How real is too real?
By Morgan St. Knight
The lift of a wand here, a little ditty there, and poof! The heroine or hero gets what they need at the moment. Adding magic to a storyline can spice up paranormal, urban fantasy and horror stories. But can it get too real?
This may bring a few chuckles. Too real? Magic doesn’t exist. How can it get “too real”?
My opinion is different on that matter, but I’m not here to debate that. I want to look at what authors put in their books, and whether it sometimes goes too far.
I absolutely love it when authors do serious research to make their books as believable as possible. The former journalist in me loves facts. So if someone has written a scene with a criminal investigation, I want to see a real criminal investigation. What sort of techniques do the investigators use? What is the science behind those techniques? Has the author written a believable series of events with a believable outcome, or are there too many questions and improbabilities?
When we read a scene involving a specific science, discipline or art, and our own background knowledge tells us the details are spot-on, it makes the experience more enjoyable. When it seems off, we may be motivated enough to look up the details on line. If the writer has gotten it wrong, we lose respect for and enjoyment of the book.
What does this have to do with magic? Well, I mentioned science, discipline and art, and in my world magic is all three. But again, I’m not here to debate. So let’s take a neutral example.
Say a writer includes a bomb-making scene in a thriller novel. This isn’t just some cursory scene, either. The writer has done her research and goes, step by step, through the process of making a bomb. If the reader followed the same steps, they would have a bomb that would really work. The writers might as well have cut and pasted a chapter from “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”.
Would you say such attention to detail was necessary? Or would you deem it unnecessary and even irresponsible for the writer to include such data?
Here’s where I switch over to the topic of magic. In most cases, the magical scenes I see in books nowadays are innocuous. It’s unlikely anything bad would happen if someone decided to actually perform them. But I said most, not all, and there’s the problem.
I have read some books that put in detailed scenes that might as well have come out of a grimoire. I have studied the occult for several decades, and I know the real stuff when I see it. True, some of these authors omitted (intentionally or through carelessness, I have no idea) certain aspects of the ceremonies. But they left in enough that a casual researcher could either find the missing information, especially in the age of everything-on-the-internet, or else could cobble together a working ritual from the elements that are there.
If you want a good example of TMI, read James Blish’s “Black Easter”. I don’t mind mentioning him by name because he’s been dead nearly 40 years, and you can’t defame the dead (in the U.S. courts, anyway. The dead have their own ideas about it). He did his research, I’ll give him that. There’s enough information in that little book to give someone the basics for full-dress demonic evocation. Fortunately the ritual is so onerous and the preparation so lengthy (you have to forge your own set of ritual swords, knives, etc.) that it’s unlikely anyone would have the time, patience or resources to attempt it.
But that’s not the case in other books. I read a series that centered on a witch who faced off against a number of occult enemies. Since the author is fairly well known, I won’t get into too many specifics or name names. A chapter in one of the books showed an evil sorceress performing a demonic invocation, and the details were surprisingly accurate. This was not the drawn-out process cited in Blish’s book. This was a short ritual done in one hour. The elements, from descriptions of magical symbols to the use of various tonal inflections in the actual invocations, was amazingly precise.
Good job with the research. Bad job for putting that kind of thing into writing for other people to find it.
So I beg those of you who want to write magical scenes, ease up on the research and come up with something that is dramatic but clearly in the realm of fantasy, or at least not practical for the average reader to try. Because if it’s doable, I guarantee someone will try it at some point.
Don’t worry that a real witch will come up and say “Bad research on the facts!” A real, responsible witch will look the other way, and may even give you a pat on the back for not spilling our trade secrets.
Curse of Prometheus:
A Tale of Medea
Morgan St. Knight
Genre: Paranormal/urban fantasy
Number of pages: 276
Word count: 107,000
The ancient world's most notorious sorceress has just become the modern world's only hope for survival.
How do you fight a god of light who has been seduced by darkness? That’s the challenge Medea Keres must meet. Posing as a wealthy young heiress in modern day Atlanta, no one knows she is the original Medea, the sorceress from ancient Greek legends.
As priestess of the witch goddess Hecate, Medea is charged with hunting demons that would otherwise overrun the world. Now she must face a far greater adversary. One of the twelve shining Olympian gods has turned rogue, violating the edict against human sacrifice. As the body count quickly rises, Medea knows her enemy is getting stronger.
With the help of the underworld nymph Orphne and the hero-god Heracles, she must find a way to unmask the evil so that the other Olympians will take action.
But as she probes deeper into a blood-soaked labyrinth of suspense and intrigue, Medea finds a net of deceit and treachery that will require all of her cunning to escape.
