Big Friday sale

A Candle In The Dark by Thomas Ady, M.A.

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii April, 1996)


Readers will recall that in the October 1996 issue I reviewed Stevens Magic Emporium's lovely production of The Expositor [page 237 ], the 1805 classic by William Pinchbeck. In fact, Expositor was Stevens' second foray into antiquarian facsimiles, preceded by this title, A Candle in the Dark by Thomas Ady. Although this mention is not timely, I do believe it worthy of your attention. The Ady work is one of the rarest of all entries in the conjuring literature; there are either five or six known copies of the 1655 first edition, from which this version was taken, and six known copies of the 1656 second edition. So this production is notable, first and foremost, in that it represents the very first opportunity ever for most readers to read the work. There has never been a previous facsimile edition, and many of the known copies are virtually inaccessible.

Like Reginald Scott, Thomas Ady was not a magician, nor did he intend to produce a book for conjurors. In the aftermath of the hue and cry over Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft [page 190], King James I produced a volume in 1603 entitled Daemonologie, intended to demolish the claims of Scot and other prominent rationalists, and defending the persecution of supposed witches. Ady subsequently produced A Candle in the Dark as yet another attack on the Church's claims, attempting to disabuse the Church and the public of the existence of witchery. Ady makes frequent reference to Scot throughout his text, and, as was typical of the era, also recycles some of Scot's conjuring material. Of course, by this time, Hocus Pocus Junior [page 322] had been released in 1634, the first book devoted entirely to conjuring, and Ady probably would have done better to have cribbed from that delightful work, but perhaps he lacked access to it. Ady would be merely one of a long line of Scot copyists, at least on the context of conjuring, but at least Ady's goals were far more ambitious and high-minded than simply producing another book of magic tricks, as so many other Scot plagiarists were satisfied to do. Both because of the quality and repetition of the magic, and the fact that Scot comes across as a rather more lucid and readable writer in my view, the contents of the Ady book may be less interesting to magicians. Nonetheless this is a exciting production given that so few readers have ever seen any of the text previously. Also, magicians once again get to share in the pride that our craft was invoked early in the cause of rational inquiry and the continuing battle against superstition.

Stevens has done a fine job with this, their first such reissue, and I hope they will continue such projects in the future. This printing was limited to 250 of the regular edition and 50 of the deluxe (which features a genuine leather binding), which is a good number for this kind of venture, as the value is promptly established and will remain secure thereafter. I would encourage Stevens to keep future such releases at or below the 500-copy range. The regular edition's two-piece binding is black with gold stamping on the front and spine (the logo on the spine is just a shade large for my tastes, but this is a minor blemish in an impressive first venture), and there are matching colored endpapers. The printing is fine and done on high-quality paper, copied from a first edition in the collection of Etienne Lorenceau, the prominent Parisian collector, who also contributes an introduction.

I take some exception to M. Lorenceau's insistence—apparently without allowance for exception—that "A book in a public library is a dead book," and that the only collections worthy of approval are those in private hands. Certainly I share M. Lorenceau's frustration with public institutions that restrict access, but I equally bemoan private collections that enforce similarly user-unfriendly habits. More than one scholar has been denied access or refused the ability to effectively and utilize materials in major private collections here in the United States. Some collection holders merely refuse entry without explanation; others make a pretense of welcoming responsible researchers but then in fact present a gauntlet of road blocks rendering meaningful usage impossible. What good is it to protect and preserve such material if researchers are not permitted the full ability to explore and report on the historical record? No good at all, except to the owner's self aggrandizement. Moreover, it seems clear that those whose claim to such access is most pressing and legitimate of all, namely WORKING CONJURING ARTISTS, are often the last to be allowed admission to research material for use in their own performances—when furtherance of the art is the very purpose which such literature was first and always intended to serve.

In fact, hostile gatekeepers come in both individual and institutional dress. The Harvard University Library allows both access and generous use of its Theater Collection, but the University of Texas at Austin severely restricts access to its substantial Houdini collection because of ridiculously arcane interpretations of copyright law—a fact that Harry would have likely decried, given his genuine passion for the history of magic. So while it is true that many private collectors are far more generous, allowing our collective history the opportunity to live and breathe whenever possible, I also have found much solace in the collection in the Library of Congress. True, for some years the magic collections were badly neglected, and parts were even misplaced. The unhappy fact is that public institutions are at the mercy of politics, funding, and the interests and expertise of the individuals charged with their care and conservation. But some years ago the magic collections at the LOC were rescued and brought together in one convenient area of the vaults, and rare Hofzinser props have been protected in archival cases. The situation still has its critics—conjuring texts printed on acid paper, capable of being rescued by state-of-the-art processes, are willfully ignored and allowed to deteriorate in favor of more conventionally "prestigious" materials; qualified experts offering to restore the Hofzinser card rise are denied the opportunity. But anyone with an interest can sign in and, as I have, spend an afternoon reading a second edition of Hocus Pocus, Jr. As Dr. Joan Higbee, who eventually came to play a pivotal role in bringing the magic collection to its present status, once commented to me, "an artistic community, isolated from its literature, is on the road to becoming marginalized." I am pleased and grateful that M. Lorenceau has generously provided his assistance to the release of this text, and I am decidedly appreciative of the fact that his various editions of Scot's Discoverie can be "easily seen" in his own collection (and perhaps I might have the privilege of seeing it there myself someday). So, too, I am grateful to those collectors like Byron Walker (and M. Lorenceau, I am told) who have gone on record as wishing their collections to re-enter the community pool when the time comes. I have little admiration for those who cherish and protect books from the touch of all but their pristine shelves, to be admired from afar by others who envy the acquisition but have little use for the contents. For that matter the same goes for apparatus collectors who keep their treasures out of the hands of those who, given half the chance, would bring life and magic to such props. I am unabashedly on the side of, the practicianer in this timeless struggle, but in this case at least, both sides have thoughtfully collaborated so that we all, preservers and users alike, might benefit.

5 - 1/2" X 7-1/2" two-piece hardcover with gold stamping approximately 185 pages; not illustrated; 1655/1994; Publisher: Stevens Magic Emporium