[Spoiler alerts: Lord of Illusions, Fallen London, NBC Constantine]
In one of the most haunting lines from Clive Barker’s film Lord of Illusions, a high-ranking member of an elite illusionists’ club observes that “we walk a narrow line between trickery and divinity.” The character is alluding to the two meanings of the word “magician,” which can connote both sorcerer (who commands supernatural forces) and an illusionist (who performs tricks that create a false appearance of the supernatural). The slipperiness of these two meanings pervades Lord of Illusions, in which a stage magician’s tricks are fueled by actual supernatural magic, culminating in an apocalyptic confrontation between an illusionist with mystical powers and a false god using the supernatural for illusory ends.
This conflict and synergy between illusion and mysticism is explored even more deeply in “The War of Illusion,” a section of the masterful Fallen London, a browser-based branching narrative game about a Gothic Victorian underworld. In this narrative, the player gradually uncovers a feud between two factions: Shroud and Glass. On the surface, Shroud consists of mediums engaging in authentic seances with spirits, while Glass is comprised of illusionists who cunningly wield smoke and mirrors. Except . . . this divide is gradually revealed to be simplistic, if not utterly backwards. As the player is initiated into one or both of the factions, she gradually realizes that the two group’s methods and philosophies are actually the reverse of what they initially seemed to be: the Shroud relies on chicanery to create the appearance of communicating with the Beyond, while the apparent specular illusions of Glass actually rely on mirrors as portals into a numinous jungle dimension ruled over by serpentine Fingerkings. (In an example of Fallen London’s involuted and exquisite connectedness, the mirror realm is linked to other examples of lore experienced in separate storylets: the land of the Fingerkings is the same as the Mirror-Marches, the first place into which an insane player is exiled, which is also intimated to be the origin of the dreams experienced during honey-drenched hallucinations. The Fingerwork of the Clay Men, glimpsed behind mirrors, is also connected to the Fingerkings. This type of lateral connection between seemingly discrete lore fragments is the meaning of world-building cohesion, which is a spatial metaphor for the interlocking puzzle pieces that is deeper and richer than the temporal and logical sequentiality of plot).
In walking and criss-crossing over the thin line between genuine sorcery and fakery, Fallen London showcases the performative nature of all magic: occultists and prestidigitators alike stage theatrical extravaganzas that create experiences of the supernatural in the minds of an audience. If spirits are ideas (in the Platonic and/or neurological sense of the word), then the ultimate metaphysical origin of these ideas is irrelevant as long as they are experienced by an audience (bearing in mind that the magician herself can be the foremost member of her own audience). Sorcery is legerdemain and prestidigitation, both etymologically derived from words for feats of manual dexterity: light hands and quick digits. The Magician with his ceremonial implements in the nineteenth century mystical Rider-Waite tarot deck is Le Bateleur (the Juggler) in the medieval Marseilles deck: a mountebank whose ritual artifacts are the balls and cups of a shell game.
Fallen London is, of course, not the only medium to explore the ambiguities and paradoxical slippages of magic. Christopher Nolan’s Prestige derives its haunting poignancy from the line between illusion and inspired invention. Similar ideas smoulder behind the most striking image from NBC’s tv show Constantine, in which the eponymous anti-hero douses his hands in lighter fluid and sets them ablaze in order to ward off a gang of voodoo thugs. Constantine, ironically reprimanded by a demon because his rituals “lack the power of intention,” can perform actual feats of goetic magic and exorcism but stages a trick for the thugs because, under the circumstances, the fakery is quicker and more impactful than the real thing. Constantine, standing with arms in cruciform posture and a blazing orb of flame on each palm, is a con man cutting the figure of the quintessential sorcerer, but also a genuine sorcerer pretending to be a con man. What does the distinction between pyrotechnics and pyromancy matter if both can temporarily keep the demons at bay?