Every year, on my birthday, I perform a spelling, a unique event never to be performed again. Myself and others sit in a dark room, huddled together, with a single light for me to read by. As I read, I throw the pages on the ground. My spellings include many props and visual cues. One spelling demanded I produce fire from my fingertips. Another had me summon Bayushi Kachiko. Another involved a banana cream pie and a rather inevitable conclusion.
I’ve always kept my spellings private. This morning, on my birthday, I decided to make one public. This year, my spelling used music for the first time: the music of The Candle Thieves. It also involved a very great number of balloons.
Pick a card, any card…
When I speak those words, I’m speaking an invocation. It sets your mind in a particular way. Magic tricks—especially card tricks—work because we set our minds in a strange place between faith and skepticism. Between sun and moon. Reason and intuition. Our rational mind immediately warns us, “This isn’t real. It’s a trick. An illusion.” And yet, our irrational mind wants us to believe. And if the trick is convincing… for a very brief moment… we do believe.
Once upon a time…
Another invocation. When we hear that phrase, we know what’s about to happen. We’re going to hear a story. A particular kind of story. A faerie tale. A myth for children. We’re about to be taken back to a time when all the things we could imagine were true. Giants, faeries, heroes, villains… and magic.
Invocations. Magical phrases that shift the way we think, the way we perceive the world around us. With just words. That’s it. Just words.
A magician creates magic with his tools. A sword. A book. A bell.
Here is my sword. Alban Yvarai’s sword. An artifact from a world that doesn’t exist, imbued with the power of belief. I wore this sword, called myself Alban Yvarai and others did as well. They believed. I made them believe. And that belief makes this a magical tool.
Here is my book. The first edition of Call of Cthulhu. My first roleplaying game. Purchased in Spencer’s Gifts for $10. I’ve told so many stories with this book. I believed. I made them believe. And that belief makes this a magical tool.
Here is my bell. A golden apple, given to me by someone who loves me. Used during another ritual, just like this one. A gift. A gift of love. That love makes this a magical tool.
A magician makes magic with a grimoire and spells. Magic words. Writing and reading. A skill considered magic by ancient peoples. Looking at squiggly lines and interpreting them as sounds. Clarke’s Law states: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Writing and language… technology. And if sufficiently advanced… can become magic.
A magician’s Grimoire? Grammar.
And spells? Spelling.
In countless Game Master seminars, I’ve said the GM’s job and the magician’s job are the same: to make the audience believe in things they know aren’t real.
I didn’t say, “True,” I said, “Real.”
Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Who is more real? You or Sherlock Holmes?
Who is more real? You or Darth Vader?
Who is more real? You or Bayushi Kachiko?
All three of those people are real. They came from someone’s mind. Electrons, firing back and forth. Ideas are real. Just as real as you. Just as real as me.
Just as real as… magic.
We’re going on a short journey, you and I. A journey to a place where ideas live. The ancient Jewish mystics would call this place “Yesod.” The place where dreams and ideas live. But to go there, you will need a guide.
Close your eyes. Think of a childhood memory. A character who never existed, but to you, was just as real as anyone you’ve ever met. Someone who made you feel safe. Someone who you trust. It could be Samwise Gamgee. Someone who would follow you through the gates of Mordor, carry you, if need be. And face a spider the size of a dragon with nothing more than a glowing elven knife and a trinket from a very scary queen. Or it could be Aslan, the Great Lion who would willingly give his life to free you from a very different scary queen. It could be a nerdy wizard in spectacles or his even nerdier friend with her time breaking bauble. Or, it could even be someone you created. An avatar from a fantasy world who can guard you as we walk.
Don’t worry. The place we’re going isn’t dangerous. Not unless you want it to be.
For me, it’s always Sherlock Holmes. Who taught me that logic and reason and patience could solve any problem. I can see him now. Hear his voice. That thick and proper English accent. Smell his pipe. Hear the swish of his heavy coat and the clip of his cane. I can feel him beside me now. Just here.
Close your eyes. Feel them standing next to you. Hear their voice. The cloth of their clothes or the warmth of their fur or the clip of their cane. Feel them take your hand.