Available at Amazon
A form rose up between the two men on the table, as if it had been lying there all along. Dark and still amid the flashing power pouring out of me, it was perfectly black, the outline roughly human. There was no firm definition to the edges of the body. It flowed and rippled like onyx-colored water. Billowing clouds rose behind its back, shot through with thick reddish-black strands that throbbed unevenly like huge, ulcerated veins. The clouds resolved into vague wing-like shapes. Icy winds whipped through the room, snuffing most of the torches along the walls.
The voice was hissing, the single word almost breathless, as if it was uttered on an inhalation rather than exhalation. Pounding blows of dark energy assailed me, a relentless tide from an ocean of decay. The power flaring within me shuddered under the punishing attack.
The word rang within my skull as much as it echoed from the walls, the sibilance giving it a hint of something vaguely serpentine. It seemed my summons was not going to go unchallenged. It was the worst possible circumstance, and yet I felt oddly reassured. I knew this adversary wouldn’t have bothered appearing if there hadn’t been a strong chance my efforts would be successful.
“Yield, Thanatos!” I said through bared teeth, calling death by its ancient, though by no means its oldest name. I willed more energy from my center to push back its assault. I could show no fear, for it would be the one chink in my armor that Thanatos would find and exploit.
Fetid winds pummeled me, trying to force me to release my grasp on the two dead men. I knew if I broke contact with them for even an instant, Thanatos would be able to seal them off from me forever.
I wasn’t willing to give up now. Too much was at stake. I was going to get the answer I needed, once and for all.
I balled my hands into fists, clutching the hair of the men beneath me. I forced first one, then the other of my legs to lift up so I could struggle onto the table. “You want them back?” I yelled. “See what they bring with them!”
With a cry, I jerked their heads up so that they faced the hovering monstrosity in front of me. I changed the flow of my power, drawing it up rather than pushing it into the bodies, using it to suck the ram’s blood out of their stomachs. I concentrated with all my might, forcing the blood into jets that shot with blinding speed towards the living darkness.
The still-hot fluid hit home, and horrible screams pierced the air. They sounded like multiple sets of iron claws dragging on a blackboard in rapid succession. I’d guessed correctly. The one thing death cannot abide is life, and fresh blood is the essence of life itself.
There were huge rents in the darkness where the blood had eaten through the material form Thanatos had temporarily adopted. But the demon-like terror was not gone by a long shot. It wasn’t about to give up so easily. It closed the distance between us almost instantly, the head coming within inches of my own.
I struggled not to retch at the stench of rot that poured from the area where a mouth would be on a human. On this creature, it merely seemed to be an inky black aperture, darkness within darkness. It rippled slightly as another single word oozed from deep within it.
Numbness spread through my arms, and in a panic I looked down. I was still grasping the men, but I couldn’t feel my hands. It was a psychic assault. Nothing was actually wrong with my nerves or muscles. But if I didn’t maintain perfect control my hands could easily slip and let go of the prizes I was trying to win. Thanatos hadn’t been able to scare me into submission, so it was going to try another tactic.
Too bad we’d sacrificed a ram instead of a bull. If I had more blood to work with I might have been able to disintegrate the form of Thanatos entirely. But there wasn’t another easily accessible source of life-force.
Suddenly I remembered. Maybe I did have another weapon. I looked up. The bowl which had held the sacrificial blood was still floating above my head, right where I’d released it. It was caught up in the same nexus of power that surround me and the dead men. I recalled the word meaning “breath of life” engraved around the bowl, and understanding came to me. The words weren’t just decoration.
They were an incantation. The bowl itself was a magical object, and it was still coated in blood.
It was my only chance. I reached out with my mind, felt the shape of the bowl as clearly as if I held it within my own hands.
“Now!” I screamed, using my mind to thrust the bowl down. It struck the jet-black form of Thanatos directly in the middle. Cries of pain and anger that would have frightened devils erupted from the dark specter, so loud that I thought my head would shatter.
I felt the table jar as if we were in an earthquake, and it took all of my focus to maintain my hold on the dead men that lay on it. Their eyes were wide open now, their mouths working as if they were trying to say something. Hard to tell, but it could easily have been a look of terror on their faces. Well, no blame there. They’d died horrible deaths, and were now faced with new horrors when they should have been enjoying peace.
I thought the form of Thanatos might simply disappear, but I should have known better. Nothing is simple in battles like that. Instead, it shattered into myriad shards that shot in all direction, like thousands of tiny arrows.
About the Author:
Morgan St. Knight live in Atlanta, and is a lifelong student of mythology, the occult, and comparative religion. With more than 25 years of experience as a journalist, Morgan enjoys the occasional foray into fantasyland to escape the grim realities of life. He is currently working on the sequel to "Curse of Prometheus" and is developing a second paranormal series which also takes place in the South.
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