A Survey of the Printed Fiction of the Field To Date




Urban Magic as a field seems to be prefigured by quite a lot of printed fiction, specifically the horror genre and what is called the "New Weird".

Much of this fiction stems from the odd stories of turn-of-the-century American author H.P. Lovecraft. From his New England home, he drew strange inspiration from the new-but-ancient American landscape, and wrote many sordid tales of mankind's encounters with what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos- ancient alien beings of unimaginable power and imperceivable will, whose very forms could drive men mad. Many of his shorter works explored in some detail various disturbing elements of Greater Boston, especially the warrens and tunnels beneath Beacon Hill (Pickman's Model is the best example of this), though nearly all of his stories relied on the cities of the eastern seaboard as places under threat, or from whence threat might emerge.

Generally, Lovecraft moved the "horror" genre away from more rural tales, and towards the monstrous horrors of modern civilization and modern science. His "cyclopian, primordial cities" buried deep in the arctic or high in the Himalayas lend their vast strangeness to the steel canyons of New York, London, and Tokyo. His terror, as he once eloquently put it, was in the thought that one day "modern civilization" might finally link together enough strange facts that some greater, mind-destroying truth might be revealed. From the opening of his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu,

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Many of the authors discussed below cite him as a direct or indirect inspiration for their work.

Post-Lovecraft

The most direct fictional use of urban magic, in the sense of magic or supernatural activities for and about cities, rather than in them, comes from Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness, published 1977.

Leiber, inspired by Lovecraft, started writing Science Fiction and Fantasy in the early 40s, and kept writing up until his death in the early 1990s. Our Lady of Darkness was written in the middle of his career, and breaks from his other work by being set in the present day. It tells the story of a (vaguely autobiographical) recovering, alcoholic writer, who from his San Francisco apartment discovers a strange and horrible magic about his city, with the aid of a strange volume of occult science called Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities.


In a very Lovecraftian turn, this volume is referred to as being a real, factual book, and its purported author, Thibaut de Castries, to be a real historical figure, and possibly  Like Lovecraft's Necronomicon, Megapolisomancy is meant to be real. The author encourages citing it in other works, and there are those who really do look for copies of it. Our Lady of Darkness also introduces de Castries' second work, also fictional, a companion volume called the Grand Cipher or Fifty-Book, wherein de Castries explains the mathematics behind how magical forces gather in and around cities, what he calls "Neo-Pythagorean metageometry", as well as 50 key astrological figures and their uses.

Megapolisomancy deals very specifically with spirits called paramentals, elemental spirits drawn to cities by their dense collection of Steel, Electricity, Paper, and other "city-stuff". By arranging the very street grid, and by constructing skyscrapers of sufficient height, material, and design, one can apparently alter the flow of these paramental forces, and in doing so change the future. Obtusely, paramental seems to be both an adjective describing certain magical forces, but also a noun, describing the golem-like creatures.

The main character of the book, though, is not a practicing megapolisomancer, but rather a sort of hapless victim of megapolisomantic machinations.


Further googling of the term "megapolisomancy" revealed a greek wordpress blog, which used to contain a few articles, but now seems to be empty/abandoned, save for an ominous picture of the sky over a city. Strangely, one of these deleted articles was translated version of David Langford's short story BLIT, in which the author (and also editor of Ansible) first posited the idea of a basilisk, a specific image that "crashes the human mind", as well as defenses against them.


Spiral Jacobs, New Crobizon and UnLondon


New Crobuzon is the city in which much of the fiction by China Meiville takes place. The city was first introduced in his novel Perdido Street Station, where it was the lively backdrop for a sort of extended science-noir romp. The second book, The Scar, is mostly set outside the city, but it returns as a setting in the third book, Iron Council.

New Crobuzon is a vast, London-like city, inhabited by literally hundreds of humanoid and nonhumanoid races- walking cactus-men, bulky warrior hedgehogs, women with the heads of beetles, and disgustingly decadent frog-people, just to describe a few, which during the books is just coming out of an industrialization period, where objects are just as likely to be powered by steam engines as by steam elementals, and many fields of magic are regarded as much closer to science, or art.

Where these books intersect City Magic is in the character of Spiral Jacobs, seem most prominently in the third book, Iron Council. He appears for most of the book to be a crazy homeless man, endlessly wandering the city, and scrawling on its walls intricate, elaborate spirals.

As it turns out, the spirals are actually a linked series of strange sigils, placed at seemingly random, but actually hyper-specific locations around the town, and when they are complete, are used to turn the city itself into a living, breathing weapon against its inhabitants, and Jacobs (perhaps named for the great urbanist Jane Jacobs) not a mad derelict, but one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world.

