This definitely qualifies as Random Research. Within 2 minutes of researching “famous magic illusions” to give me some ideas to work with for my last scene (!) of my rough draft of the sequel to Pantomime, I came across Gangnam Style Magic, with some sleight of hand. This amused me. So here you go.
Magic, 1400s to 1950s – edited by Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, Noel Daniel
Product description (from Amazon):
The scientists of showbiz. Magic has enchanted humankind for millennia, evoking terror, laughter, shock and amazement. Once persecuted as heretics and sorcerers, magicians have always been conduits to a parallel universe of limitless possibility – whether invoking spirits, reading minds, or inverting the laws of nature by sleight of hand. Long before science fiction, virtual realities, video games, and the Internet, the craft of magic was the most powerful fantasy world man had ever known. As the true pioneers of special effects in human history, magicians have never ceased to mystify by perpetually making the impossible possible. This book celebrates 500 years of the dazzling visual culture of the world’s greatest magicians. Featuring over 1,000 rarely seen vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings in one 640-page volume, it traces the history of magic as a performing art from the 1470s through the post-WWII years. Through sensational images and clear and insightful accompanying text, “Magic” explores the evolution of the magician’s craft, from its early street performers to the brilliant stage magicians who gave rise to early cinematic special effects; from the 19th century’s “Golden Age of Magic” to groundbreaking daredevils like Houdini and the vaudevillians of the early 20th century.
Review and Response:
I bought Taschen’s giant circus book when revising Pantomime (see review here). I found it incredibly helpful and really wanted this book, but damn if it wasn’t expensive. When I got my book deal, my husband bought it for me as a congratulations present for my sequel. Well-played, husband, well-played.
I thought the Circus book was big. This one is even more gigantic–clocking in at 16 pounds and around 650 oversized pages. I could weight-lift with this thing. I could hit someone with it and do some serious damage.
The book is separated into subsections:
Foreword: Wizards of Wonder
Introduction: To Please and Cheat the Sight
Chapter 1: Conjuring Life and Death: The Essence of Illusion
Chapter 2: Devilish Deception: The Origins of Wonder
Chapter 3: From Black Magic to Modern Magic
Chapter 4: The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds
Chapter 5: Masters of the Golden Age
Chapter 6: The Great Touring Shows
Chapter 7: Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic
Chapter 8: Magic in Vaudeville and Nightclubs
As with the Circus book, each Chapter was in English, German, and French, along with all the captions of the photos. The essays are well-written and give insight into overarching trends in the history of magic. So many magicians had different personalities and styles. This book touches on both the ones well-remembered today–Houdini, Thurston, Kellar, Carter–and some of the lesser-known ones, like Ionia. The lithographic posters are extraordinarily lovely, and some have two-page spreads. Some of them are quite rare. This book is absolutely gorgeous, and if you’re a magic afficianado, it’s a must-read to have a clearer idea of how magicians have evolved over the years to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Through the years, we’ve grown more cynical, and the audience became increasingly aware that magicians were fooling us, but enjoying the tricks all the same.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve done one of my Random Research blogs. Let’s bring that back, shall we?
The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard – Peter Lamont
Book Description (from Amazon):
He was simply the greatest psychic of all time. He was also the first – before him, the word ‘psychic’ did not even exist. The feats he performed were so extraordinary that Victorian scientists had to invent the term in order to explain them. The man who became the world’s first psychic was Daniel Dunglas Home. Now almost entirely forgotten, Home was a household name in Victorian Britain, a man of inexplicable ability who divided opinion wherever he went. Hated by Dickens and defended by Thackeray, denounced by Faraday yet mysterious to Darwin, insulted by Tolstoy but patronised by the Emperor of France and the Csar of Russia. The astonishing feats he performed, and the bizarre personal life that attracted so much controversy, are little known today outside the esoteric world of psychical research. He rarely appears in the biographies of the many great Victorians who knew him as few could openly admit to such a controversial acquaintance. This book will finally introduce one of the most remarkable and enigmatic figures in history, and the strange and seemingly inexplicable events that occurred in his presence.
Review and Response:
Reading this book, it is incredible that Home isn’t better remembered today. John Anderson, The Wizard of the North and Home’s rival, is better known.
Born in Scotland, near Edinburgh, he immigrated with his family to the US at a young age. He suffered from poor health. Throughout his childhood, strange events followed him–he predicted several deaths and recounted strange visions that proved to be true.
He eventually decided he simply must inform the world about Spiritualism, and traveled the world, offering seances and hoping for patronage. He became most well-known for his extraordinary levitations.
