Making good art is hard.
That turned out to be a key concept in my new epic fantasy novel about a secret war between Allied and Nazi sorcerers during World War II, but I didn’t know that until after I had started writing it.
When I began working on The Midnight Front, my goal was to tell a secret-history adventure that transplanted Renaissance-era ceremonial magic into a 20th-century setting. For those who are unfamiliar with the precepts of ceremonial magic from the Christian tradition, its central idea is that all true magic (as opposed to stage magic), from the smallest trick to the grandest miracle, is predicated upon the conjuring and control of demons. The terminology of this style of magic is highly technical and antiseptic, and its practitioners treated the exercise of magic like a form of science (possibly because magic during that period was connected closely with the practices of alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry).
To make my novels’ system of magic more cinematic (and therefore better suited to a fast-paced action narrative), I grafted onto it the concept of “yoking,” in which a magician binds one or more demons to his or her mind and body and, for as long as he or she is able to maintain control over the spirits, wields the demons’ powers as if they were his or her own.
In the interest of limiting my characters’ ability to wield such powers I imposed certain consequences upon this practice. My characters soon learn that yoking demons is a miserable experience, one that comes with such side effects as headaches, nosebleeds, intestinal distress, obsessive-compulsive habits, self-harm such as cutting and hair-pulling, nightmares, and other such unpleasantness.
Consequently, my characters swiftly take to self-medication to mitigate the side effects that come with yoking demons. Alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, opium—whatever dulls the pain and quiets the voices, my characters make use of it so that they can yoke more spirits, gain more power, and try to win the war. So far it seemed to be shaping up into a well-balanced and narratively workable system of magic.
Then, one night a few years ago, I was describing the magic system to a friend at a party, and I experienced a revelation: the system of magic I had concocted, and the manner in which my characters coped with its deleterious consequences, mirrored my own creative process.
When I stepped back from my story and examined its moving parts, I realized that magic, which my characters sometimes call simply “the Art,” was a metaphor for all types of creative art. The notion of having to perform exhaustive research and preparation, and to master the fundamentals of the process before being able to use magic professionally was no different from the learning curve experienced by any artist. Writers, painters, musicians, actors, sculptors — any artistic discipline that I could think of fit this paradigm.
Then I thought about what demons represented beyond the context of my story, and I saw that they were metaphors for those forces that drive artists to create, to reshape reality. Some of those forces are benign, but others are not. How many artists have spoken of grappling with their “personal demons” during the act of creation? How many of us find the inspirations for our art in the darker corners of our psyches?
Even my characters’ coping mechanisms are hauntingly familiar to anyone who knows people who make their living in the arts. The creative professions sometimes seem almost synonymous with substance abuse. Opiates and music have a long shared history, as do writing and alcohol. I’ve never made any secret of my own proclivity for drinking; I have long practiced the edict “write drunk, edit sober” (a saying often attributed, possibly in error, to Ernest Hemingway).
The most vital parallel between my perception of artistic expression and the depiction of magic in my Dark Arts series lies in my main character’s moral conundrum: How can he do good in the world when his power is derived from a source considered to be the ultimate incarnation of evil?
The answer, both for my character and myself, is that what matters most is not the source from which one derives power, but what one ultimately does with that power. That’s as true for artists as it is for magicians. Even when our inspirations are drawn from the darkest places, what’s important is that we use our gifts to shed new light — and that we do our best to burn brightly.
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This blog post originally ran on the Unbound Worlds blog in January 2018. That site no longer exists, so I have reposted my essay here.