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The James File by Allan Slaight

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 2000)


Stewart James was one of most unique and prolific creators of 20th century magic. Although he performed professionally for a brief segment of his life, he spent most of the balance purely as a creator. Living a life of relative seclusion, he spent most of his time generating an extraordinary catalog of magical effects and methods, many of which were published or marketed.

The first major retrospective of Stewart's body of work saw publication in 1989, when Allan Slaight released Stewart James in Print, the largest single volume of magic ever produced (indeed the only book to then exceed Hilliard's Greater Magic in size). Compiled in collaboration with Howard Lyons (who unfortunately died before the project was completed) Stewart James in Print was a remarkable achievement in more ways than mere size. Lyons and Slaight had pored over countless pages of James' extensive correspondence, carefully categorizing every reference to specific tricks, along with various ideas, theories, historical data, anecdotes—in essence, noting and organizing anything of interest and value.

They then assembled this material in such a way that it served as introductory commentary to every section of tricks in the book, all in the first-person voice of James himself. While in some cases this may have required a bit of mild tampering with the original prose in order to create a smooth and convincing voice from what was in fact an assembled pastiche, nevertheless James took full part in the process, reading and approving all of the final product.

Despite its size and the manner in which the contents were assembled, the book is extremely, almost shockingly read-able, and provides not only a wealth of material but a vivid and historically rich sense of the course of close-up magic in the 20th century, as well as a remarkable portrait of a uniquely creative genius—with the literal meaning of those last three words fully intended.

The plan, confidently announced on the concluding page of Stewart James in Print, had been to produce two additional volumes. The next—intended to appear "hard on the heels" of its predecessor—would include Stewart's published work from 1976 through 1990, and the concluding volume would expand to embrace the great body of unpublished work available in the James archives. Slaight came to realize, however, that it would not be possible to precisely continue the format of the first volume in the sub-sequent texts for a number of reasons. Whereas there was much correspondence and published commentary about the previously released material that filled the pages of the first book, the unpublished material was less known and less visible, and hence there was much less such content from which to attempt to construct the introductions. Also, James had lost interest in the project; while he lent his approval, along with his substantial archives, he was no longer interested in taking active part, preferring to apply his mental energies elsewhere for a time, until age finally overcame him and he gradually faded from life, eventually dying in 1996. Thus the task, monumental as it had been at the start, was now far more challenging.

And so the surviving number one Stewart James fan invited the apparent number two Stewart James fan, Max Maven, to assist him in his undertaking. Maven describes himself as having served not as Slaight's co-editor, as Lyons had, but rather as Slaight's "consigliere;" the title page states that The James File is "compiled and written by Allan Slaight, accompanied by Max Maven." (It is not specified how many of the boundless quantity of excruciating puns, mostly serving as titles, for which Maven is responsible, although Slaight appears to be due most of the credit or blame, depending on one's perspective.) As in the previous volume, Slaight, Maven, and their supporting cast of colleagues—including Gordon Bean, Patrick Watson, David Ben, Bob Farmer, and others listed in an opening page of acknowledgements—pored over and through stacks of James' notes and correspondence, not only to select introductory and other commentary, but also to discover and reconstruct previously unknown material. Whereas at least previously-published material was generally type-written and reasonably well described, the unpublished material often existed in cryptic, hand-written notes that had to be decoded with, at times, extraordinary effort, not to mention multiple opinions of individuals with pertinent expertise.

This colossal degree of effort itself remains as a palpable presence throughout the book, and could be no more obvious were it to have been given a name of its own as if it were a character in a novel. It brings to mind the fact that, with few exceptions, the production of the literature of magic is far more often a labor of passion than of profit. While this has long been the case, the present example is a dramatic one. Every lover of the conjuring arts owes Allan Slaight nothing less than a solemn debt of gratitude.

James had a passion for the pasteboards that serves to fill these pages with a lifetime of card tricks that might well last a serious student a lifetime of his or her own. Although he was not averse to using some simple sleight of hand where necessary—the Ovette Master Move, also known as the Kelly Bottom Placement, was one of a handful of sleights James favored—the James oeuvre is overwhelmingly characterized by a lack of technical demands, relying instead on subtlety, stacks, mathematics, and sheer unprecedented ingenuity. At the age of 16, Allan Slaight recounted in a letter (not reproduced in these books, but which may be included in the collector's edition) how he had amazed several local magicians at a session, utilizing James tricks that remain classics of 20th century card magic to this day, including "Miraskill" and "Further Than That."