And then step with me. Eyes closed. From Malkuth, the world of shapes and forms… into Yessod… where dreams and stories live.
The World of Dreams
“Where do you get your ideas, John?”
Where Indiana Jones, Alan Quartermain and Lara Croft sit in a moonlit bar and share stories and show each other scars. Walk a little further and you’ll see Bruce Wayne and Lamont Cranston sitting in a dark corner, whispering something about striking terror, crime, and bitter fruit. Where my grandfather and Mad Jack O’Bannon sit, drinking whiskey, watching me… raising their glasses as we pass by.
We walk by Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, hanging out with Jim Hawkins, all of them peering over a hand-drawn treasure map.
Matthew Murdoch and Mitch McDeere discussing a point of legal disagreement.
John McClane, Lennie Brisco having chili at a cheap sit down, chatting away about procedure while Columbo sits on the side, eating his chili, and listening. Waiting for the right moment to ask his question.
I get them here. I send out a signal. Test for echo into the ether. And if I’m lucky… very lucky… the signal comes back.
Socrates and Machiavelli disagreeing about morality and action… and I’m suddenly thrown back to college at the University of MN. Sitting in the grand lecture hall, filled with three hundred students, all hoping to get this class out of the way, completely unprepared for what’s about to hit them.
I remember Professor Ruse telling us about Socrates and his daimonion. An inner voice that guided his actions. A daimonion. Literally, “a divine something.”
It was Socrates trying to describe his conscience. Without the proper understanding of how the brain works, he used magic language. Clarke’s Law. Technology… magic… daimonion.
A little voice in your head, reminding you that you could be doing the right thing.
And as we watch, we can see it. Hovering over his head. A divine… something. Whispering to him. Because in this place, what we believe is what’s real. Is what’s true.
And as we pass Socrates and his daimonion, we hear… another voice. Another whisper.
But it passes quickly. Barely able to discern its words.
The landscape turns from a moonlit city street into a desert plain. A lonely house. Turn of the century. A single car, one of those old black models you see in pictures from the ’30’s, parked outside.
And from inside the house… shouting…
Lift Me On the Pyre
There’s a small town in Texas called Turkey Creek. Since its founding, the place never had more than twelve hundred residents. A few hundred homes, a general store, a cotton gin and a gristmill, that’s all that’s there, even now. In 1878, the US government put a post office in the place. It wasn’t until 1912 that railroads finally found their way through the town. It had an oil boom in 1925 but the place went dry by the ‘40s.
In 1919, Bob moved in.
He was only thirteen then. His father was a doctor and his mother was chronically ill. Bob loved reading. He loved Jack London the most. He read Kipling, too and had already started writing his own stories. His head was full of heroes and he imagined they were trying to escape from his skull and use his body to write their stories.
As he grew older, he read magazines like Adventure and Argosy. At fifteen, he was making his own amateur magazines, publishing news and stories. He worked odd jobs around town and the tough life of a Texan made him grow tall and wide, his arms long and mean. In 1924, Weird Tales published his first story, “Spear and Fang.” It put sixteen dollars in his pocket. He dropped out of college and focused his energies on becoming a professional writer. Almost exactly seventy years later, I would do the same thing.
1928, four years later, his fee was now up to one hundred dollars per story. He seldom left home. He wrote in dark rooms, slamming his fingers against the typewriter keys, screaming the words as he typed them. A puritan with the name Solomon Kane has escaped his imagination, tearing his way through the fibrous tissue that separates us from the ideas we summon. A year later, a King named Kull does the same.
In August of 1930, he begins a long correspondence with his friend Howard who lives far to the north. They become fast friends and writing companions, critiquing each other’s work.
Keeping friends by mail was easier than in person. His friends always said he was moody. Cheerful and friendly as only a Texan could be, and then as dark and angry as a Cross Plains storm. He fell into moments of despair that could not be dispelled. He would destroy dozens of pages at a time, infuriated with what he saw as failures, refusing to write for days at a time. He sat in his dark room, staring at the typewriter, as a man stares at an enemy. The thoughts in his head only he could hear and would never share.
