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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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On Cheap Enchantment

by Don Webb
Copyright © 1996, Don Webb

Don Webb's WWW page: http://www.fringeware.com/tazmedia/dwebb

A previously unpublished short story by Don Webb

"After I had read the word, I saw the magic of how one word leads to another word, and one work to another work."--from "The Nile of Ink," by Marcus Menander

There is an old tradition in the basest form of occult literature of false attribution. If you're going to write a book of spells and sell it to your clients, you don't call it "Potions and Charms" by Ralph. You call it "The Notary Art of Solomon the King." You see, no one had any faith in Ralph. Not even Ralph, but Solomon--ahh now there's a name you can conjure with. You're already a more powerful and effective guy just because you've got the book in your home. You don't have a book of spells--you've got a piece of Solomon. You've got history, and the deep Western cultural paradigm of Book + History = Class still works among the literate section of our population. Of course not very many people buy books of magic any more. Oh sure there's an occult section to stimulate the imagination of the most jaded book buyer--but real enchantment as we all know is found in fantastic literature.

Most of it is the basest sort of enchantment--a mere illusion to occupy our minds for a few minutes so that we forget that we're flying on a long boring commuter flight, or haven't done those taxes yet. This enchantment lasts as long as the book is open, and [though it would be blasphemy to say so in this Temple of the fantastic] a TV probably does the job better with its hypnotizing phosphor pattern. (TV actually is designed to hypnotize but I digress.)

There's the better sort of enchantment, the spell that lasts for a while after you close the book. Horror fiction if read alone by moonlight usually does this job quite well. It can transform the sound of a sycamore leaf skittering across the driveway into the footsteps of a murderer.

And there's the best form of enchantment, such as Borges might pull off. Here someone reading the work might find (as I certainly did when I read "The Aleph" when I was 12) that their whole conception of the universe is changed. But with the arts of enchantment flourishing it is inevitable that the cheapest, basest forms of them once again multiply. Once again writers and the demons they serve (publishers) no longer have the faith in themselves. Books appear under a variety of names. Isaac Asimov's Robot City. FASA Shadowrun. Stan Lee's Riftworld.

Now you are all either yawning and saying that bringing a literary attack against such low-level books is like explaining to someone that they really won't find the secrets of the universe in "The Seventh and Eighth Books of Moses." I am not going to speak against these books.

(Gasp!)

I am going to suggest that someone, somewhere conspire to beat them at their own game.

They'll start out by bringing out a line of books (now I am not clever enough nor rich enough to do this) of Marcus Menander's Nile World. They'll explain that these books are in the "tradition of" Marcus Menander, "the world's most beloved fantasy writer." From books of short stories will grow novels, and finally the originals might be written when the young writers who have begun the work will be at the height of their powers. Instead of hiding behind a famous name, they will create the famous name. Those who don't like pulling in the big books can exercise their craft more subtly such as writing popular critical books on Menander, biographies, collections of letters to an increasingly hungry and confused fan population.

There will be some dangers in the activity. For example, some writers, who don't improve their own writing by constantly seeking after the mystery of its creation, will tend to write more and more like their stuffy old selves. The best example of this was the creation of the fictional author Isaac Asimov by a group of New York surrealists. Slowly, the many writers creating the myth of this inhumanly productive writer began to repeat themselves, filling book after book with embarrassingly long-winded passages. Even the critical literature, which of course was mainly produced by the conspirators, became tedious. The creation failed, and few have even bothered to review it as the great artistic achievement that it was.

Similar problems are beginning to affect the team in charge of the production of Stephen King's work. I fault them in choosing so obviously false a name. Hopefully, the Menander team will do better, and make the public think what we want them to think. The series books aren't written by the Menander team--this is important:--they write-up the authors. The fictional authors don't write as well as real beings, so their works at best can only be second rate.

Only dreams within a dream. And now they fade into thin air . . .


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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