Tag Archives: magical realism

The Bastard of St Genevra: A Review


I was approached to see if I’d like to review this title as a consequence of another book I’d reviewed here. Author Diane Gallagher lured me in with the promise of magical realism, healing ancestral lines and a story that revolves around the lives of women. I was not disappointed. As if often the case with good books, it is tricky to talk about the story without spoiling bits of it. What I can safely say is that this story occupies two time frames, one runs from the late twentieth century through to the present day, and the other is concerned with events in the twelfth century. It’s a charming book, highly readable and engaging with thoughtfully rendered characters.

I was especially taken with the way in which the author is able to meet the magic and mysticism of 12th century Catholicism on its own terms. Her historical characters occupy their beliefs and superstitions, the world they inhabit is full of the scope for miracles and divine intervention, ill wishing, cursing, and so forth. It all feels very real and there’s no sense of modern judgements getting in the way. It really makes clear what a magical reality Catholicism was part of in its early days. Coming at this as a Pagan, I found the religious and mystical aspects of the book highly readable and enjoyable.

This is a book about the lives of women – there are three main female characters, and a whole cast of other complex women surrounds them. There are of course men as well, but the action takes place firmly in the female sphere and relates to female life experience. I really enjoyed that. We see everything from the royal courts down to the lowliest peasants, it’s very rich reading.

I greatly appreciated the way love is handled in this book. There are love affairs, relationships, marriages – these are part of life and are explored with care and treated with importance. But, they don’t define the shape of the story, it isn’t ‘a romance’ it’s a weave of life in which love has a significant role to play. It’s rare to get a book with a strong feminine focus that explores love but does not succumb to the romance genre.

I think the biggest take-away for me is the way in which this book has prompted me to re-think the concept of martyrdom. Regulars to the blog will know that I’ve commented repeatedly that there’s no place for martyrdom in Paganism. I’ve previously thought about martyrdom as something that is done to a person, that it is about violence and oppression, and not something to celebrate. There is a martyrdom in this story that entirely defied my expectations and assumptions. The power of the character in question to choose her path, to face her mortality and pain to transform herself is fascinating. For a while there, I was thinking instead about the cruelty inherent in this kind of religion, but as the story plays out, it becomes clear that this martyrdom is a lot more like Odin hanging in the world tree than ever it is the story of a victim. And it struck me that perhaps what makes martyrdom significant is not the horrible death aspect, but the way in which the person on the receiving end refuses to have their spirit broken by it.

The Bastard of St Genevra should be out on the 30th May, you can find out more on the author’s website – https://dianegallagherwritings.com/published-works/novels/the-bastard-of-saint-genevra/

Magical Realism: Contradiction in Terms?

A guest post from Laura Perry

I’m a writer, and a portion of what I write is fiction that qualifies as magical realism. My most recent novel, The Bed (http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-bed), definitely qualifies. I’ve had a few people question that term, suggesting that it’s a contradiction. After all, according to mainstream society and “common sense,” magic isn’t real.

I’ve written before about Pagans who practice magic but don’t actually believe in it, a habit that can lead to very unpleasant side effects (http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/single-post/2016/02/10/Pagans-who-dont-believe-in-magic-but-use-it-anyway). Mainstream society puts a great deal of pressure on us to conform to the materialist viewpoint that anything that can’t be experienced through our five physical senses or detected via scientific instruments simply doesn’t exist or is, at best, some sort of hallucination. So it’s an uphill battle against cultural pressure just to consider the possibility that magic is a real thing.

There’s a sizeable portion of the Pagan/alternative/New Age community that explains magic as some sort of psychological effect, which is fine as far as it goes. There’s plenty we don’t know about how the psyche works, so chalking magic up to psychological thingamawhatsies is tantamount to invoking a version of Clarke’s Third Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws) with the human brain in place of some sort of constructed technology. That, too, is just fine, since no one really knows why or how magic works.

The thing is, magic does work. It produces effects—sometimes unexpected or unpleasant ones—in the material world. Whether that’s through the forces of the human mind or the workings of Nature or the intervention of divine beings is up for discussion.

