and a lot less fantasy (and where were all the bloody cats?) Of course, no-one ever said it was going to be really scary, and given the fondness of many people nowadays for practising magic of various kinds, I should probably not have expected every story to be frightening! And at least it didn't break the bank.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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