That these tricks are close to sleight-free is besides the point; they are, more to the point, as mystifying today—likely to fool magicians as well as laymen!—as they were in 1948. It is true that "Further Than That" is as commercial a plot as one could ever hope for in the realm of card magic and, while the original was essentially self-working, those inclined toward sleight-of-hand skills will find them-selves both challenged and rewarded by the late Michael Skinner's superb version, included here, which I have myself have often used since its appearance in the hard-to-obtain journal Arcane in 1981.

But the fact that much of James' card work is essentially sleight-free raises some provocative issues. There has long been tension between two schools of card magic: one that resists challenging sleight-of-hand, the other that embraces it. Of course, there is a vast range of opinion between these polar extremes, but the fact remains that while the former often disdains the latter with derogatory labels like "finger flinger" and derisive references to "magic masturbation," the latter group finds itself sufficiently adverse to the use of Down-Under Deal procedures and mathematical methodologies that they may all but come down with a case of hives at the mere mention.

Interestingly, the non-sleight school is quick to laud much of Stewart James' work for its elegant methodology, often without regard for the commercial value—or lack of it—of some of the same material; meanwhile the sleight-inclined group seldom gets a similar free pass when lauding the beauty of a technical maneuver for its own sake. Max Maven (in his identity as Phil Goldstein) addressed certain aspects of this problem in a brief commentary in the opening pages of Stewart James in Print (which is generally referred to as Book One in the pages of the new volumes). Maven declared that "Quality of Effect is all important; quality of Method is meaningless in the long run, beyond the question of functionality." However, the very next sentence offers this potentially confounding corollary, to wit: .. I believe there exists a profound aesthetic of Method; a self-contained aspect of Methodology which is other than directly connected to functionality, but which is well worth appreciating on its own terms." Referring to this "special internal beauty within methodology," Maven concludes that, "A lame Effect with a wonderful Method is rather useless. A wonderful Effect with a bland Method is quite fine. A wonderful Effect with a wonderful Method is the best of all possible things."

Now there are some among us who may have some difficulty reconciling Maven's opening statement with his closing one. If effect is everything, what does it matter whether the method is wonderful or bland? If you count yourself among the mystified at this conundrum, these books may-I say may—not be entirely to your liking. If you are only interested in magic that will play to a large sampling of commercial audiences in a wide set of conditions, then I must acknowledge that there are some who might sincerely read through these many pages of tricks and find few if any items to add to their repertoire. James is quoted in these pages as having said repeatedly that "a puzzle is more clever than a trick." Some readers may find that a distressingly telling statement. Indeed, Slaight points out that during his time as a professional performer, "It is of interest that Stewart rarely used his own creations for paying dates ... ." In fairness, however, it must be added that James was relentless in his own expectations of the effectiveness of magic, as evidenced by his four-part definition of "What is Good Magic?" described in these pages, which include demands that the method be mystifying, the performance be entertaining, the effect be clear cut, and the action be natural—as good a set of guidelines as any that one is likely to devise.

In fact, I do not have much difficulty reconciling Maven's apparently contradictory statements. There are moments, as I read these books, in which I suddenly gasped at the unexpected elegance of a given method—and you will be struck with a sense of wonder at how a human being could conceive of such a thing, that may well be akin to the same wondrous experience you hope to give your audience as a magician. There is, if you will, magic in the very methodology of some of these conceptions.

There are 566 Stewart James tricks in these pages, 478 of which are seeing publication for the first time. Among James contributions there is, in essence, only one chapter of variations of the material of other creators—the rest is entirely his own! In addition, 148 variants of James material are contributed by the likes of Allan Slaight, Max Maven, Michael Close, Michael Weber, Gordon Bean, David Ben, Bob Farmer, and many more; of these, most items have not been previously published. It would be fool-hardy to try to describe an inventory of the hundreds of tricks to be found here, while the volume of material alone, notwithstanding its quality and variety, renders any discussion of the asking price not merely moot but misguided. There is an entire chapter, of course, on "51 Faces North," James' claimed solution for Paul Curry's "Open Prediction" plot, and which Allan Slaight describes as "... what seems to have become magic's most-famous trick for which no known method by the originator exists ...." There are some fascinating solutions here, but unfortunately you will not find James' own. James knew how to describe a trick in the style of writing a dealer ad, and it's possible that "51 Faces North" might just have been the strangest dealer ad ever: a trick that actually existed but which no one will ever obtain (as opposed to the countless dealer tricks which everyone buys but, based strictly on the dealer description, may not really exist at all).

There is a fantastical array of non-card magic to be found here as well. In the realm of mentalism, for example, James was, believe it or not, the inventor of the newspaper headline prediction, and his original method, still quite practical today, is fully described. In fact, no less than Bascom Jones, editor and publisher of the mentalism journal, Magick, declared after the release of Book One that he was dumbfounded to see how much GREAT mentalism (James) contributed to the world. Magicians will think of him as a magician, but forever more, I shall think of him as a mentalist!"

