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The Legendary Hierophant by Jon Racherbaumer

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 1999)


Jon Racherbaumer's The Hierophant ran as a journal from 1969 until 1975 (with an additional bound volume of material released circa 1981/2), a revolutionary period in modern close-up card magic, as the underground rose and swelled and spilled into the overground, and the air was electric with new effects, new techniques, new personalities, new philosophies. Both revolution and evolution were underway, with battles between icons and their surrogates, movements and their mentors, and ongoing struggles in the marketplace of cardicianship ideas and ideals. Mr. Racherbaumer was an unapologetic agitator and guerilla in those heady days, and an unabashed propagator and promoter of the Marlovian record. Hierophant was a sometimes controversial and frequently thought-provoking lightning rod at one of the storm's epicenters, ever advancing both the record and its own multiple agendas; it served as an important part of the historical record—accurately or not as the case might be—as it by turn did battle with the old, the new, and perhaps even the yet-to-be.

I came upon Hierophant somewhere along the midst of its life span, and subsequently caught up with the closely ensuing reprint editions from Tannen's, who published issue 7 in 1975 and began releasing the reprints shortly thereafter. Hierophant ended up serving as a dramatic measure of my growth in the world of hardcore sleight of hand. When I first happened upon it, I could barely make sense of the thick technical jargon— it was like trying to understand someone who seemed to be speaking what could vaguely be recognized as English, but with an accent so heavy as to be unintelligible. Here and there I would spot some familiar reference, or struggle through some entry and reach its denouement relatively unscathed. But more often than not, the dense pages of technician-speak and microscopic theoretical explorations left me mystified and defeated. I shelved the material and went back to struggling with Expert Card Technique.

In fact, I am reminded of an amusing story that Michael Ammar once told me, concerning the fact that, by chance, Expert Card Technique was the first magic book he ever read. As he wryly confessed to me many years later, "I thought it was a work of fiction." Hierophant's content wasn't only similarly unimaginable to me at first encounter—it was incomprehensible.

Sometime later—some number of other books and tricks later, perhaps a year, perhaps more or less—I remember pulling out The Hierophant and attempting to penetrate its mysteries again. This time, a few more pages began to reveal their secrets and intentions to me. I came away with not so much a grasp of the thing, as a sense that what was there was perhaps reachable, if still yet beyond my grasp. The first encounter had seemed like a mirage; now I saw that there was indeed some reality on the horizon, but it was still a way's off.

Sometime later still-another year? Six months? Two years? I don't really know. I opened the pages, and all was made clear. Suddenly all the words made sense, formed complete sentences, provided a reality that reached form and fruition in my very hands. If anything, it was easy, obvious even! And I distinctly recall thinking: How could I have ever had trouble with this? Moments later, I laughed at myself—and at the difficulties, the joys, the rewards, and the magic of the learning process.

And so, this means that I read The Hierophant many times, at many stages in my magical life, over and over until I had wrung the meaning out of its pages. It began painfully, continued as a harsh and difficult challenge, and concluded as pure pleasure and delight. In addition to an ongoing parade of sleights and techniques, there were lengthy discourses and seemingly endless variations on Paul Curry's "Open Prediction," the "Collectors," sandwich tricks, estimation, mental effects, four-ace routines, deck stabs, "Triumphs", signed cards in pockets and boxes, "Twisting the Aces," the "Card Tunnel," and more.

Although the overwhelming majority of the material was attributed to Marlo, the pages were sprinkled with names like Derek Dingle, Ken Krenzel, Roy Walton, Robert Walker, Alex Elmsley, Steve Freeman, Simon Aaronson, David Solomon, Larry Jennings, William P. Miesel, Brother John Hamman ... at the time those very names were magical, thrilling to read—these were truly names to conjure with! And there was the "Satiricon," scrawled with pens that dripped with sarcasm and occasional poison. How we laughed at sessions at the latest lessons in "Cardmanship" from David L Bendix, and his suggestions for how to answer questions from your fellow cardician:

Q: Is that original? A: I'd rather not say ... It's so difficult to do, and it would only break your heart."
or
A: A layman showed it to me.

From those pages I would adapt the title of a future set of my lecture notes, proposed by Bendix as withering commentary following a fellow sessioner's latest demonstration: "An interesting application of that principle." Whenever I would announce the title at lectures, I would listen for the occasional guffaw among the sea of blank stares, and know there was a fellow reader in the midst.

Despite the controversies over charges of mis-creditings, un-creditings, crediting without permission and every other variation on the theme, despite the revisionism and reviling that at times characterized its pages, the very immaturity of this organ served a critical role in my own magical maturation process, and no doubt did similar service for many others. Hence the magazine, despite its flaws, will always occupy a distinctive niche in my psyche.

