The E-Books of Tom Stone by Tom Stone
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2008)
It is commonplace today today to complain about the impact of information technology on magic, and I have certainly recorded my share of zeros and ones onto magnetic media in service to that perspective. I am also, however, an unabashed technology fan and a committed user. I had a CompuServe address in 1987: I recorded a journal of my 1991 European lecture tour with a laptop in my backpack; and I love text messaging, despite the fact that most of my age-group peers look askance at the habit. Hence despite the frustrations the Information Age has wrought in the world of magic, I would hasten to point out that there are countless benefits as well. There's no such thing as too much information, and at the risk of repeating something I have oft written before, in an Age of Information what is needed is not limits on information, but rather, skills of selection. Because along with all the had information, there is more good information readily available today than has ever been so before.
So while it's true that online magic sites mostly sell crap to kids—or when they do sell something good it's often only by stealing and repackaging proven standards (like a recent knock-off of "Ring Elite that will never mention to its kiddie consumers that it's a been a standard among professionals since Al Koran released it 40 years ago and while it's amazing to see the prices the ignorant will pay for shoddy e-books, and virtually anything marketed in the name of mentalism as long as the asking price is an order of magnitude higher than its actual value nevertheless, the comforting fact is that sooner or later (albeit often not soon enough), trash will in due course sink to its own level, and eventually disappear like wooly mammoths into the La Brea tar pits.
Yes, e-book technology and the like does make it easier and quicker to rush garbage into the marketplace, taking advantage of insatiable if ill-informed appetites for secrets. But the important fact that is too often overlooked and even more rarely celebrated is that on occasion, e-book technology also makes it easier and quicker to release high quality material from worthy creators into the marketplace without having to wait 40 years to be properly vetted by the judgment of time. Creators also get to protect their work in this fashion, thus avoiding the sad spectacle of old men whining about what they didn't get credit for, thanks entirely to their near-sighted and self-important resistance to publishing the material in a timely fashion when it would have actually mattered to the artistic culture of its era. There are worse things to do with your creations than share them with your artistic community—and you even get to see what someone else might make of or with your ideas to even further advance the evolution of our art.
Case in point: Tom Stone.
Tom Stone is a Swedish magician who first came to my attention with the publication of The Warpsmith Returns [reviewed in August 1996 Genii). At the time I found his thinking to be original and interesting and, with the seasoning of time, Mr. Stone has become one of the more original and contemplative creators on the scene, whose work is deserving of far wider exposure. He has produced a quantity of e-books over recent years which tend to go in and out of availability as the whim strikes him, and the caliber of content and production is consistently good. Mr. Stone does a fine job not only of writing (in a second language in which he is far more literate than many who publish in English as their first), but also of illustrating and designing these works, such that the asking price (generally in the range of about $15 for approximately 20-page booklets) reliably delivers high value to the consumer. My shorthand recommendation: Collect the whole set! You'll be in for some rewarding hours of provocative and creative inspiration.
Abstract Passions is as good a place as any to start, as here-in Mr. Stone comments that "As in my previous e-books the content here consists of a mix of practical routines and unfinished ideas." The phrase -unfinished ideas" typically strikes terror into the heart of your humble reviewer, as it almost invariably actually means the semi-coherent ramblings of a slothful author. Coming from Mr. Stone, however, the phrase means something radically different, and often deeply creative and inspirational. What Mr. Stone regards as unfinished is often far more advanced than much of what we see in magic lectures these days, where marketers hastily present lightweight and incomplete notions as if they were masterpieces—poorly developed ideas that in fact often do not warrant the effort it would take to try to bring them to practical completion in the first place. But it is fascinating and instructive to see how far along Mr. Stone has developed a new idea, only to turn and announce to the reader that the final product is a failure, or simply will not work as described, whereupon he carefully itemizes the flaws and presents the problem for further analysis by the student. The result is a satisfying and highly useful example of the creative process in action, from the challenges of creating original ideas in the brainstorming process to the hard work of delivering fully functional creations to the real world of professional performance. There is much to learn from Mr. Stone about every phase of that process, and I highly recommend his work not only as a source of original effects, innovative methods, and practical routines, but equally as a source of instruction and inspiration about the creative process itself.
As a fine example, in this manuscript we are presented with "Brutus' Gift," a fascinating plot in which a spectator selects one of several pairs of colored gloves, the choice of which may actually serve to save the magician's life. I apologize for that somewhat cryptic description, but a more detailed rendering would fail to do justice to both the performance piece as described-albeit without a complete method!-as well as to the author's excellent accompanying insights about the theatrical limits (and typical failings) of story presentations in magic.