All this, and more, and yet what is perhaps the most potent force that emanates from the pages of this unusual book is the force of Stewart James himself. Never has the mind of such an individual been more thoroughly portrayed in the pages of a book of magic, not merely by the biographical and autobiographical material, but as well by way of the creative output of that mind, in all its eccentric brilliance and bizarre intensity of focus. When Allan Slaight inadvertently led James to become interested in creating tricks themed around the book 1984—frequently using an actual copy of the book as a prop—James eventually produced no less than 67 related items. Concerning a particular Charles Jordan concept, James produced 47 related items in a span of 20 days! Yet these were not minor variations; James himself did not believe in publishing variations for the sake of it, insisting that creators must make selections and present the best of the work in the end. And his editors here have, remark-ably and doubtless with great difficulty, kept back hundreds of items, published and unpublished, in the interests of quality control.

James' depth of expertise about distinctive originators like Charles T Jordon and Winston Freer (both of whom make frequent appearances in these volumes) was in fact merely one aspect of his tire-less pursuit of the published record. It is an irony of sorts that while James was engaged throughout his life in fanatically devising ingenious ways to organize and file his accumulated knowledge of magic (substantially motivated by his abhorrence of the risk of inadvertently duplicating the work of others), he was lackadaisical in maintaining similar records of his own prodigious creative output. James presents articulate arguments for why the historical record must be preserved, and why it makes for such a passionate and pleasurable subject for so many of us. Those already committed to that course of study will be thrilled by the ready supply of historical crediting that can be found in these pages, far beyond the subject of James' own material.

This absorbing commentary is readily accessible via the three indices combined into the third volume of the set: a name index, a trick index, and a general index. Exquisitely prepared by Bill Goodwin, there are some 15,000 entries to be found between the three sections and browsing through the name and general indices will leave one with an endless series of trails and pathways that even the mildly curious will be likely to follow and track down as a source of countless future adventure. The unexpected abounds: there are three listings in the name index attached to Jim Nabors, a.k.a. Gomer Pyle. Well, surprise, surprise!

The biographical and autobiographical material, begun in Book One and dramatically expanded in these new works, eventually serves to describe a life that is at once triumphant and frankly horrific. As one learns more and more of the uncompromisingly bleak emotional circumstances in which James was raised and in fact spent most of his entire life, one cannot help but think that James' life amounted to nothing less than Dickensian circumstances. Raised by unimaginably strict parents, forcibly isolated from other children and taken from school at a young age, James escaped his remote home for a brief time of military service, only to return to a life sentence of care for his sickly mother—a woman capable of boundless emotional cruelty, topped off by an open hostility toward James' interest in magic and even toward the conjuring colleagues who came to visit on rare occasions. Thus all but imprisoned, for the remainder of his life James escaped primarily through his imagination.

As the reader explores that remarkable tool, he eventually comes face-to-face with three mysterious names to which Book One was publicly dedicated: Rigonally, Faxton, and Khardova. These exotic monikers in fact belonged to three imaginary friends who accompanied and guided James—at least as he described it—throughout much of his life on his excursions into territory of uncharted creativity. One of these companions had appeared even before James became interested in magic at the age of seven; the other two arrived much later. His intellectual relation-ship with and emotional dependence upon these entities was such that even when his mother died after his many years of nursing her, he chose not to move from his lifelong home, despite its dismal history and atmosphere, in the fear that his friends might not accompany him elsewhere. James sometimes referred to them as the Three Men Who Never Were. Or were they?

Max Maven remarked to me that "The message of this book is: Slow down." For all the infinite riches and variety of the contents of these books, I believe that is as pure a summation as one could possibly choose. Slow down. Slow down your pace of consumption of the secrets of magic. Slow down your pace of fast-forwarding through videos, of skimming books and scanning magazines, of searching on-line news groups, seeking ever more quantity to fill your conjuring coffers. These new books are too big CO carry with you and snatch a few pages between mouthfuls on your lunch hour, and you won't be able to manage them on your lap while riding mass transit. To extract what is in these books will require that you allow the material to reach out to you—that you invest the contemplative time and energy necessary to let its intoxicating vapors envelop you. Unless you read the first volume, you've never read a magic book like this—you've never read any book like this—and you've never known anyone like Stewart James. The opportunity to meet him awaits, and if I were you, I wouldn't put him off for a moment longer.

The James File • Compiled and written by Allan Slaight • 3 volumes • 8" x 11" hardbound • 1,598 pages in 2 volumes, plus approximately 130 pages