Having said all of this, however, thus far my remarks have substantially concerned the original journal, and not this messy and disappointing reproduction. This is in fact the third time Hierophant is seeing print; between its original release and this edition; as noted, Tannen's reproduced Hierophant 1 through 7 in the mid-to-late 1970s. Those reprints were seriously flawed: I daresay virtually every copy ever handled and read has long since fallen apart as the cheap binding fairly disintegrated in the reader's hand, and some material too strong for the conservative Tannen organizational heart was unfortunately cut. (Ironically so, in that Tannen's, out of loyalty to its longtime author Harry Lorayne, had intended to remove a satirical piece that had touched off a Lorayne nerve; although Hierophant had immediately run a responding satire that Lorayne dared Racherbaumer to print, Tannen's mistakenly removed the Lorayne response instead of the original offending piece.) One would have hoped that these shortsighted and misguided choices would be corrected in this new edition; while all the expurgated material has thankfully been restored, other offenses have now been heaped upon the course of this journal's woebegone publishing history.

And so, for reasons that I continue to find incomprehensible, Mr. Racherbaumer continues his penchant—his obsession?—for tampering with the published record. The Hierophant's greatest strength and source of interest was, is and will forever be its role and identity as a journal of its time and culture. Yet Mr. Racherbaumer—consistent with his meddling with the reprinting of the Tilt manuscript, on par with his manipulation of Marlo's words and intentions in Arcade Dreams and other re-releases—has stripped this reprint all but bare of any sense of its original identity and distinctive voice as a journal.

He has pulled the material apart and presented it to us as merely another compilation of card tricks—merely one among what is now many. There are indeed many tricks contained in the pages of The Hierophant , but I would submit that these tricks are far from its raison d'etre, or the assurance of its proper place in the history of conjuring. One can now only barely detect the faint whisperings of what was once a shouting voice. It is an unarguably useful addition to provide 91 new footnotes to the material; but when one reads no less than three full pages of a new accounting of the evolution and paternity of the modern advancements of the Spread Cull Controls, barely if at all identified as new material by the slightest alteration of margins and no other change in font or format, one comes face to face with the inescapable fact that the voice of the original Hierophant has been irreparably muted if not silenced. Thank goodness the publisher of the Hugard Magic Monthly reprints has not done the same; imagine the horror of it! Were Hugard's crammed into the smelter and reduced to its fundamental elements, the charm would have evaporated in the process, never to be condensed or recaptured. While there will always be value in studying old tricks, nevertheless as time goes on, no matter how many of the tricks in these books fade or are swept aside and replaced with modern improvements, the splendor of the journal's voice would still be there to savor.

But this editor has taken those years of publication, tossed the calendar pages in the air, and re-sorted them into quaint categories by trick, by plot, by sleight. Some might say that this makes the material more readily accessible to the student; some might say that this transformation maintains the value of those few original copies held by collectors. But others might say that a categorized index, much like William Broecker provided for Hugard's Magic Monthly, would render the material fully accessible without tarnishing the integrity of the original format; others might point out that the material has already been reprinted in some form, and if print runs are limited, reproductions do little to dilute the value of original editions.

Still some others might suggest that Mr.Racherbaumer's obsession is in fact for historical revisionism; perhaps he cannot bare to see his blunders and blusterings go out unprotected by hindsight, explanation, defense. All in all, I would say the result is a tragedy for the historical record. And to make matters still worse, the categorized table of contents lacks page numbers, the paper is of inexpensive quality, the index pagination is completely off—all apparently faults of the publisher, to add to the editor's odd choices. I suppose it is entirely the editor's option to do with these pages as he will, but I cannot help but be shocked and saddened by his choices, and by his disrespect for his own past, and his disregard for the interests of the future.

And so, yes, Lorayne's sophomoric temper tantrum, excluded from the Tannen's reprints, is included here, as is David Bendix's witty "Cardmanship," as is the notorious excoriation of Alan Ackerman's first book, as is no less than thirty pages on the "Open Prediction" effect/problem, and plenty of work with the now extinct Stik-Tack. Previous readers will certainly be interested in Mr. Racherbaumer's newly minted four-page defense of Marlo in the still ongoing story of the Marlo-Steranko battle. In what is certainly the most timeless theoretical entry, students will find Rick Johnsson's original essay on the Too-Perfect Theory, one of the most important theoretical concepts of 20th century conjuring. If you lack original editions or the flawed but still largely preferable Tannen's reprints, then you will have no choice but to purchase this volume in order to enjoy its riches. It is a shame, however, that their brilliance has been so irrevocably tarnished.

The Legendary Hierophant • by Jon Racherbaumer • 8.5" x 11" hardbound with dustjacket • 415 pages • illustrated