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The Magician - Read the joint runner-up from our Frankenfic competition

Posted on 6 October 2019

To celebrate Mary Shelley’s birthday on Friday 30 August, we asked you to get creative ahead of our production of Frankenstein this October, and we were overwhelmed by your response! Inspired by Lord Byron’s writing challenge to his friends, which led to the creation of Frankenstein during the summer of 1816, we challenged you to write your own horror stories, and received an amazing 23 entries.

Submissions varied from intimate family dramas to gruesome body horror, and from the comic to the genuinely terrifying. It was a tough decision for our judges – who included Coventry Geeks co-founder and writer Amy Turner, and YA author Lauren James (The Next Together, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World) – and a shortlist of 11 stories were read out at a special event at Fargo Village’s Big Comfy Bookshop on Wednesday 2 October.

Earlier this week, we published the winning entry, James Rose’s A Mind of My Own. In joint second place with his compellingly creepy The Magician was Damon Conlan, which you can read below.

Horror Storytelling at the Big Comfy Bookshop

The Magician

by Damon Conlan

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“When I was about eight years old, I demanded a magician for my birthday party. I can’t remember a time I hadn’t requested one, but this was the year it finally occurred. I don’t remember liking or disliking the gentleman who showed up. What I was enamoured with was the idea; and before my eyes was a manifestation. I am now an adult, and I am now a conjuror. I don’t do children’s parties, but it is a common misconception that magic is exclusively for them. An audience consisting solely of children are the worst kind. They have a diminished attention span, they are prepared to believe impossible things without skepticism, and they heckle because they have not developed the concept of shame.”

“And you were in such an audience at your eighth birthday party?”

“Yes, Christopher. I was.” John raised the coffee to his face and met it with solace. “I had no frame of reference. I was not in a position to judge the magician. Now I’d recognise a talentless hack anywhere and feel an intense, uncomfortable feeling that would force me to leave the room.”

“And the audience?”

“I’d have to seal the room and set it alight,” the magician quipped.

Christopher laughed. “So let’s move on. Who’s Anthony?”

“Oh, I’d seen him around a little. Each time he squished that banana on stage I began to feel queasy.”

“What annoyed you about it?”

“The audience were laughing. They were enjoying it. But they weren’t his laughs. It wasn’t his applause.”

Christopher gazed at his notes. “Aren’t there only so many tricks?”

“Yes,” John paused, “there are only so many effects, but we stand on the shoulders of giants. As artists we should leave the craft in a better place than we found it. It is a mechanic who performs a facsimile; it is an artist who paints the unseen.”

“I see,” Christopher tried to loosen his collar, “and you’ve never performed one of these tricks verbatim when you were starting out?”

“Are these questions supposed to be helping me?” John offered sarcastically.

“These aren’t my usual hours. But yes, self-reflection is necessary to foster change.”

John held a fifty pence piece at fingertips and passed his appendages across its face. It was now an old English penny, and there was George V looking solemnly to the left.

Christopher couldn’t bring himself to be unimpressed with sleight-of-hand, even in spite of the late hour. “That’s very pretty. Do you often enjoy viewing artefacts from the past?”

“I don’t think that’s a very good question.”

The psychologist shifted uncomfortably. “How so?”

“Nothing exists in the present. Everything we examine is in the past. That’s the only choice we have. Is it the present,” he clicked his fingers, “now?”

“Hmm.”

“How about now? Maybe now?” Each now preceded with a snap.

The windows at the far side of the room led out onto a garden, and adjacent to that was a car park. It was around midnight, and the wind forced the rain’s droplets to pelt against the glass in slightly muted thuds thanks to the double glazing. A downpour has a habit of silencing humans and wildlife: its nature’s intermission.

John began shuffling cards on the table. After each card was perfectly interlaced with the other, he bowed them in an arc, then released the pressure causing them to cascade down one-at-a-time like a paper waterfall. A pleasing fluttery sound accompanied this.

“You know a well-shuffled pack of cards is likely to never have been in that order before. Fifty-two factorial: that’s the number of ways a deck of cards can be ordered in. Fifty-two times fifty-one times fifty times forty-nine, and so on. It’s a number so big it swallows up the number of seconds since the universe came into existence with ease.”

“Do you find chaos fascinating?”

“If you stick with chaos long enough you eventually end up with order.”

“And it’s led you to therapy?” Christopher offered.

John stood up and stepped to the side of the table. “What’s another conversation when you have the time?”

“Now that you’ve been cancelled?”

The conjuror narrowed his eyes.

“What was it? A few bad reviews? That Twitter meltdown and the social media pile on? Do you apportion blame?”

“No. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, in the same way it’s not a tiger’s fault for killing and eating the deer, but they are ultimately the agents responsible. The universe is deterministic. It was always going to happen.”

A playing card flew past Christopher’s ear. Then another.

“Must I keep holding this clipboard?”

“Yes. You’re a psychologist, aren’t you?”

“But no paperwork is attached to it.”

“Just glance at it occasionally and carry on listening,” John said, impatiently.

“Honestly, my neck is starting to get uncomfortable now,” the doctor half-joked. “This is quite the charade.”