Despite his momentary descents, his career continues to climb and in 1932, the Cimmerian smashes the wall and crawls out, carrying a sword in his hands and a knife in his teeth. Howard tells his friends the stories of writing the Cimmerian’s tales, feeling as if the barbarian were behind him, the threat of violence hovering over him if he made any errors.
He spent that year as an explorer, cartographer and historian, charting out the Cimmerian’s world. He wrote story after story, each eagerly accepted by the magazines. His pay grew. He had nine of the Cimmerian’s tales accepted before the first one ever saw print.
In 1936, four years after “Red Nails,” his first Conan story was published, he was looking forward to a visit from his odd New England friend. HP was planning a trip to Texas so the two could meet for the first time. And though Weird Tales was far behind on their payments, his success as a mainstream writer was all but guaranteed. He was writing sword and sorcery, historical stories, sports stories and even wrote “spicy stories” under the name Sam Wasler. He was a professional writer. So successful, there were plans for him to break out of the pulps and join the ranks of other men and women of his profession in less “dubious” circles.
But his moments of darkness had grown longer over the years. He only seemed happy when writing, as if entering the worlds he created and speaking with the heroes he discovered were the only activities that could keep his unnamed despair at bay. If Conan hovered over him as he typed, another spirit hovered over him when he did not. And it whispered to him. A sound he could not control and could not ignore.
And in the year of 1936, his mother finally succumbed to her life-long sickness. She lay in bed, unable to awaken. The shadows that lurked in Bob’s mind, the same shadows that gave him the ability to lure the stories of kings and puritans and barbarians, finally overcame him. That thing that followed him, always one step behind, finally found the right thing to say.
Eight PM on the night of June 11, 1936. The same year Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath hit the shelves. The same year Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! comes to print. Robert Erwin Howard walks out of his parents’ house to his car, parked out front. He sits down in the driver’s seat and opens the glove compartment. There, he takes out the .380 Colt Automatic he borrowed from a friend. He puts the gun against his temple and squeezes the trigger.
He lives for another eight hours.
Later, his father finds a piece of paper half rolled up in Bob’s typewriter, a single couplet on the page.
“All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.”
Earlier that year, his odd friend HP Lovecraft published At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft planned on using the money to travel to Texas to see his friend, but put the trip off. He spent the rest of his life wondering if the visit would have delayed or possibly even prevented the suicide.
Decades later, I’m reading his words and they echo like songs in the halls of Valhalla. Eternal and forever. A simple combination of letters and spaces and symbols communicate stories to me, little me, reading them on the bus on the way to school, in my bedroom long past my bed time, at the kitchen table with my mother telling me to “Put that book away and eat your dinner,” and hidden under the covers with a flashlight, my belly quivering with fear of getting caught and the joy of the adventure.
Years later, I’d equate the experience to sex. In the backseat of my Ford, fumbling around. The joy of adventure and the fear of getting caught.
July 2, 1961. For the first time in his life, the Old Man couldn’t control his writing.
He sat at the desk, staring at pages filled with words. The story was unfocused. His clear, stark style lost in pools of tangent and unfinished thought. He couldn’t hold it anymore. He didn’t know what to do.
In December, 1960, at the Mayo Clinic, he received fifteen treatments of electroshock therapy in less than thirty days. Those who knew him said the Ham of old was gone. His wit. His clarity. His anger. The anger that was the fuel for his writing. The thing that kept him in front of the typewriter. Gone.
He thought of his father. How his father’s life ended, by his own hand, at the barrel of a gun. Decades later, doctors would discover both Hem and his father suffered from an acute increase of iron in the blood.
But here, right now, staring at the pages of words that seemed written by another man, all he could hear was that voice. That dark, startling voice. Staring down at the words, he saw no accomplishment. He only saw the flaws.
His wife was downstairs. But all around him, that voice whispered to him. Failure, it said. It’s gone. Your talent. Your fire. Extinguished. Forever.
He tried to remember those long, hot nights in Spain. He tried to remember running with the bulls. He tried to remember the praise. He tried to remember driving an ambulance through the fighting of the first World War, carrying the wounded back from the front. He was so young. So powerful. So… immortal.
And now, he looked at the page. And he could no longer see the white elephants in the hills. They were only what they seemed to be. What they were.
