Black Easter – James Blish
Equinox/Avon Books – 1977 (First published 1968)
This is definitely one of the better novels about black magic that I have read. The particular nature of this story renders it difficult to discuss without giving away some fairly crucial plot details, so if you’re like me and like to know as little as possible about a book before reading it, maybe you should come back to this review after reading the book itself. If you were hoping that this review would help you decide whether or not to read the book, know that I loved it. If you have any interest in the other books that I’ve reviewed on here, you’ll probably enjoy this one.
Spoilers start here:
The plot of this novel could be charted with a single ascending line. There is no falling action, denouement or resolution; it ends with the climax, and a rather climactic climax it is too. I like when books are gutsy enough to have brutal endings (unless they’re love stories), and finishing off with the ultimate victory of evil over good as brutal as it gets. I was expecting the priest to do something to thwart Baines and Ware, but I was delighted that he didn’t.
The ending was both shocking and abrupt, and for the first time that I can remember, I wanted to reread a book as soon as I had finished it. There is a sequel though, The Day after Judgement, so I’m going to wait till I get my hands on that before I reread Black Easter. To be honest, I was so happy with the ending that I am a bit worried that the second part of the story will ruin the first. I don’t want the characters to get a chance to fix things.
The final revelation of Black Easter, the claim that God is dead, is particularly chilling given the nature and timing of his death. He has died at a time when Earth is infested with demons, demons that have hitherto been under the guidance of ceremonial magicians using the dead God’s names as their instrument of control. By creating this scenario, Blish calls into question the inherent conflict of ceremonial magic as noted by A.E. Waite. Black magicians using grimoires such as the Lesser Key of Solomon and the Grand Grimoire, both of which are alluded to in Black Easter, need to ask God for his help in controlling the demons they conjure. Why would a loving God help an individual who was intent on massive acts of terror, and, in this case, why would an all knowing God accommodate his own destruction? Could it be that God is so upset with his creations that he wants to die? There’s a depressing thought.
While Black Easter and The Day after Judgement make up one larger work, that combined work (sometimes called The Devil’s Day) makes up a single part of Blish’s After Such Knowledge trilogy. The other books in this thematic trilogy are A Case of Conscience and Doctor Mirablis. I have a copy of Doctor Mirablis on my shelf, and I’m planning on picking up the other two books soon. It’s been quite a while since I finished a book and wanted to read more from the same author.
Part of the appeal of Blish’s writing, and I’ve already alluded to this, is his attention to accuracy. While this is a fantasy novel, much of its content comes from real grimoires. Blish addresses this in a note at the beginning of his book; he states, “All of the books mentioned in the text actually exist; there are no “Necronomicons” or other such invented works”. Despite this, he later quotes from The Book of the Sayings of Tsiang Samdup, a fabled tome, similar to the Necronomicon in that the first references to it appeared in works of fiction, two novels Talbot Mundy. (This wasn’t the only time that elements of Mundy’s work managed to will themselves out of the confines of fiction.) On top of all this, there are those who say that Theron Ware, the central character of Black Easter, is based on Aleister Crowley. Ware certainly resembles the kind of person I’d imagine Crowley to have been, but I had read of this comparison before reading the novel, so I can’t be sure how much of the similarity was legitimate and how much of it was projected by my expectations.
Like I said, I’m planning to read the sequel, so I’ll doubtlessly come back to this book. In the meantime, make sure you eat loads of chocolate for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.