If magic works, then it’s reasonable to write stories about it and say that those stories are examples of magical realism. Bear in mind that fiction, even fiction that’s based on “true life” stories, is still a made-up thing. But good fiction is a believably made-up thing. I’ve seen the results of magic, both good and bad, enough times to be willing to slide it into the underpinnings of my stories. I don’t write about people flying through the air on broomsticks or shooting flames out of their hands. I write about the kinds of magic I’ve experienced myself: dreams and visions, rituals that go well or that get out of hand, customs that are designed to safeguard the practitioner and that can result in disaster if they’re ignored.

These things aren’t fantasy, though not everyone experiences them. And of course, even people who’ve experienced them may choose not to believe in them since mainstream society still says magic isn’t real (I’ve seen that happen—cognitive dissonance is a powerful and frightening thing). That’s another useful bit for my fiction: the conflict with friends and family members who think you’re crazy for even considering the idea that magic actually works. But in real life, it can be less than fun to deal with.

So no, I don’t consider “magical realism” to be a contradiction in terms. I enjoy writing it and I enjoy reading it. But more than that, I enjoy living it.

The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil

Yesterday’s interview with Jack Barrow leads me neatly to today’s pondering of his book, which I have read. I had no idea how much I wanted this book until it turned up, but it turns out that I’ve been craving this kind of thing for a long time. Our Mr Barrow is a magician, he knows his stuff, and thus when he sets out to write comedy magical fiction, he does so from a basis of understanding, and the results are kickass.

Most fiction writing about magic, occult people and Pagans comes from the outside, and it’s usually there to be a plot device, spice the story up or cover a plot hole or five. Often this depresses the hell out of me, especially in the paranormal romance genre.

The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil features four guys who I know I’ve met, somewhere along the way. The geeky, overweight, slightly intoxicated ones who might be totally ridiculous, or might, on the other hand, be all that stands between us and certain doom. This book is full of chaotic magic that is all about the power of your will and imagination, not at all about having the right coloured candle. The insights are so on the money, and so funny… I laughed out loud a lot.
Furthermore, this isn’t just excellent magical writing, its damn fine writing. Mr Barrow has a self conscious narratorial style (Not unlike Robert Rankin) and plays with the nature of fiction and reality in a seriously effective way. It is a clever, clever book. I rarely find a book that both surprises me and holds together, but this one does. Most of the time I had no idea where it was going, but it went there, and I followed along, alternately giggling and being impressed.

Now, The Hidden Masters have the potential to be a series, which would be splendid, to which end, lots of copies need to wing their way out into the world. The publisher, Twin Serpents, is not big. However, I’m a firm believer in small publishing, and in getting more good stuff out there. If you like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, if you like clever, knowing, very funny writing, and if you’ve been aching for the kind of magical realism that comes from inside the English magical tradition, this is your book. Seek it out now.

Jack Barrow interview

Jack Barrow came to me through one of those random online connections. I read his book blurb, thought this sounds fun and grabbed him for an interview. As he’s not yet famous, I thought I should do some of those ‘who are you?’ questions, and the results were fascinating…

Nimue: Hello Jack! Let’s start with an enquiry about the nature of your path…

Jack: What can I say? I tend to call myself a pagan these days but only really because that’s the community that I belong to. Back when I started on this path, in the early eighties, I described myself as an occultist. I suppose magician is the definitive category. My background is probably best described as ceremonial magician, mostly derived from cabalistic or Thelemic sources. I have an interest in Crowley and Spare but not to the exclusion of other sources. I believe that the foundations of paganism lie in the time-honoured symbol systems, particularly the Tarot and astrology. If a practitioner can master those then they have a foundation that can take them anywhere. I once went through a stage of describing myself as an eclectic/comedic magician because I steal from anywhere but don’t take anything seriously. After a while I changed that as I realised that I do actually take the practice of magic quite seriously, at least in terms of my understanding of the mechanisms involved in making magic successful. I’ve been described as a chaos magician but I’ve never liked the term.

Nimue: And in the rest of your life?