The words were only words. The poetry was gone. The magic…
The voice was louder now. No longer whispers. So loud, the pulled tears from his eyes.
He left the room with the typewriter, walked to the hall closet and unlocked it. He took the double-barrel shotgun into his hands, loaded it, put the barrel under his chin and…
Decades later, I’m reading his words and their stark truth hits me like a boxing blow to the ribs. The ease of his prose flowing across the page. Simple sentences carrying more weight than elephants. When I try my own hand at writing, his will be the voice I carry with me, the one I try to emulate. I’ll fail, at least for the first few years. But like a compass, he guides me through the jungle, through the desert, through the wastelands. His voice. Louder than the dark whispers that tell me I’ll never succeed.
Most of the time.
Listen closely now. I’m going to tell you a secret. The great secret of the world.
Things can mean more than just one thing at a time.
I remember going to Disneyworld when I was small. My parents bought me a balloon. I remember asking my dad why it floated in the air the way it did. He explained, “Because helium is lighter than oxygen.”
I asked him, “Why?”
He started into a long, engineer answer about molecules and weight and… I didn’t care.
It floated. In my hand. Lifting up toward the sky. And I knew if I let it go, it would fly away. I never wanted it to fly away. As far as I was concerned, it was magic. Helium, oxygen. Those were magic words. My balloon was magic.
And I knew that if I got enough balloons, I could lift up off the ground and fly away.
I held on to that balloon all day long. Even when we went on the fast rides, I held on, ducking down and putting my body over it so it couldn’t fly away. And at the end of the day, I took it home with me.
There’s a picture my mother has of me asleep in the hotel bed, Mickey Mouse ears on my head, holding on to the balloon. Snuggling it like a teddy bear. I even gave it a name. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it was.
Of course, the next day, it didn’t lift as high as it did the day before. And the next day, it lifted up a little less. My balloon was dying just a little bit every day. And I got a little sadder every day.
Some people learn about grief from a pet. I learned about it from my balloon. Ask anyone who knows me: I anthropomorphize everything. Dolls. Sandwiches. Those little gummy bears. And yes, balloons.
My balloon slowly lost all its helium. Finally, it was empty and flat. Didn’t matter. I put it in a drawer and kept it. For months. Until one day, my mother was going through my drawers and decided to throw it away.
I cried all night.
I cried because of the simple joy it gave me. Joy and wonder. I didn’t know how it defied gravity, it just did. And I knew if I got curious, I could find out why. But it didn’t matter to me right then. I was just fascinated by the magic of it. The simple and profound wonder of five-year old me.
Pick a card, any card…
Once upon a time…
When we’re young, the whole world is magic. Because Clarke’s Law hasn’t caught up with us yet.
My balloon could fly. And if I had enough of them… so could I.
The word comes from the Greek exorkismos, which means “to bind by oath.”
Two thousand years ago—a blink of an eye in the scope of human history—men and women who heard whispers were seen as a witch, a shaman or possessed. And depending on which part of the world you lived, it was a death sentence.
Two thousand years later—a blink of an eye—I know why I hear those whispers. It’s a chemical imbalance in my brain. An imbalance of the stuff that makes my neurotransmiters fire, dopamine, glutamate, benzopiazepines and all kinds of other Latin words that I can’t pronounce. My brain isn’t like other brains. Look at it with a CAT scan and you can see the differences.
Two thousand years ago, I was possessed by demons. Two thousand years later… Clarke’s Law at work again.
I’m sick. Just like having a cold, catching the measles, getting the mumps, contracting chicken pox… it’s an illness, just like any other. And I can take medications to stifle the symptoms. When I see movie trailers for romantic comedies and I start to cry… I know I need to visit the doctor. My brain chemistry is out of whack and I need help putting it back.
And that’s the hard part. Admitting I need help. That I can’t do it on my own. Our western heroes wouldn’t understand. A sky scraper full of terrorists? I’ll do it myself. Face the Emperor and my evil Sith father? I’ll do it myself. A town run by two groups of outlaws? I’ll do it myself.
That’s how I grew up. A man handles his problems on his own without anyone else’s help. Because asking for help means you’re admitting your weak.
