The anthology, Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, sounds like it might be a parchment scroll dug out of a field in the shadow of Stonehenge. Indeed, the collection comes from Britain, but most of these stories are more contemporary in both setting and tone than the title suggests.
The fiction here takes place in worlds that are usually very much like our own except for the sometimes awkward or commonplace reality of magic. It’s sorcery that, even when well meaning, usually goes awry.
For instance, in the Sophia McDougall story, “MailerDaemon,” an online acquaintance sends the lonely, unemployed and despairing protagonist a demon — by the modern-day convenience of email — with the best of intentions. What, after all, could possibly go wrong?
In some of these fifteen tales, the magic is as much a part of everyday life as a long commute to work or the brittleness of personal relationships. In the delightful “Domestic Magic,” from Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, the mother in the story stands out more for her neglectful parenting than for the fact that she’s a witch.
Sarah Lotz contributed the best title. Her story opens in contemporary South Africa at the scene of a heart attack death. The cynical yet soft-hearted narrator is half of a cleanup team dealing with the organic mess that follows murders, suicides and natural deaths that have had too long to ferment. At this latest assignment, she finds a note by the dead man. The unfathomable message makes up that great story title: “If I die, kill my cat.” Naturally, this good advice is ignored.
While only a couple of these stories take place in settings that would seem to invite at least the token wizard or dragon slayer, many have a lighter tone more associated with traditional fantasy than with dark fiction. Will Hill’s “Shuffle” and the Tems’ “Domestic Magic” both might easily have been turned into Twilight Zone scripts in years past.
Perhaps only Christopher Fowler’s “The Baby” yields the shudder effect of good horror fiction. The title character is a gruesome example of what you end up with following an interrupted sorcery-induced abortion.
Read Magic for the occasional smile or shudder. Like a spell half-heartedly cast, the stories make an impression, but only a few hit the mark with much of an impact.