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Gordian Plot

The Validity of Magic Is Established

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THE GODS of primitive cultures do magic. But the god that looks over the slick-story world is a very prosaic fellow. He is the chap who cures our hero of TB, but he does it through the intercession of a doctor; he sees that our favorite jockey wins the horse race; he gets the girl for our man, or sees that he is well compensated if he shouldn't; and so on. But he doesn't use miracles. He is poetic justice. As should be apparent at this point, there definitely is a meaningful system at work in the slick-story world. It isn't at all like the world of Anatole France or Saki or Ernest Hemingway or Mickey Spillane where the likable chap so often is shot, squashed, damned, or stripped naked outdoors on a cold day. Virtue, or at least the Edgar Guest variety of virtue, is very well rewarded in the slicks. The magazine-fiction universe is not at all the chaotic, mechanistic place described by Einstein, nor are slick-story people committed to the economic and biological rat-races described by Marx and Darwin. A benign guiding hand hovers over the slick-story world, ever ready to adjust and readjust the harsh natural forces which would otherwise form slick stories into something approaching reality. The hand is that of the slick-story god.

It is amusing to note that although he has a "kind" per- sonality, the slick-story god is also delightfully playful. For the hell of it, he' ll drive a man or woman to the very brink of disaster, two, three, four times, before finally plumping him down comfortably on the foam-rubber cushion. He is an incurable romantic who delights in impulsive, naive characters. He adores well-meaning worry-warts, hardworking husbands who recognize their family responsibilities, defenders of law and order, searchers into the unknown, funny-men, most mothers, wives, children, grandparents, and herbivorous animals. He takes good care of them all.

But he rarely works miracles for them. He restricts his activities to the realm of the natural. Nonetheless, there are miracles in the slicks, and enough of them to rate a plot-line of their own. These miracles are not the work of a god. In fact, their source would probably be a mystery even to the slick-story god.

A husband loses his lucky silver dollar and discovers the loss just before he is to leave for work. He tries to enlist the aid of his wife in finding the dollar, and has difficulty explaining to her its significance. She can't locate the coin, and the husband then launches into his two children who, he is certain, have hidden the piece. They deny all knowledge of it, and the husband scolds them, for which he is berated by the wife.

The husband, then, without finding the dollar, arrives late at his office, having misplaced on the train some very important papers which have to do with a client he was to represent in court that day. The boss gives him hell both for being late, for forcing a postponement of the court hearing and for losing the papers. The husband-hero is in such a ragged state at this point that he insults the boss, quits his job, and returns home.

There, he relates the dire events of the morning to his wife and blames them all on the fact that he didn't have his lucky silver dollar with him. They are in the process of consoling each other, making dolorous plans for him to open his own law office when the boss phones him from New York. The wife answers and finds that she can hear clearly enough what the boss is saying, but that the boss can hardly understand her.

The boss apologizes for having lost his temper, admits that the husband is the best man they have and that the firm is willing to double his salary and offer him a junior partnership if he will consider returning to the company. The wife says that the husband will call him back with his answer. Then the couple, in order to find out the reason for the interference in the phone's outgoing connection, screw off the mouthpiece and discover the silver dollar inside, hidden there by the children.

The feelings of the reader for the "natural" manner in which Providence works in the slicks is so well established that the reader looks upon phenomena such as this silver dollar as extra-divine. Of course, the reader has the choice of investing the silver dollar with preternatural powers or else laying it all to coincidence. But actually, readers rarely go to the intellectual trouble necessary to decide which explanation they favor. They leave the validity of charms and such to the realm of possibility, the realm of the unknown and the unknowable.

The converse of the lucky piece (white magic) is the curse (black magic). Take this story.

Our hero is an experienced young traveler who has taken the job of piloting a rich spoiled playboy from one exotic spot to another, just for the sake of the playboy's amusement. (The hero, by the way, is a very commendable fellow slickwise, doing this sort of thing only in order to gather research for a university degree.) The pair fly to a camp in a far northerly corner of the North American continent. There the disgustingly condescending playboy seriously insults the witchdoctor of a local Eskimo settlement. The witch-doctor goes through some strange rites which are interpreted as a curse by the white man in charge of the camp. The two travelers leave the camp that day. And against the advice of our hero-researcher, the playboy insists that they fly over a long stretch of barren, frozen wastes. The pilot, against his better judgment, follows the orders of his employer and, as anticipated, the plane has trouble. A hawk flies into the prop and the plane is forced down.

The pair make a futile try to reach civilization, but the furious weather and the difficulty of the terrain are just about to do them in when a party led by the white-man head of the camp they have just left reaches them. On the recap, they discover that the name of the Eskimo witch-doctor who had put the curse on the playboy literally means "hawk." And as a magical premium, there was a hawk perched on a hill watching them just before their rescue. As an extra premium, the head of the camp, who radioed ahead to the plane' s intended destination to find if it arrived safely, had asked the witch-doctor's advice as to where he should search for the plane and received the right dope.

As might be judged, this type of story is not regular fare for any slick, but every slick researched for this book runs one occasionally. The magical device itself, of course, is the center of the story. But merely because it is the center, it is not to be inferred that a story is not therefore essential. But, with a strong and original magical device, all that seems necessary is the most standard kind of story. Readers-and consequently editors-are looking for something, anything to set a piece of fiction off. And a tricky little supernatural gimmick seems to be sufficient.

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