It’s pronounced guillotine, Christopher. They’re not meant to be comfortable.”

The psychologist saw another card fly by, but this time caught its destination through a reflection in the window behind the magician. The head of the flower in the vase suddenly began its descent to the floor.

“Ask me about Anthony again.”

“I get it. You hated a hack magician for a while, but what do you want to happen to him? Have him die in an accident where his props catch alight and burn his house down like what happened to what’s-his-name? Alternator? Pumping station?” Christopher joked.

John cleared his throat. “Electro.”

“Yes, I remember it being in the papers. I suppose you find that apt? Killed by his own hack props?”

“Having too much nitrocellulose around isn’t a great idea. It only takes a little spark.”

“Oh, you mean magician’s flash paper and cotton and things like that?”

“Yes. Laymen love fire, don’t they?”

“They do. I’m a hobbyist magician myself actually. That’s one of the reasons I thought this would be fun. I’m a big fan.”

“That’s very kind of you to say,” John replied, then sat down and patted both his thighs twice. “Now ask me about Anthony.”

“Sure, sure. Tell me more about Anthony.”

John folded his arms and tipped his head to the side. “Do you go to a magic club?”

“Yes. Well, I used to. For quite a number of years. Not so much anymore.”

“As you know, they have competitions in close-up magic and stage magic once-a-year. I attended one about fifteen years ago that was fairly local to me at the time. They held it in a hotel that they’d also frequent for meetings. Magic attracts terrible performers, you know.”

“Go on.”

“Magic is the quickest and most fraudulent way to impress someone, to paraphrase Teller. You can buy a self-working trick, perform it, and if they are fooled then they’re amazed. They may assume it to be a demonstration of a honed skill, and you may fool yourself into thinking you have an aptitude for the performance of legerdemain.”

“That’s an interesting point.”

“I sat through hack act after tedious hack act. Anthony was in this competition, and seemed to represent everything that I despise about the ruination of art. I left that hotel and from that day on decided to dedicate myself to being as original as I could be.”

John proceeded to lay out three golden walnut shells and a pea. He had moved the table in front of Christopher, who now had a pristine view in spite of having his head stuck in a guillotine.

“You can stop holding that clipboard now.”

The psychologist tossed it aside. “Thank god. My arm was starting to hurt. Did you say you’ve sent the payment for this?”

“Of course. Just another few minutes left.”

Christopher’s disembodied head nodded in relief, and the magician began his trick.

“Are you familiar with these props?”

“That’s the shell game,” Christopher replied excitedly.

“It’s a classic, so I thought we’d play a few rounds to close off my session with you if that’s okay?”

“Sure.”

“This little game date’s back to at least ancient Greece, and in the eighteenth century it was called thimblerig because it was played with sewing thimbles. Later, walnut shells were used, and you may see bottle caps or matchboxes used today, but I prefer these walnut shells.” John turned the shells over, covering the pea with the middle one. “Where’s the pea?”

“In the middle.”

He raised the middle shell to reveal the pea and announced him to be correct, then carried on. “A fellow called Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was one of the most infamous confidence men and gangsters of the nineteenth century. He’d lead organised gangs of shell men across the US mid-west and Alaska. Do you know why a confidence game is called a confidence game, Christopher?”

“The con-artist wins the confidence of their victims so that they can defraud them.”

“Precisely. Because people are credulous, vain, compassionate, naive, irresponsible, and greedy.” The magician covered the pea again and moved the shells around. “The first one’s for free, to lure them in. Where’s the pea?”

Christopher nodded. “In the middle.”

John lifted the middle shell to show it was empty. “This was the second round,” he said, lifting the other shells and revealing the pea to be in the shell to Christopher’s left.

“Ah,” replied the psychologist. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

The pea was then covered with a shell. That shell was covered with a shot glass. A second empty shell was placed next the glass. “Ignore this third shell,” offered the magician as he displayed it on all sides and then placed it to the edge of the table. “We’ll only use two. It’s either under the shell in the glass, or under the shell next to the glass. This one’s for your fee. Where’s the pea?”

The psychologist took a moment to think, and then said, “Under the shell with the shot glass on top of it.”

The magician lifted the third, discarded shell, and there was the pea. Christopher’s eyebrow’s had risen. John then displayed the second shell empty, then finally lifted the shot glass and the shell underneath to show that empty too.

The psychologist’s phone rang its alarm to signal the end of the session.

“And there we are,” announced John.

“That got bit tense there. I didn’t expect to fall for that,” Christopher joked. “Wait, I still keep the payment, right? That was just a game, wasn’t it?”

“Of course,” offered the conjuror.

“You know, when you told me what you wanted to do, I did find it a bit odd. Then again, I’ve had stranger requests. But I couldn’t turn down a famous magician like yourself, especially being a fan of magic and a hobbyist. Can I ask you one question, though?”

“Go ahead,” John replied, stepping towards the guillotine.

“What was the reason the session had to last exactly thirteen minutes and forty seven seconds? It’s going to bug me if I never find out.”

“That’s how long your act was in the magic competition.”

The magician yanked the rope and gravity hurtled the blade downwards. He then took out a white handkerchief and dabbed at the blood that had sprayed across his face.