Hating clowns is a waste of time because you’ll never loathe a clown as much as he loathes himself, but a magician? Magicians think they’re wise and witty, full of patter and panache, walking around like they didn’t deserve to be shot in the back of the head and dumped in a lake. For all the grandeur of its self-regard, magic consists of nothing more than making a total stranger feel stupid. Worse, the magician usually dresses like a jackass, sending the message loud and clear, “I may be a balding hippie wearing rainbow suspenders, but you can’t even stop me from stealing your watch and pretending to find it behind your ear.” We’re supposed to ooh and aah over their feats, which mostly consist of hiding things in their waxy orifices when we’re not looking, producing body temperature quarters and handkerchiefs from their nooks and crannies with a flourish, standing motionless until we’re guilted into applause, at which point they beam and wink as if they’ve just performed surgery on the President rather than befuddled a mouth-breathing child.
Abracadabra is a horror novel about magic and magicians. It is warm and wise and full of love.
Kill me now.
Published by that purveyor of Grade Z dreck, Zebra Books, in 1988, Abracadabra missed a trick when its author, Stephen Gresham, didn’t call it Abracadaver. Then again, Gresham thought a book about magicians would be marketable, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes misses the obvious. From page one, we’re dropped in the middle of the story of adorable 11-year old Olivia Jayne Smith, known as Juice, who loves magic. She’s constantly playing wonderful pranks on her daddy, like pulling an entire chicken out of his hamburger while he’s eating. But daddy never laughs because…because mama spends all her time at…at aerobics classes and is never home for dinner. Fortunately, Juice has her Pa-Nah, whom normal people would call her grandfather. He belongs to the Sleights-of-Hand, a group of elderly men who lurve magic so much they gather at each other’s homes and force their tricks on each other, kind of like a circle jerk except there are more hourglasses full of gold and silk handkerchiefs involved. One of the men actually is an impressive magician, however. He’s named Binky Sullivan, and surviving to old age with a name like that is an amazing trick.
Juice has an abnormal fetish for the way old people smell and so she yearns to join the Sleights-of-Hand, attending their meetings and showing them her own pathetic, half-baked tricks which they indulge because they’re too frail to hold a pillow over her face until she stops struggling. Juice dances around like a beam of sunshine, liberally dusting her sentences with adorable phrases like “Gosh o’Friday” and “Gosh o’Gravy” and “Crime-a-nitly”. Being from the South, she regularly excretes sentences like “I’m hungrier’n creation,” when she’s not turning to Pa-Nah and asking disconcerting questions like “Pa-Nah, did you ever bring grandma here to the creek and love and hug on her?” By the time her alcoholic mom calls her “little bitch mouth” you’re kind of on mom’s side. The fact that her mom is a Twisted Sister fan just makes her even more likely to be right.
One day, while milling around near the Wilner Theater on the local college campus, Juice stumbles into the basement and opens an old trunk with a skeleton key Pa-Nah gave her, releasing Robert LeFey, a sexy young man who, to cut through a lot of crap, was an evil magician back in the whenevers and was imprisoned in the trunk by the Sleights-of-Hand club. He has come back to seek revenge and the Sleights must rally and defeat him. Which makes it sound like an epic battle is brewing.
The fact that the Sleight’s master plan to dispose of their dangerous enemy was to lock him in an unguarded trunk and shove it in the basement of the local college’s drama department gives you an indication of the kind of masterminds we’re dealing with. Then again, LeFey can’t even lift Pa-Nah’s magical skeleton key off a simple-minded 11-year old girl whose biggest dream is to wear fishnet stockings and wash dove shit out of top hats, so they’re pretty evenly matched. It’s something of a miracle that LeFey manages to murder one of the Sleights…by getting him to crawl inside a knife-studded trick cabinet. *sigh. It’s like Harry Potter if Hogwarts was a school for blind kittens.
The Sleights come up with a master plan to kill LeFey using electrified New Age crystals that are so expensive one of them has to dip into his trust fund to cover their cost, and I can only imagine how long the hippie earth mother laughed up the sleeve of her tie-dyed mumu after marking up her rose quartz crystals 1000000000% and pawning them off on this elderly sucker. The plan fails, and LeFey gets the drop on these wand-waving duffers and, when they are totally and completely at his mercy, trembling with fear, he ties them up and walks away, leaving them inside a dark cave, in mortal danger of missing a meal.
Juice has to bumble to their rescue and now Pa-Nah and the Sleights must tell her the dark secret behind LeFey’s ancient evil. Apparently, a long time ago, they all belonged to a campus club devoted to magic tricks because they were sad, lonely, isolated individuals who had never experienced a mother’s love, a father’s approval, or the warm touch of a woman. LeFey applied for membership but was rejected because of the dark evil he practiced, like the time he “took a young man who had drank too much, strapped him into a straitjacket, and set him loose in the woods.” The young man survived, but suffered a nervous breakdown. And there were other, more troubling, incidents, such as the rumor that “LeFey kept a notebook in which he had sketched out a plan to assassinate Roosevelt at Warm Springs — a perfect crime using magic and illusion…” This is troubling. Someone this stupid should never be allowed to use adult scissors, let alone be admitted to any clubs.
But what makes LeFey far more dangerous is his compulsion for dramatic pauses. “‘My retribution will almost seem…’ He thought a moment and whisked away more dust from his clothing. ‘An illusion.'” It’s blood chilling, and his addiction to the dramatic pause means that he can’t walk through a door, turn a corner, start his car, or pick up groceries without leaving ominous gaps in the conversation during which his eyes glimmer darkly and his mouth twists into a menacing sneer.
“‘I must pay a return visit to Donovan Wray. He’s planning the Spanish Maiden escape for Magic Day. I suggested it to him.’ Baton in hand, he paused in the shadowy doorway.
‘I’ll show him a new way to perform it.’
“He smiled and then seemed to disappear into the stairway without taking a single step.”
Magicians are dicks.
In the end, the Sleights are rendered helpless when they accidentally lock themselves inside a closet or something, and Juice must confront LeFey all alone. Does she conjure up the spirit of Houdini to lend her his strength? Does a phantasmal John Dee appear at her hour of greatest need, eldritch energy sparkling from his fingertips? No. She calls upon the magic of the Rubik’s Cube, then she and Pa-Nah and Mr. Binky use the power of love to zap LeFey with a heavenly spotlight and he disappears into nothingness, leaving behind his clothes. Because, as Abracadabra tells us, “Real magic is people.”
There aren’t enough white tigers in the world.
NOTE: If you liked this Zebra Book, the back pages of the paperback offer plenty of others to try, and unwisely, I’m excited to read Stephen Gresham’s The Shadow Man:
“The Shadow Man could hide anywhere — under the bed, in the closet, behind the mirror…even in the sophisticated circuitry of little Joey’s computer. And the Shadow Man could make Joey do things that no little boy should ever do!”
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just came out this past Tuesday. It’s basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.