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James Blish’s “Black Easter”

James Blish wrote a horrifying novel when he penned Black Easter. The book’s single conceit is the proposition that Western Medieval magic is real and viable.  This creates a minimally alternate universe in which magicians wield real power and black magicians are set against a holy order of Roman Catholic magicians.  Granted that formula, however, the story’s world is the same as today’s.

The action begins when a wealthy arms manufacturer approaches the world’s most powerful black magician,
Theron Ware, and proposes a special magical deed:  the unleashing of all the demons of Hell for one night, just to see what might happen.  Blish’s portrayal of  both the magus and the industrialist is contemporary and chilling.  Power trumps all other considerations in this ploy to release Hell upon the earth on Easter Day.

The narrative accelerates as the holy Catholic order gets involved in the plot, exercising as many options as the authentic practice of magic allows in order to thwart Ware’s intentions.  And this is a major point in the novel: demons, angels, magicians, and even God are restricted – as well as abetted – by the regulations of the game.  God’s constraint (willing or unwilling) is a key to understanding the tale’s denouement, as well as presenting a huge puzzle and frustration to the Catholic monk-magician who is – or is trying to be – Ware’s nemesis.

The interested reader might guess from the book’s title the outcome of Ware’s experiment.  The novel ends with a short speech by the invoked Sabbath Goat, and his final three words are as marrow-freezing as any in the genre.  The book is so skilfully written that one might wish the story to continue beyond the specified Easter.  In fact, it does, in its sequel (actually a companion book) The Day After Judgment. If theological speculation and ruminations on the human drive for power are one’s cup of tea, these books are highly recommended.