Meiville's other books are more directly tied to city magic, mostly because they are set in the present-day. They are not fantasy, rather "Magical Realism" or "Urban Fantasy".


King Rat explores, if not a sort of magical London, than certainly an underground one, mixing the mid-90s drum-and-bass scene of warehouse raves and underground clubs with the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the cryptozoological urban legend of Rat Kings- groups of rats whose tails have become intertwined, acting as horrifying collective-animal-groups. It is definitely a work of Urban Fantasy, though like Our Lady of Darkness, no characters perform actual city magic, rather they experience magic or supernatural pheonomenon in an urban context.

Un Lun Dun, Meiville's latest, is most applicable to the field. It is a young-adult book describing the adventures of two young girls as they make their way through London's strange, magical twin city, UnLondon, a city inhabited by the cast-offs and leavings of its "normal" twin, presided over by an evil cloud of living pollution called, appropriately, "the Smog". Various magicians from both cities aid the girls as they battle the evil pollution cloud.

Neil Gaiman
Many critics have noted the similarities between Un Lun Dun and another recent book, Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. Neverwhere also tells of a normal person caught in a sort of sinister-twin-London, this one called London Below, this time a young businessman, rather than two young girls. After rescuing a young girl who turns out to be a sort of princess, but also a key-mage with the power to unlock any door, the businessman is drawn into the other-London, and must right certain wrongs before he can return to London Above. Some amount of city magic is performed, but like Un Lun Dun, the book mainly concerns a cast of strange creatures and characters inspired by and reflecting more concrete aspects of the city, such as The Angel Islington, an actual celestial creature, purportedly for whom both the neighborhood Islington and its Metro station, Angel Station, are named.

Other works by Gaiman have similar Urban Fantasy bents, especially American Gods, a novel which forwards the notion that the hundreds of years of immigration to America has brought to this country all of the old-world gods, or strange instantiations of them, as well as created new gods reflecting American wants and desires, such as Media, Celebrity, and Technology. Again, there is much magic in and around cities, but very little City Magic. Though at one point, the main characters do escape a city by traveling one of its strange, alternate alley-streets, which is very Paper-Street-esque (more on Paper Streets in a future post), and that probably counts.

At two other points does Gaiman play with cities. Both of these appear as mini-stories in the long comic Sandman.


The first, collected in Sandman Volume Three: Fables and Reflections, is called "Ramadan". The Caliph of Baghdad calls Morpheus, Lord of Dream, to ask a deal of him. The Caliph is troubled that Baghdad, in all of its glory, is impermanent, and wishes the Lord of Dream to preserve it. Morpheus preserves this Golden Age of Baghdad by sealing the magical, flying-carpet city inside a bottle, and recasting what are in fact real occurrences of magic as tales and legends, where they will live on forever. The Caliph awakens in a duller, sadder Baghdad, with no memory of its magical days save but in legend. This tale is told in a frame narrative to a young child in present day Baghdad, in whose thoughts the Golden City now lives on.

The second story is from the final volume of Sandman, a story called "A Tale of Two Cities", about a citydweller who awakens to find himself in a familiar-but-alien version of his own city, empty save for grey crowds of non-people. Slowly, he realizes that he is not in his own city, but in that city's dream of itself, the total unconscious-points of spectral geography that make up people's dreams about that city. Eventually, the man exits the Dream-City and wakes up, but wonders aloud what will happen when the City itself Awakens.

Gaiman later cited the Cthulhu Mythos as a direct influence over the second story: "You can tell it's Lovecraftian, because I use the word "cyclopean" in it."

This idea of a dream-city leads us to our next topic.

Invisible Cities, Unreal Cities



The lyrical, nearly poetic Italian author Italo Calvino wrote, late in his life, Invisible Cities, a book of prose poems, framed as a sort of scholarly debate about imagination and linguistics between Marco Polo and the aging Kublai Khan. As many merchants had done before him, Polo described to the emperor the various cities within his empire- brief, incredible descriptions of stories and experiences within those cities, half recollection, half dream.

In addition to capturing ideas about language, narrative, and imagination, Invisible Cities also captures the visionary potentialities that city structures present, their strange ability to foster all kinds of unreal structure.

TS Elliot's poem The Waste Land similarly ensnares and engenders this power of the cityscape to create, in the viewer, untapped mindscapes.

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air 
Falling towers 
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria 
Vienna London
Unreal

 The Subterranean and the Invisible

Both Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun, above, posited a sort of underground inverse-city, and that theme of subterranean habitation is continued in two other books.

The first is, like many of the above, directly tied to the Cthulhu Mythos, mixing Lovecraft with the rapid prose style of the Beat Generation. It is called Move Under Ground, by Nick Mamatas. It is a sort of sequel to the various autobiographical Beat books (On the Road, The Yage Letters, etc)- Jack Kerouac witnesses the ancient, terrible island-city of R'lyeh rise off the California Coast, and teams up with William S. Burroughs to drive across America and save the day. The entire book is available, free, here, for your reading pleasure.