Another piece, "Eggs From Bombay" presents a carefully constructed extended routine of classic plots using eggs as the basic prop, including the Stodare "Silk to Egg" (without the now standard sucker element), the Benson Bowl, the Multiplying Balls, and other elements. Many of the ideas here could be broken out to good use, and it will come as a surprise when the author pronounces his creation a failure. The manuscript includes several other items, including an offbeat card routine using the psychological phenomenon of "change blindness" as its eponymous theme.
In Marvepiece, Mr. Stone begins with "Quean of the Quiz," a clever mentalism routine with an ingenious method that makes fun of the current crop of television game shows and the emptiness of celebrity trivia and other mind-less fare which dominate today's airwaves. "Wondering Outside the Box" is an excellent way to completely vanish the pieces of a spectator's apparently broken watch, offered as a solution to some of the flaws and challenges that the late Tommy Wonder (a creative colleague of Mr. Stone's) perceived in his multiple approaches to the Nest of Boxes, discussed at length in The Boohs of Wonder. In another e-book, Flatland Fever, Mr. Stone offers that, "If there is suspicion of where the object actually went, no matter if it is correct or not, the reappearance will not be accepted. But if they are really clueless and stunned by the vanish, they will accept a reappearance from anywhere." In other words, a more compelling vanish would, in Mr. Stone's opinion, have solved the problems Mr. Wonder identified in his routines, and the vanish described here is an example of such a solution-and he might well be tight.
In "Mood Swings," Mr. Stone describes a version of Roy Walton's seminal packet trick, "Cascade," done with a set of photographs of the performer's face expressing a variety of moods; and -Wet Russian" presents an approach to the Russian Roulette plot using water pistols-ideas that could become terrific renderings in the right performers' hands.
In Plots-Spells-Typos, the author provides "TesIa’s Knot," a practical and apparently impromptu cut-and-restored lamp cord that can be done in someone's home. In "Wakeling-Jarrett Combo," Mr. Stone demonstrates that his magic interests range far and wide, here venturing into the realm of stage illusion. Mr. Stone posits the possible benefits of adding the box design principle of the Jarrett Sawing to the now classic Wakeling-Selbit Sawing-unarguably one of the greatest of illusions, as has been demonstrated in recent years by both David Ben and Mark Kahn and Jinger (whose expert version I recently had the plea-sure of seeing performed at The Magic Castle). Mr. Stone pays a price for his innovations, in terms of blocking and sightlines, but the thoughtful illusioneer may find worthy inspiration in the intelligence of the proposal.
Among the other material in this manuscript is a piece entitled "Of Dice and Men," a strange but interesting mental-ism piece with a theatrical plot, in which the performer ends up receiving a hug from a spectator—instead of a far more ominous alternative that the audience shockingly discovers at the denouement, while the spectator remains unaware.
In Sleepless in it Pipe Dream, the reader is presented with a series of clever ideas, including "Clink Catch" (the Vanish of several coins at the conclusion of a common bar bet type juggling stunt; variants on this have appeared in the literature before, but Mr. Stone provides a somewhat different approach). The "Benson-Frakson Combo" is a design for a transparent bucket for the Miser's Dream which also provides secret loads of coins, combining ideas from several innovators (as the title explains). "Among the Mad Men" is a detailed description of a routine based on Daryl's "Jolly Jumping Jokers" packet trick, to which Mr. Stone has added the element of different-colored backs for the important cards. "Dachebox" is an idea (with several applications) for gaffing the traditionally ungaffed box for Stewart James' classic "Sefalaljia." And "Princess Salome's Drink" is the reverse effect of Paul Harris's "King Solomon's Drink" (a variant of which Mr. Stone provided in Warpsmith Returns) in which a glass of liquid vanishes—glass and all—from a spectator's hand.