Jack: I’ve been making a living out of writing, in one form or another, since the late eighties. In that time I’ve done most sorts of corporate writing (which is what you have to do to survive) including copywriting and technical writing as well as some journalism. I’ve written on all sorts of subjects from advertising features about BBQs (there’s not much you can say after about 200 words) to technical manuals for helicopter engines or photocopiers. I started writing about ideas in 1989 when I heard of an astrological event that caught my imagination. I say ideas because that’s what I write about, paganism or magical concepts are just some of those ideas but my writing back then was as much about politics and philosophy as it was about astrology, and that was mundane astrology which is the astrology of global events. Later I found I could write stories about the sort of people I knew at the time, people involved in the magical scene, and the fiction came from there. Eventually it occurred to me that writing fiction is a better way to communicate those ideas and it gives the opportunity for a few jokes at the same time. I found myself writing about the kind of magic that members of the community practise and I enjoyed getting away from the sparks from the fingertips magic portrayed in the Harry Potter stories.
Otherwise I’ve studied psychology for which I got a very poor degree from a relatively good university. I like African percussion and early blues music (as well as most things in between). After watching a Horizon programme I’m fasting two days a week in an attempt to not turn into my father. I like red wine, and Top Gear, often at the same time, and I have an over romanticised ambition to throw a tent and backpack in my car and drive off into the wilderness with a tablet computer to write my next novel in splendid isolation.

Nimue: Now, when I read the blurb for The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil, I got a strong feeling of comedy, so, you’re writing about wizards, and you come from an occult background, how does the juggling of realities, personal, mainstream, fictional, work for you?

Jack: I would say I’m writing about magicians (rather than wizards) because that’s my tradition (although I try not to push a link between myself and the characters too much). As far as juggling realities goes, I find it comes pretty much second nature. When I perform an act of magic it’s usually in some magickal scenario: in the temple, robed up, after long preparation or some other factor that divides it away from everyday life. The act of dressing a temple, the clouds of incense or candle lit room with shadowy corners; that all creates an atmosphere of magic and changes that reality, generates gnosis if you like.
Being a practitioner of magic (for me) is suspension of disbelief and when I do it just comes naturally. I don’t actually believe that waving a stick around and chanting in some ancient language is going to cause an outcome but I have an expectation that it will generate results, so long as I give it a chance.
In terms of fictional realities, I’m not sure there is any difference to the real world. My characters live in present day England, have day jobs, get drunk, fall over, etc. Their reality is the same as ours. They perform magic in the same way as we do, the only difference is that they get to save the universe at weekends. Otherwise they are just like you and me.

Nimue: Ah, suspension of disbelief, that’s a powerful thing in writing and in being an audience. The ability to choose what to believe.

Jack: I wouldn’t call it choosing what to believe as much as role play. However, I think there are only some roles that will work, or perhaps only some roles (or alternate views of reality) that I’d want to get involved with. It’s difficult to pin down and I don’t want to analyse that too closely as analysis is the province of a different approach to the world from the magical approach. It’s not so much belief as expectation. I really don’t think I believe in magic. I’m a rationalist at heart. However I do use magic and use divinations systems, that sort of thing. Rationally I can’t believe that they can possibly work, however I’ve used them so many times and found them useful that I have an expectation that it these practices will work out for me. Don’t ask me how magic can possibly work because I really don’t believe in it.

Nimue: So would you say that a Pagan reader will find something familiar about your characters and their lives? Might these be the people you run into at the local moot?

Jack: Yes I hope so. When I started to write the book I didn’t really know how the magic was going to work out and I was writing it sequentially, originally publishing a chapter a month on an obscure pagan web site. When it came to describing the first major act of magic I just described it as I would have approached it. Well, okay, I wouldn’t normally try to start a car with magic but you have to put your characters is different situations from people in everyday life. So I was left with the dilemma of how to resolve this and decided that I’d just have the car start without too much explanation, as if by coincidence. Isn’t that how magic works for pagans?
There are one or two completely impossible things that happen in the story but when I realised how the rest of the magic was working I decided I wanted to keep the obviously supernatural to a minimum. Therefore there are no Potteresque sparks from wands or people flying on broomsticks, apart from that one major obviously impossible event in the first half of the book but I’m not going to give that away as it’s got a fairly significant gag attached to it.
Could Nigel, Wayne and Clint be at the moot? Most probably, if they know about the moot but I’m not sure how much they get out, perhaps Wayne does as he spends a lot of time in pubs. They are certainly not some special breed of hero that never mixes with the public. They tend to meet in Nigel’s house on a Tuesday night to drink dark rum, or whatever they can get hold of. You might think of it as like a coven meeting but they are not witches, I’d just call it a group meeting. That’s all explored in The Esbat, that’s the title of the first chapter and a chapter title that will probably appear in all future stories featuring the Hidden Masters.