City of Saints and Madmen, on the other hand, is pure fantasy, a series of connected short stories set in a strange city whose human inhabitants long ago pushed its founders, a race of mushroom people, underground, but, sinisterly, the mushroom people still live, and cast a long shadow upon the surface dwellers. Shriek: An Afterword is also set in the city of Ambergris, which the reader might note is named for the most secret and valuable excretion of whales.


And now, to round out the list we come to Grant Morrison's long-running comic epic, The Invisibles. In some ways, the work can be framed as a drug-addled occult-induced romp through every weird conspiracy and activity anyone ever thought up, having nothing to do with cities and city magic. But one would be overlooking the many subtle references and practices of city magic the hyper-allusive comic contains.

There are certain passages early on in the series that are clearly an aging ekistomancer, Tom O'Bedlam, trying to pass on his knowledge of city magic to Jack Frost, the main character. He shows Jack how to see the strange underside of Cities, how to meld with pigeon-minds, how to hide in plain sight, how to interpret graffiti. He speaks of ancient, alien, mushroom-like entities, whole planets taken over by this extraterrestrial notion of city-building, where the towers rise like gravestones over a dead population, as the cities have finally won out. He points out William Blake's Urizen, chained to the bottom of the Thames, and to the black pyramid atop the Canary Wharf building. He shows Frost the city as it truly is- alive and magical and strange, and most of all, able to be manipulated.

This magic, combined with the kind of strange spontaneous mixing of pop culture and ancient ritual that happens through the rest of the comic, is City Magic done right.

One of the key icons in the series, a sort of magical orb-satelite, is first seen as a graffiti scrawl in the London Subway, BARBELITH, which is now also the name of a very active web forum devoted to the topics that The Invisibles collated, including city magic. But that is the start of a whole other survey, which I shall save for another day.

5 comments:

  1. Could psychogeography be included? The practice/word was invented by the situationists, but they borrowed it from the dadaists and surrealists.

    Looking for a handy psychogeographical quote, I found this;

    An example of a situation-creating technique is the dérive. The dérive is the first step toward an urban praxis. It is a stroll through the city by several people who are out to understand the "psychogeographical articulation of the modern city". The strollers attempt an interpretive reading of the city, an architectural understanding. They look at the city as a special instance of repressed desires. At the same time, they engage in "playful reconstructive behavior". Together they turn the city around. They see in the city unifying and empowering possibilities in place of the present fragmentation and pacification. This "turning around" or détournment is a key strategic concept of the Situationists. Détournment is a dialectical tool. It is an "insurrectional style" by which a past form is used to show its own inherent untruth-- an untruth masked by ideology. It can be applied to billboards, to written texts, to films, to cartoons, etc., as well as to city spaces. Marx used it when he "turned Hegel on his head." He used the dialectic in the study of history to expose the ideological nature of Hegel's idealism. The Situationists use détournment to demonstrate the scandalous poverty of everyday life despite the plenty of commodities. They attempted to demonstrate the contrast between what life presently is and what it could be. They wanted to rupture the spell of the ideology of our commodified consumer society so that our repressed desires of a more authentic nature could come forward. The situation is based on liberated desires rather than alienated ones. What these desires are cannot be stated a priori. They will emerge in the revolutionary process of situation-creation, of détournment. Presumably, communality, unification, and public urban space will emerge as more desirable than commodification, fragmentation, and privatization.


    There is (was or perhaps will be) a Pittsburgh Psychogeographical Association.

    http://www.mappingpittsburgh.com/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent question! Psychogeography is already on my list of things to include in my next Survey of the Field, this one aimed at capturing all of the Literary, Artistic and Architectural theory that step-stone their way towards a Theory of Urban Magic.

    I am to continue these Survey posts to cover Movies and Web Resources as well.

    I am, though, writing other posts too, about actual tools, tips, and practice, which might become its own series.

    A Psychogeographical Assosciation? Sign me up!

    If I may ask, how did you find this blog? It has only been up for a day or so.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've also been pointed to A Madness of Angels, supposedly both an Urban Fantasy novel and readable.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I also forgot to mention John Constantine: Hellblazer, perhaps because it is so obviously linked to ekistomancy- Constantine uses all kinds of magic, including city magic, but gets by mostly on that more mundane city magic- street smarts.

    ReplyDelete

Urbanomancy, megalopolisomancy, megapolisomancy, city magic, urban magic, urban occultism, neopagan, neo-pagan, urbomancy, Pittsburgh magic.