Asking a doctor for pills when you could just kick yourself in the ass and get over it! Because that’s what a man does!
And you never know when that little voice will show up. The dark, venomous twin of Socrates’ daimonion. One, the voice that gently suggests you do the right thing. And the other… that voice gently suggesting you do… anything but.
Staring at a page of words… it whispers, “You’re a hack.”
When you say the wrong thing and make someone you care about cry… it whispers, “You’re an idiot.”
Even years later, after the mistake is long gone and everyone’s forgotten it… that little voice hasn’t. And it makes sure you don’t forget it, either. It kicks you. Right in the teeth. “Remember when you did that stupid thing?”
“All you ever do is hurt people.”
“All you ever do is screw things up even worse.”
“Why don’t you kill yourself?”
“Go on. Do it. Nobody will miss you. And you’ll stop hurting all the people you love. Because you’re stupid. And selfish. You never think about anyone but yourself. What have you ever accomplished? You wrote a game? Big deal. You worked so hard to be a writer? What do you write? Games that maybe a hundred people read? Gaiman’s a writer. King’s a writer. You’re a hack. What are you? Almost fifty? And what have you done? NOTHING. How many people have you hurt? The single common factor in all your failed relationships is YOU.”
“Why are you starting another one? You’re only going to end up hurting them just like you hurt everyone else.”
“Best to be alone. That way, you can’t hurt anyone.”
“Or you can just go into your room and swallow a bottle of pills like you did before. Only this time, you aren’t living with your parents so they won’t find you and…”
It’s still there. It’s always there. Just, sometimes, it’s asleep. And when it wakes up, it hovers over my shoulder and whispers into my ear.
How can I get rid of it? Be rid of it?
Two thousand years ago, I could find a holy man, a shaman, a magician, to cast it out. A magic ritual. A holy ritual. A ceremony. An invocation.
I have my magic tools. My sword. My book. My bell.
And I know… I know… I’m not the only one here who could use a little ritual. Am I right? I said, “Am I right?”
Can I get an “Amen?”
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
Don’t Let Go
When I was a boy in Minnesota, I wanted to be a priest. They looked so awesome in their black suits and white robes. And in Catholic school, all the girls thought the priest was so handsome. He wore awesome clothes, he had magic powers, all the girls loved him.
Being a priest was like being a wizard. Or a magician.
And then, I moved to Georgia. And I changed my mind. I didn’t want to be a priest. I wanted to be a minister. It comes from the Old French. “One who serves.” Has the same root as the word “minus.” Think on that for a minute or two.
I also grew up wanting to be a con man. Saw The Sting with my father—greatest movie ever made—and walked out of it thinking, “I want to be that when I grow up.”
Priest. Minister. Magician. Con man. Game Master.
Convincing people to believe in things they know aren’t real.
But they’re true.
Here’s the truth. As we come back from our long walk through Yessod, coming back to Malkuth, the realm of shapes and forms. Waving goodbye to our imaginary friends. Hoping to see them again. (And we will.)
Coming back to Phoenix, Arizona. December 5, 2015. Ten, five, twenty, fifteen. A lot of fives in there, Hail Eris. And not a single one of them a coincidence. Hail Discordia. We’ve walked into the otherworld on Saturn’s Day. God of the Underworld. A good day for a magical ritual.
But we’re back here. Home again. Our feet firmly on the ground. Safe.
And before we part for good, I have one more spell to cast. One more transformation. One more bit of alchemy. Transforming something mundane into something sublime.
Things can mean more than one thing at a time.
Do you remember my balloon? The one my mother threw away?
It’s still with me. I never let go of it.
It’s how I keep the joy and wonder of little five year old me around wherever I go. Because I never let go of that balloon.
I never let go of my wonder. Never let go of my joy.
And when I hear that voice whispering in my ear.
I look up.
And there he is. Still tight in my hand. Still made of helium and plastic and magic.
And if you look very closely… squint if you have to…
… you can see yours, too.
And when you feel like you have to be the western hero, taking on the whole world by yourself… you can look up… and know this.
You aren’t alone.
If you hold on to your balloon.