Nimue: Speaking as someone who would like some Paganish fiction to read, it sounds to me like a very promising balance. Harry Potter is fun, but it’s too much fantasy, I hanker after something a bit more like magical realism, things I can almost believe.

Jack: I think my fiction might be described as magic realism, just I don’t use the term. And of
course there is that one major event in the story that couldn’t possibly be true.

Nimue: Who are your influences, on the writing side?

Jack: Influences, definitely Douglas Adams and Robert Rankin. Otherwise I have very eclectic tastes and I’m as much into non-fiction as fiction. In the last few months I’ve reread The Hobbit, a few books by Bill Bryson, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and I’m currently reading Gandhi’s autobiography. When I’ve finished that I’m planning to read Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails as research for my next novel which starts on a mountain top with an end of the world cult. Otherwise I’m just not sure what my influences are, the Open University perhaps.

Nimue: Where can people find you?

Jack: http://www.jack-barrow.com/books/unspeakable_evil.htm

(Book review to follow, because I’ve now read, and loved Jack’s writing… watch this space…)

Magic, fiction and paganism

Often in fiction, magic exists as a plot device, and alternative to science and a means to get things done. Sometimes, the mechanics are laid bare. Fictional magic often lacks mystery. Spell casting wizards whose magic is reliable if they say and do the right things are commonplace in fantasy. Psychic powers and magical attributes are usually well defined, predictable, reliable, and (to borrow from Red Dwarf) other words ending in ‘ible’.

As a pagan, my whole idea of magic is completely at odds with this. For me, the very essence of magic is mystery and wonder. I don’t perceive magic as an alternative to science either. I see them in far more complex relationship. That which we do not understand, is magic. That which we have an explanation for, is science, in terms of how humans deal with things. But science can engender wonder and a sense of the miraculous.

Brendan Myers defines magic as that which inspires awe (my books are in storage, I can’t do references!) I think this is a great place to start. The fireworks and thunderclaps of fantasy magic are no different from any other pyrotechnics. They inspire excitement perhaps, but not any sense of wonder.

In fiction, magic just isn’t magical very often.

The desire to explain, to pin down and regulate seems to be on the increase. We confuse understanding, with pinning a thing to a board. To understand a butterfly is to see it in flight, watch how it sits on a flower, to marvel at its colour. Pinning it to a board will help you define and quantify it, but destroys the butterfly. All the mechanical explanations in the world cannot really give you understanding of any complex thing. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, between figures and insight, between taking a thing apart and understanding how it works.

There are some authors who offer wonderful expressions of magic – Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Charles De Lint, Robert Holdstock, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett with his witches. There’s the whole genre of magical realism, inspired by pre-colonial ways of knowing the world – I’m not a huge fan of Salaman Rushdie, but he’s a fine example. Isabelle Allende is a personal favourite.

These are authors who write experiential magic, and who embrace the numinous. Magic is not, for them, a tidy and coherent system that works like a science or a technology. Magic is wild and wonderful, unruly and full of mystery. It does not explain itself. It will not sit down and tell you where it came from, how it works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Instead, it is the magic that transforms lives and brings inspiration.

There are a lot of people out there who perceive stage magic, fantasy magic, as the aspiration of actual pagans. They imagine that we want to be Harry Potter. They watch impossible, crazy things and understand that magic is impossible and unreal and not available to them. So much magic in fiction is actually taking away from people the idea that magic exists, by turning it into high fantasy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does Harry Potter style magic (I assume no one would admit it if they could), but if this vision of what magic means defines it in the public conscious, most people will understand it is not for them, and that only crazy people would seek for it.

Remystifying magic, re-enchanting it and bringing it back into a spiritual and meaningful context, would be an epic task. But not impossible. It’s just such a nuisance that Hollywood pyrotechnic pseudo-science goes round calling itself magic, when it’s about as unmagical as you can get.