Books are magic. And by “magic” I mean just that: magic. Every book you open unlocks a doorway into another world. The words on the page become images that transport you into other places, to other times, and into other people’s lives. Look at your bookshelf right now; how many doorways do you see? I see porticos to Middle-earth, and Castle Rock, Maine. I see galaxies far, far away, and turn of the century tenement slums. I see Hollywood of the 1950s, and Italy of the 1590s. I see gateways to realms fantastical and mundane; mythical and middling.
Now, books about magic are an entirely different beast. Books about magic carry alchemy of their own, and opening those doors is to invoke dangerous spells and bindings, forbidden arts and forgotten realms. Here are five such entryways that sit on my shelf, waiting to be opened again.
The Secret Life of Houdini: the Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
Now you’re probably thinking “Houdini?!” Houdini isn’t magic; Houdini was a sleight-of-hand man. An escape artist. The greatest showman since P.T. Barnum and just about as authentic. But nearly a hundred years after his death, when you say “magician,” nine times out of ten someone will say Houdini. His (stage) name has become synonymous with magic, with death-defying escapes, and with wonder. It’s also why, if you’re to believe the compelling narrative William Kalush and Larry Sloman construct in The Secret Life of Houdini, Houdini he was enlisted as a spy by the US and British governments in the months preceding the outbreak of WWI.
The Enchanted World (Series)
If you are a child of the 1980s, you’ll remember the TV commercials narrated by Vincent Price beckoning you (and your parents’ credit card) into a world of “legends, myths, and folk tales of ages past.” Time-Life’s Enchanted World series was an essential education in legends of dragons, water spirits, ghosts, dragons, avenging knights, and wizards, all drawn from rich veins of folklore from around the globe. Written from an in universum perspective, it treats its fantastical subjects as things that once were, and could be again. For many children who came of age against its backdrop, the Enchanted World was proof that there was still magic in our mundane modern world … provided you were brave enough to go looking for it.
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
To be an artist is to suffer. It is to be in competition with everyone else in your field. But mostly it means to battle against your worst enemy, the one you will never defeat: yourself. This is what stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden discover at the turn of the century, when tragedy pits the two against each other professionally as well as personally. More people know the Christopher Nolan adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel than the source material, but the source goes much deeper and into much stranger territory as the two magicians’ rivalry escalates into the realm of the fantastical and the phantasmagorical. The title derives from the novel’s fictional practice of stage illusions having three parts: the setup, the performance, and the prestige. It set the bar impossibly high for every story of magic to come.
The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Superstition. Paranoia. Bloodlust. The horrible crimes of Salem Massachusetts in 1692 cast a long shadow over an America that seems to fall victim to false accusations and baseless superstition with alarming reiteration. Stacy Schiff’s densely plotted non-fiction look at the witch trials, and the hysteria surrounding them may not seem like a story one wants to know more about. After all, you can read The Crucible anytime you want. But the devil’s in the details; despite the tales of black magic and witches’ covens, and pacts with Satan the workmanlike way the Puritan community set out to accuse, try, and execute nineteen people is a much more chilling potion than any fiction could concoct. The Salem Witch trials echo through the entirety of the three hundred years that followed it, in every culture, in every country as well-meaning but easily led people give in to their baser instincts because they fear what lurks in the dark, and what may be on the other side of that door.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Has urban fantasy ever been as groundbreaking (or influential) as Neil Gaiman’s modern classic Neverwhere? Its DNA is etched into everything from Harry Potter to Fables. What makes Neverwhere such a seminal work is its juxtaposition of gods and goddesses, ancient beasts, and hidden societies against the seemingly mundane travails of one Richard Mayhew, recently transplanted from Scotland to London, who stops and helps a bleeding and distressed young woman on a dark street. This act of kindness plunges Richard into the magical realm of London Below, and into the middle of a battle between angels and devils, with the fate existence hanging in the balance. Gaiman took the themes of his groundbreaking Sandman comic book series and expanded on them here first, and kick started a genre in the process.
Brad Abraham is the author of Magicians Impossible (Thomas Dunne Books), creator of the Mixtape comic book series (Space Goat Productions), screenwriter of the films Fresh Meat and Stonehenge Apocalypse, writer on the television series Canada Crew, Now You Know, I Love Mummy, and Robocop Prime Directives, and a journalist whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dreamwatch, and Fangoria. He lives in New York City.