Scandal also followed him. A wealthy widow “adopted” him and gave him large amounts of money, who later recanted and claimed Home had tricked her under spritualistic distress and sued him. He married a young daughter of Russian royalty and Alexander Dumas was his best man. By all accounts, he loved her deeply, but she died of tuberculosis. He later married an older, wealthy Russian.
Home was a study in contradictions. He claimed to be fervently devoted to his cause. Most knew him as earnest and mild-mannered. Yet at the same time, what he did was most likely all trickery, meaning that his very personality might also have been a ruse. Did he manipulate most of those around him, or was he actually who he claimed to be? But if he was a fraud–he was never caught, despite how often people tried to expose him.
A very interesting and recommended read.
This is one of the main resources for my WIP, the sequel to Pantomime.
In 1918 Harry Houdini performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: he made a live elephant disappear on stage. How did he do it? The answer lies in this dazzling tale of innovation, chicanery and keen competition that is the backstage story of the golden age of magic. Hiding the Elephant chronicles the race among history’s most legendary conjurers to make things levitate and disappear. A master illusionist and captivating storyteller, Steinmeyer introduces us to the eccentric personalities behind floating ghosts, disembodied heads and vanishing ladies and takes us backstage to reveal the mechanics of their mysteries. He carries us to a time when Queen Victoria held private seances and all of England believed in magic.
‘Simply the finest, best told, most graceful history of the Golden Age of magic I’ve ever read. It belongs on that elite shelf of historical explorations, like Longitude or The Professor and the Madman, which are so entertaining, so informative, that the reader with no prior interest will feel educated and enthralled on every page… A terrific yarn.’ — Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil
I’d agree with Gold. The language and organisation of this book was perfect. I sank into it almost as I would a fiction book, which is high praise indeed. Steinmeyer obviously has such an overwhelming interest and love of magic, and that comes through the pages. It was fascinating to learn more about the greatest magicians of the age.
Magicians are sneaky. Many of them had long-standing feuds, stole each other’s tricks and names, and found ways to slight each other. Some pretended to be from other countries to give themselves a more exotic air. Many of them became hugely successful, making relatively as much as an A-list celebrity would these days. But they were not easy lives, doing 2 or 3 shows a day 7 days a week for months sometimes, or traveling from city to city around the world.
Another aspect of this book that makes it very interesting is that Steinmeyer explains some of the famous illusions shown onstage during the Golden Age of Magic. The Circle of Magic probably wasn’t very happy about that. But I find that learning the secrets behind the trick does not take enjoyment away. It makes me respect them all the more, for some of these are so complicated and require everything to be done just so. Even with the description and the diagrams, I still didn’t quite see how they could work onstage.
If you have an interest in magic, this is an excellent starting point for an overview of the greatest era of magic.
For my day job, I work as a document controller, which is basically a corporate librarian. I issue documents to clients and ensure they adhere to our QA procedures. Excuse you–please cover your mouth when you yawn.
For quite a lot of my time per week, I’m saving emails and documents to a database. This is very boring. It is hard to concentrate on it for long periods of time. In fact, it’s impossible. Unless I’m listening to a podcast. I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ones, so if you know any that seem to be in the vein of what I like to research, please do pass them my way.
Smoke & Mirrors is a 10-part podcast produced by Resonance FM and features various members and non-members of the Circle of Magic, or the British society of magicians. The earlier episodes speak a bit about the history of magic and also focus on the modern application of magic and the different types, with a bit of magical-related news thrown in for good measure.
I was enchanted from the first episode, when the Executive Librarian of the Circle of Magic (aka the man with one of the Best. Jobs. Ever.) speaks for a bit about the history of magic. Each podcast features a guest, such as: Paul Kieve, the magic consultant in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film, Marc Paul, a mentalist, Paul Daniels, who had a successful TV magic show for many years and inspired a generation of magicians, Professor Richard Wiseman, who is a psychologist as well as a magician, Jonathan Goodwin, an escapologist, John Lenahan, who was kicked out of the Circle of Magic for exposing secrets, Fay Presto, a female close-up magician who has performed for the Queen multiple times, and others.
My three favourite episodes were Epsidoe 1, which focused the most on the history of magic; Episode 3, which looked more at the theatrics of magic; and Episode 9, with Fay Presto, which examined the gender inequality in magic. Fay is the top female magician in the UK, and she is also trans. According to The Independent, she was kicked out of the Circle of Magic when she transitioned because females aren’t allowed in the group (to which I say–WTF). She makes fascinating arguments as to why there aren’t as many female magicians–using the props of magic can almost be considered a crutch, and many women perform openly without that crutch, for in dance and music the gender split is a lot more even. Fay is also a firecracker and I chuckled more than once as I saved yet another email. If you only have time to listen to one of the ten part series–listen to the one with Fay.