The Little Egypt Book of Ghosts by Steve Bryant
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2009)
Steve Bryant will be familiar to well read magicians who know of him through his "Little Egypt" writings, including his now defunct e-tine, Little Egypt Gazette, his current self described "erratically updated" Little Egypt Magic website, and books including his Little Egypt Book of Numbers (which one major dealer advertised with this accompanying caveat: "Please do not purchase this book if you are easily offended by adult themes and language"). As to all this talk of "Little Egypt," the term stems from the fact that Mr. Bryant, who makes his home in Bloomington, Indiana, has long and often performed in parts of southern Illinois known collectively as Little Egypt, thanks to towns with names like Cairo, Karnak, and Thebes.
Mr. Bryant explains in the introduction to his new book that he is an experienced longtime amateur magician, and carefully articulates his commitment to that perspective. He refers to a statement I often heard Albert Goshman make, that "Amateurs perform new magic for old audiences, and professionals perform old magic for new audiences." Goshman's point was that this is how professionals polish material, and that amateurs rarely achieve similar mastery because they are always moving on to something new or the latest dealer item. Mr. Bryant acknowledges the special challenges of performing for repeat audiences, but also considers some of the distinct pluses of such opportunities, and presents his material for the reader's consideration with these caveats clearly present.
The author grew up in the sway of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (a childhood passion I shared), and in thrall to the advertising of (Robert) Nelson Enterprises, which cleverly decorates this charming book. Mr. Bryant is a devotee of card magic his routines often use a card trick as a foundation or a strategy to put across some other magical prop or idea but he is equally if not more so in love with the dark and the spooky. His Book of Ghosts collects half a lifetime of material that he has created for Halloween parties, haunted houses, spook shows, seances, kids' parties, and even adult barroom audiences. What's remarkable is that for such a colorful and diverse mix of audiences, settings, and contexts, virtually all of it is decidedly entertaining to read and eminently useful for anyone who shares similar interests.
The first of eight chapters begins with card magic, in which Mr. Bryant ably demonstrates his ability to take a standard card trick and adapt a spooky theme to it. Most if not many of these are rather light-hearted and tongue in cheek after all, the author often performs for kids. But unlike the often clueless and patronizing norm, Mr. Bryant brings wit, style, and creativity to the task, along with a genuine taste for the occasional outright scare. The book is simply full of terrific ideas, including a spirit bell with a set of clacking teeth; a version of Don Alan's "Ranch Bird" with a wonderful prop, courtesy of a Sid Fleischman inspiration; a close-up Card Stab based on a little-known idea, buried in print, that I've always thought brilliant, but that Mr. Bryant has rendered totally workable; ghostly presentations for standards like "Wild Card," "MacDonald Aces," the "Devano Rising Cards," and J.C. Wagner's "Torn and Restored Card;" the "Brainwave" deck (with a smart threephase routine); Losander's Floating Table; "Glorpy" (with one of the best titles in the book), and a routine for the "Daylight Seance" (that, believe it or not, doesn't suck). To top it off, Mr. Bryant is also a very capable writer; whether or not you're able to use much of this material, the book is just plain fun to read.
A chapter on parlor-scale material includes "Sealed Message Reading for Children," an inspired idea. A chapter on stage material and illusions includes material that is consistently practical and homemade, but often tastily seasoned by Mr. Bryant's decidedly original sensibilities. Anyone with interests in theatrical seances should consider this as it has a few excellent ideas for ghostly apparitions, including a nice elaboration of Connda's "Ghost Walk."
No professional should be skeptical of how useful this book might turn out to be, especially if stage performers study Mr. Bryant's approaches to the classic Spirit Cabinet (including an R-rated version), and if close-up workers who wish to incorporate some mentalism elements into their work pay close attention to his "Rainbow House of Chooka Frood," n smart and practical three-phase close-up fortune-telling routine using playing cards. This is not for the high-on-pretense-low-onethics PEA crowd, but rather a useful and engaging approach that, if you go in for this sort of thing (and the author addresses some off the attendant pitfalls and necessary considerations) might just turn out to be far more valuable to you than all the bloviating nonsense that currently passes as mentalism literature.
All of this is wrapped up in an exceedingly well-produced package. A few of H&R Magic Books' initial publishing ventures were a tad shaky, especially on the production and design side, but this is a stellar effort. The book is not only handsomely produced but the design itself is delightful and engaging throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Egypt Book of Ghosts and despite Mr. Bryant's generally light-hearted tone and touch, there is at least one piece in here that is likely to scare the be jabbers out of the biggest meanest toughest guy in the room, if you do it right. And what could be more fun than that?