The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality.
Roger Caillois, AU COEUR DU FANTASTIQUE, 1965
“Caillois locates the fantastic in the structure of the real world: it is a break in the natural order, a ‘scandal’, a transgression natural law, an irregularity; and this intrusion of something strange into the familiar world results in ‘the impression of irreducible strangeness’ for the reader.”
THE FANTASY BOOK, Franz Rottensteiner, 1978 Thames and Hudson/Collier
“Crime, Cait, is nothing more than the changing of the way things are.” Ariela’s voice bent itself to a haughty nobility, one above the law and doing as she saw fit. “The theft of money. Murder. Taking. Crime and magic are not so dissimilar. They are both the taking of what you want. Desire.”
THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS, Matt Maxwell, 2018 Broken Eye Books
I’m doing something that I usually don’t. The above? Yeah, stolen. Okay, not the last one. I wrote that. It’s a bit of dialogue from QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS. I bucked against this a lot in my truncated academic career, the whole impulse to lean on someone’s quote that came before you in order to validate your point. So yeah, I’m stealing those. I actually ran into them last night while beating my head on a rock trying to wrap this essay into something coherent and readable. But why shouldn’t I? This is about crime and magic, so I’m going to commit a crime and steal then reshape, file the serial numbers off and offer it as my own.
But taking Caillois’ and Rottensteiner’s points above, let’s talk a little about the interrelationship of magic and crime, at least within the horror/weird tradition (and no I’m not here to outline the boundaries, so we’ll just have to accept them for what they are.) I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t broadly applicable within fantasy as a genre (excepting sword and sorcery, in which the sorcery element is always regarded as an intrusion to be beaten back and some sense or normality restored, always terrible or seductive or unsustainable.) In horror, though? Perfectly, utterly applicable and true.
So, what’s crime? Broad category, it’s the breaking of the law. Full stop. You say I can’t do a thing? Too bad. I just did. Theft, murder, extortion, conspiracy, fraud and even the good old-fashioned confidence game, all of them crimes. All of them outside the law, the established order. Granted, within some circles, these activities are accepted, if not required. But let’s stick to crime as other behavior in relation to society. The law is what binds society together, lays out rules and yes, even enforces control without actually having to flex a single muscle.
The law is reality. That which is. Nowhere is this more apparent than the ceremony of the court case. Facts are stated. Evidence is presented and argued. Guilt or innocence decided. But at some level, it’s agreed that the court decides what actually happened, what events transpired and who is responsible for them. I’ll stop here, because we could very easily dive into the fictional/narrative basis for the establishment and agreement of reality and pretty soon it’d be next stop ethnomethodology and epistemology and who wants that? The court decides what happened. It dictates history. It states reality.
So, crime is that which defies the law and by extension, reality. It bypasses and short-circuits the invisible yet tangible rules that are holding things together. If we push that to natural law as kind of a super-set in which we’re all contained, then breaking those laws with some inexplicable, ineffable power, like magic? That’s a crime. It might even be the crime.
For convenience sake, let’s look at Lovecraft and how often he dealt with Things That Should Not Be as the sort of ur-adversary or omnipresent force in his work. These things are unnatural, inhuman, perhaps existing in our continuum yet not of it, fundamentally different from it and us. They are not natural. Their existence is a violation of physics and science as we understand them (but might yet supersede one day). They should not be, and yet there they are to torment us in dreams or when they rise from the sea or an open grave. Their presence is a crime against sanity.
Magic too, particularly in the weird and horror spheres, is that kind of crime. It might be argued that magic is simply a discipline that can be learned and tamed and used. But isn’t crime (at least in the living-the-life permanent outlaw meaning of the word) nothing but a set of disciplines and sciences? And both serve the same purpose: to remake the world in a way that more pleases the magician, or criminal. It is desire made manifest. And yes, even the horrible cosmic kaiju of HPL’s fictions have a desire to enact. Cthulhu himself is no more than a priest of these aloof deities. We as humans would probably find their motivations inscrutable or sanity-blasting, but that doesn’t mean these gods are without them.
So, if you want money, you rob a bank. Or you make a fake occult text and sell it to a sucker. You’re, in effect, re-creating the world more to your liking. Perhaps you call upon a dark lord of the underworld to grant you your heart’s desire, just don’t look at the bill. An academic rival is getting in your way, summon up the walker from between the stars. Or hire a hit-man. All of these powers are forbidden from you, all of them are crimes.
And what of the underworld? A double-valence that fits perfectly here. Not only is it the home to dark powers who will do favors for a price, but the term describes the world ruled by and for (organized) crime. And here’s where the occult, the hidden comes into play. The underworld, by its very nature, has to be separate from mundane life. It can, however, intrude, be beckoned in or force its way out. It’s a world that exists side-by-side with ours, probably closer than we’d like, but can only be accessed by those with the knowledge to do so. And for good reason, as the forces at play there could eat us up in an instant. Think of Jake Gittes crossing paths with Noah Cross in CHINATOWN. That’s some very deep water all of a sudden.
Only the insane or desperate would turn to such powers, right? Okay, so the Godfather has a kindly exterior (but that’s a façade only covering what he’s capable of beneath.) Sometimes magic has a friendly face that turns into a mouthful of sharp teeth when you turn your back on it. But if you’re strong enough, you can make the right deal and turn things around or get the respect you deserve or remake the world with you as its king. So go ahead and deal with the underworld. Break the law.
It’s not such a stretch to see criminal conspiracies as the kinds of dark power that beat at the heart of horror novels. Not simply the violation of norms and laws, but the reveal that such power even exists and can consume you or be bent to your will. These powers gain strength from being hidden, from being unknown to all but a handful of practitioners. Revealing themselves too early, before power has been cemented, before the stars are right, that just leaves the underworld vulnerable. Better to be just a myth and to be free. There’s no such thing as organized crime, no Devil, no cosmic monsters or vampire next door in Salem’s Lot. Disbelief or the illusion of non-existence is a powerful bit of magic.
Ultimately, crime is magic in that both are nothing more than power exercised, power bent and the world hammered into a new shape because of it. Whether by single desperate person lashing out or a secret group operating in every city and state or even just one, magic operating unseen, executed through crime after crime, new worlds being born.
(All images by Matt Maxwell)
“I was born sometime after Kennedy’s assassination, but before men walked around on the surface of the moon. Didn’t take long for me to figure out that the world which we were promised was one that was never going to be delivered upon. I live out in California with my wife, kids, dog, cat and Dodge Challenger. Took me most of a lifetime to get someone to pay me for my writing. I can’t recommend that path to anyone in good conscience.”