Sunday, November 22, 2009

"It would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party," or, Subtle connections

Autumnal bread baking has won out over blogging this afternoon, so rather than a proper post I have merely two passages to share. They have no explicit commonalities, but when I read the second this afternoon it called to mind the first. See what you think.

The first passage comes from "Little Red's Tango," a strange, elliptical, atmospheric story by Peter Straub (which is collected in a stunning anthology he edited last year, Poe's Children: The New Horror) that reads like the offspring of Steven Millhauser and Kelly Link. The title character, Little Red, is a jazz record collector and friend to a certain subset of those in need; he is spoken of only in vague terms, for though it seems clear that he has some unusual powers, their nature is elusive, even to him.
He will not remind you of anyone you know. Little Red is not a type.

The closest you will come to thinking that someone has reminded you of Little Red will occur in the midst of a movie seen late in a summer afternoon on which you have decided to use a darkened theater to walk away from your troubles for a couple of hours. As you sit surrounded by empty seats in the pleasant murk, watching a scene depicting a lavish party or a crowded restaurant, an unnamed extra will move through the door and depart, and at first you will feel no more than a mild tingle of recognition all the more compelling for having no obvious referent. Someone is going, someone has gone, that is all you will know. Then the tilt of the departing head or the negligent gesture of a hand will return to you a quality more closely akin to the emotional context of memory than to memory itself, and with the image of Little Red rising into your mind, you will find yourself pierced by a sense of loss, longing, and sweetness, as if someone had just spoken the name of a long-vanished, once-dear childhood friend.
The second passage comes from Joscelyn Godwin's fascinating Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World (2009), from a brief aside explaining Kircher's relationship to magic:
Kircher was not a magician like Marsilio Ficino, who summoned the planetary influences with Orphic songs and perfumes. He is never known to have drawn up horoscopes, like Johann Kepler or Jerome Cardan. Unlike Tommaso Campanella, he did not perform ceremonies of astrological magic for his patron Pope Urban VIII. Nor had he any respect for alchemy, either physical or spiritual. He despised all forms of divination, especially the geomancy that infatuated Robert Fludd. One cannot be sure that he never indulged in erotically energized meditations, like Giordano Bruno, but it seems unlikely. He never, ever summoned spirits or attempted to converse with angels, like John Dee and Edward Kelley; it would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party. . . . While he wrote unhesitatingly about magnetic magic, musical magic, hieroglyphic magic, and many other magics, the only ones Kircher considered licit were natural. That is, they were based on the knowledge and exploitation of nature's hidden laws, which not even angels and demons were free to disobey. That these laws included correspondences between entities on the different planes of being (planets, plants, parts of the body, etc.) was not supernatural: it was simply the way the natural universe was put together, "bound by secret knots."
In typing these out, I think I've discovered why they linked themselves in my mind: the urgent whisper of that Someone is going, someone is gone in the Straub excerpt feels very much like stumbling across one of Kircher's "secret knots," the hint of an order that we're too small, too finite in our understanding, to fully grasp; though Straub tied this particular knot himself, it has the authentic feel of something ancient and strange, the shadowy glimpse of magic that gives a good uncanny story its power.


  1. That's easy. :)

    Kircher's approach was shamanic, not High Ceremonial Magick. Most folks think magic is Ceremonial Magick, but that's only one approach. The lineage of names of what Kircher didn't do is the lineage of the ceremonial school. Kircher was a kitchen-witch, a natural magician, a shaman.

    Probably so was Little Red. It's hard not to think of Little Red Riding Hood, though.

  2. I'd not heard of 'poe's Children', but it looks wonderful. What with that and the Library of American 'American Fantastic Tales', Straub is doing some amazing curatorial/editorial work recently.

  3. I had the same reaction initially, Art, wondering if the wolf was going to show up at some point.

    JRSM, this anthology is at least a match for the second volume of his LOA collection in quality. A lot of the same authors are represented, but because this one isn't American, there are some new names, too. As with any anthology, there are a couple of stories that are just okay, but the bulk of them are very good--and Jonathan Carroll's "The Sadness of Detail" is worth the price of admission all by itself; I'll be sharing it with friends for decades to come.