A Bite My Dear begins with "Tribal' Rites" (although English may not be Mr. Stone's first language, he has mastered the habit of devising excruciating puns as titles for magic tricks—a dubious talent which few magic authors escape, this writer being no exception). Title aside, this is a clever close-up prediction effect based on a mathematical principle from Martin Gardner. "Tortilla Aces" is a four-packet Ace-cutting routine which, while practical, no doubt lacks the qualities of the inspirational source, namely an effect described by Jerry Sadowitz as something he once saw performed by Dai Vernon. "Bottle Up!" is a barehanded, essentially impromptu bottle production, in which the bottle is produced from the spectator's body, yet without an actual body load. It realize this description borders on the incomprehensible. Deal with it.) In "TuschPush," contributed by Axel Rutstam, the magician uses a magic marker to draw a black line on the back of his hand (doesn't everybody?), which he then promptly moves to his upper arm (the method doubtless presents other applications). "Hoarders" is yet another version of The Collectors plot—albeit interesting and fairly simply accomplished—in which after shuffling the selections into the pack, the Kings, previously set aside, are placed face-up atop the deck, whereupon the deck is promptly tossed into the other hand, while the Kings remain behind—and the selections are now discovered among them. A Bite My Dear • 16 pages •12
The Eye of the Last Dragon opens with a lengthy theoretical meditation on the Multiplying Billiard Balls, and I dare-say that anyone trying to take a fresh approach to classical manipulative magic would do well to consider the author's challenging thoughts on the subject. (In his overview of approaches to billiard ball manipulation, the author does not include mention of Harry Riser's distinctive work, who not only adapted the shell ball for effective close-up use, but also avoided the standard between-the-fingers displays and handling.) Within this excellent essay, Mr. Stone ponders the nature of "meaning" as It applies to magic, and talks about the importance of theatrical meaning not in the global sense i.e., everyone needs to eat, therefore a plot about food allegedly has meaning but rather, meaning to the individual character on stage, as in why Hamlet's pondering the death of his father matters to him, first and foremost, and therefore to the audience:
"Hamlet's need to avenge the murder of his father has nothing to do with any basic needs, neither has it any-thing to do with what the audience might desire what a fictional prince in a distant country did several hundred years ago has absolutely no meaning for anyone any-where. It never had. There has never been anyone who has cared whether Hamlet takes revenge, or if he takes up juggling, or if he drops his pants and takes a dump in the courtyard. The only thing that makes the play interesting is what Hamlet, the character, finds meaningful, what the character perceives his purpose to be, and how he acts and reacts in the situations he finds himself in. Those things are important to no one else but the character, and that importance is just transmitted to the audience through social inductance. The things that are important for the character, become important for the audience not the other way around."
There is a lesson in these words that fans of the current popularity of story presentations and other over-presented magic would do well to ponder at length.
Throughout this manuscript, Mr. Stone offers a variety of ideas about the Multiplying Billiard Balls—some experimental, some complete including a proposed alternative structure for a routine, dubbed "negative structure," in which balls are first vanished and then recovered, rather than first being produced and then vanished. "Back To DeKolta" provides a clever progressive and then complete vanish of three balls: innovative approaches to the use of the Topit are described: and there is also a very useful discussion of the often purchased but rarely seen "Ball Climax" gimmick.
The aforementioned Flatland Fever begins with a description of a One-Handed Top Change from Max Milton, one of the author's early mentors. This is another variation of Robert-Houdin's open flourish that, applied as a secret sleight, subsequently became widely known as Harry Lorayne's Ultra-Move. Mr. Milton apparently took a similar approach, albeit with a refinement of handling that enables the move to be done under cover of a smaller wrist turn rather than a larger turn of the arm.
This move is then used in "Hip Hip Hurray!: a variant of Bro. John Hamman's The Signed Card" that incorporates a Tenyo prop in an interesting manner. In The Warpsmith Returns, Mr. Stone provided what he said at the time was his ninth version of the influential Hamman trick; here, the author posits that he may he publishing his 200 variant to date.
"113 Grams." contributed by Tomas Blomberg and Axel Adlercreutz, is based on the plot of Luke Dancy's marketed "Royale With Cheese," a lovely multi-phase sandwich transposition; the handling is quite magical and not difficult to do. Several variant handlings are then offered by Mr. Stone. "The Etude" is an effective memorized deck routine, delivering a very clean divination of two cards (and which can be accomplished with any stack, including simple new-deck order, as described here and first suggested to the author by Michael Weber). And in The Almoner," three cards are selected, whereupon one spectator helps locate the other two participants' cards, then surprisingly finds his own as well Mr. Stone sometimes tosses out tidbits of inspiration and idea-starters, such as this one from the manuscript at hand: "The magician places three decks in a row on the table; one miniature deck, one normal deck, and a jumbo deck. What happens next?"
Although the somewhat older manuscript, Gravel, is one that is less appealing to me than most others addressed here, nevertheless it certainly contains elements of value. There are a number of procedurally dense mental effects here, presented perhaps more as interesting thought experiments and solutions to problems rather than as commercial masterpieces; the author readily admits that close-up mentalism is his hobby rather than his profession, and I confess this kind of material is less to my tastes than many of his other interests. In "The Test.- the performer determines one of four thought-of symbols; in "Synonymax," based on Maven's "Soloflex- among other inspirational sources, two spectators think of a piece of information from a symbol card among (say) 12, and the performer divines the original choices.
"Negative Spaces" is an Ace routine that provides some-thing of a synthesis between Marlo's "Real Gone Aces." Kane's "Jazz Aces," a touch of the Jennings "Open Travelers: and in which the Aces gather inside the card box. an idea inspired by Tomas Bloomberg’s "Gramp's Case.
