In his poem, “Roses,” William Carlos Williams writes, “The imagination, across the sorry facts, lifts us to make roses.” The poem can be uplifting or cynical, depending on its interpretation. When I sat down to write this piece, I was going to say that the poem was needlessly negative. Are the “facts” really that “sorry”? And can’t the mind work in an opposite way, so that everything around us is really rather nice but appears abysmal? Conversely, writers, for years, have been fascinated with the concept of disillusionment. Our minds build castles in the sky, and when those castles collapse, we see a depressing reality – or so the story goes sometimes. This was clearly Charles Beaumont’s interest in “The Magic Man,” a short story in his Perchance to Dream anthology – a story that isn’t scary, per se, but that subtly leads us to the darker crevices of the human psyche. (There will be some spoilers in this review).
“The Magic Man,” is about a corrupt travelling magician named Micah Jackson who traverses America with his servant Obadiah (I’m assuming he’s a servant, not a slave, though I could be wrong.) He visits small towns and mesmerizes people with his magic show, then sells them bottles of medicine that allegedly cure their ailments, though Beaumont lets us know immediately that these solutions are money-making placebo for Michah. Micah is aged at the story’s start, and although I call him corrupt, Beaumont quickly builds a very relatable, human – even sympathetic – character, who is basically good despite his dishonesty.
Micah and Obadiah visit Two Forks, Kansas, every year. When they arrive, people surround their wagon with excitement, and Micah walks with the children and tells them the (mostly made up) stories about his travels – his time in Paris, and his encounters with head-hunters in the depths of Africa. The story of the headhunters is so ludicrous that the reader knows the story is aware of its own cultural insensitivity and displays the pervasive mindset of the times it’s set in. (Because Micah and Obadiah travel by wagon, I was lead to believe it was set in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.) As Micah travels through the town and sits at the local bar, he notices how lovingly not just children, but adults view him. We are led to trust the legitimacy of his observations. He brings light to their lives. And he notes to himself that if the people of Two Forks look more carefully, there’s magic all around them – one need only behold the setting sun. (I found Micah’s thoughts about the magic of the natural world a rather beautiful part of this story).
The evening magic show progresses in rapid fire. Beaumont concisely but effectively describes the astonishing nature of Micah’s tricks and the audience’s gleeful reaction. But Micah experiences stabbing pains – throughout his body, including his heart – during the show, despite the fact that he’s propelled to dance and leap around by an unknown force. He continues to revel in the love the town has for him, a love that he believes has kept him alive so long. When Obadiah starts bringing out the bottles of “medicine” at the show’s conclusion, Micah stops him; he wants to give something back to the town that’s loved him so much, so he shows them the secrets behind his tricks. After all, we get the sense that Micah, soon, will die.
I think things would have turned out better for Micah if he had revealed the secret behind one of his tricks, but when he explains each one, the audience’s enthusiasm collapses along with the love and joy in their faces. As Micah explains each trick, they not only seem less fascinating; the tricks are really rather simple, and the audience’s illusion crumbles.
The ending of the story, then, is a sad one. In his effort to give something back to the town of Two Forks, Micah took away a belief system that sustained them – seemingly in the absence of any helpful, sustaining sort of faith. It’s as if they found out that God were dead, or, as Beaumont puts it, as if Jesus came down from heaven in a dirty nightgown and snored in front of us.
Regardless of what one thinks of William Carlos Williams’s poem, then, Beaumont seems to suggest it’s true. The imagination of the people of Beaumont elevate that status of an aging, tricky old man into a benevolent, God-like magician and doctor. Micah’s playing that role sustains them while it sustains him; he can escape the aging old man who travels from town to town to make a dime and literally become someone new. When he disrupts the illusion – when he tells his secrets – the imagination of the town collapses. Micah must realize that they really have little interest in him as a human being – in that regard, they do not love him at all – but only as an illusion, an altered version of himself that has never represented reality. At the end of the story, then, we are all disappointed, and Micah sits down to tell a story to Obadiah – one Obadiah listens to patiently while lifting his boss’s self-esteem, even though we can assume both that the story isn’t true, and that Obadiah knows it.
Despite the fact that it’s not incredibly scary, I really loved this story. Charles Beaumont, in my mind, isn’t just an exceptional horror author; he’s an exceptional author. His writing is clean and fluid, intelligent without being pedantic and consistently interesting. Though Beaumont – one of the Twilight Zone’s creators – is long gone, his legacy lives on in his wonderful storytelling ability. I would recommend Perchance to Dream to even the mild to moderate horror lover. In my experience so far, the stories are not scary so much as they are a bit gloomy and contemplative – perfect fare for a rainy day!