While much of the preceding did not excite me, this manuscript is well worth its purchase price thanks to a healthy sprinkling of innovative ideas about rope magic. "Almost Restored" is a novel but fairly direct two-phase cut-and-restored routine in which a safety pin suddenly appears. magically pinning the ends of two pieces of rope together; on removing the pin, the mage ties a knot, which is then magically removed so as to restore the rope completely -Sharp Fingers- is offered by the author as a -plug-in" for a rope routine. in which the magician appears to cut a rope with merely his fingers, a la George Sands, but in this handling you appear to cut a long length of rope into two halves which now hang beside one another (rather than an apparent long single length), lending the illusion a very different and deceptive appearance. Other rope "plug-ins" include the author's "Drop Restoration" and the "Whip Restoration," both worthy innovations.
Whereas Gravel was less to my liking than some of Mr. Stone's other works. Raking Mr. Fogg is one of my favorites—even though I disagree with some of the author's conclusions, and would likely never use the two routines he presents in its pages. But in these pages Mr. Stone effectively displays the depth and detail of his thinking (as he does in his essay on the billiard halls), as he identifies flaws in existing works and then proceeds to provide creative solutions to those perceived problems. The result is a lesson in all aspects of magic. from method and effect to plotting and performance.
The focus of Mr. Stone's attentions in Tracking Mr Fogg is one of Dai Vernon's most famous conceptions, "The Travelers,- from The Stars of Magic. While Mr. Stone offers all due respect to The Professor's own methodological solutions (as well he may!), he discusses in detail what he considers the challenges to effectively performing Vernon's creation.
"The Travelers" is one of my favorite Vernon routines and I have been performing n professionally for many years. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stone's concerns about attempting to perform Vernon's handling: the sleight-of-hand is demanding, the misdirection and performance skills even more so. Without a very explicit focus on the conditions of the effect. the trick may achieve little impact and garner minimal audience response; yet in order to provide that focus, one must be confident in the mastery of the requisite techniques. Where I depart from Mr. Stone's analysis is that he all but declares that the challenges are insurmountable, and with this claim I would disagree. I would, for starters, consider John Thompson's performance on his Commercial Classics video set.
There have of course been a number of alternative handlings proposed for Vernon's "Travelers.- Although few approach the elegance of the maestro's own creation, notable among them would he Steve Draun (who retains some of the structure but alters the sleights), and Guy Hollingworth, who takes a sharp left turn in the method but delivers good results in his hands.
One of the most famous alternatives however was created by legendary Vernon acolyte. Larry Jennings, in the form of his “Ambidextrous Travelers." In this ingenious version (inspired by Alex Elmsley's "En Voyage"), the effect is repeated: The Aces are lost in the pack and magically travel to four separate pockets, each Ace being returned to the pack upon its recovery.; whereupon all tour Aces are produced from the pockets yet again.
Jennings' approach presented a new set of theatrical options, along with a whole new set of technical problems. Technically the return of each Ace to the pack is cumber-some and contrived. when it should in fact appear precisely the opposite. Theatrically, the repetition is of questionable value; I once received a scolding from Jennings about the undesirability of repeating effects, and while I didn't agree with his specific argument at the time, as it happens, I do agree with regards to his own creation.
Mr. Stone cites Michael Close's uniquely hilarious solution to the problems of "Ambidextrous Travelers"—an approach that made me laugh out loud simply reading its description in the Workers books. I have also seen Earl Nelson very effectively perform an unpublished theatrical solution of his own devise.
After providing an in-depth discussion of these various issues, Mr. Stone then presents two personal routines. The first, "Ambivalent Travelers," is a version of "Ambidextrous Travelers" which uses signed halves of playing cards in order to solve certain problems while still exploiting the basic construction of the Jennings approach. The second routine described is "Mr. Fogg," an approach to the more traditional "Travelers." Both of these routines are fascinating explorations of the effects and methods of the Vernon plot (and Jennings' notable variant). As with his inspirational sources, Mr. Stone's versions solve old challenges while introducing new ones—an inevitability in creating magic with complex plotting and methodology, and not in and of itself any sort of failing.
In the final analysis, I would rather stay with the challenges of Vernon's original "Travelers" than face Mr. Stone's new ones; I don't want to use half cards, or a forced four of a kind. But I commend Mr. Stone for the caliber of his analysis and the creativity of his solutions. I imagine he is no more complacent with his results than Mr. Vernon ever was with his, knowing as he did that perfection was a goal as impossible as it was worthy. In this, Mr. Stone does Vernon's tradition great justice.