When I was younger, I thought certain physical things were magical. Coins, keys and locks, playing cards and games, candles and mirrors, clocks. I still do, it’s not that I’ve stopped; even more things are magical for me now, like the flashdrive I keep my work on. The difference is that I’m starting to assemble more of the why.
When I was a kid I couldn’t have expressed the reasons for my visceral feeling that these things had a special power. Some of it is obvious, like candles; contained fire, a light in the darkness, something you see in old places, in mysterious places. Mirrors seem obvious, because they’re such a part of western folklore — Snow White, Bloody Mary — but of course then you have to ask yourself why they’re so popular in folklore, why they were used.
These things come with their own set of rules, which are sometimes inexplicable in themselves. Why do playing cards have worth? Did you know that the face cards have names? Not king or queen, actual names. I’d have to go look up my notes, but they’re named things like Alexander and Arthur. Coins have a very simple worth wrapped in very complicated imagery. Keys fit certain locks; locks are safe or unsafe, and like clocks are intricately built, difficult to understand.
They’re also multiple in their purpose or construction. They combine the practical and the mystical. Coins can be used as offerings, and they crop up in a fair few fairy-tales as well. A key has no use without its matching lock, and a key found on the ground is an eternal mystery. Mirrors can show us what we look like, but they hold an entire separate backwards-world inside them. Clocks tell time, but are also works of mechanical wonder, some of the earliest automata that exists, and they’re based on timepieces that used the sun and earth to regulate the world. My ridiculous flashdrive is a thin little stick, practically an adornment that hangs on my neck, but it contains whole worlds I’ve made up.
It seems to be that these things are crafted, not just made; they contain mysteries, and their rules are different to the rules of the everyday.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t perhaps be important, and understanding them certainly wouldn’t be wise; the essence of magic is mystery (viz the old saying — Magic is just Science we don’t understand yet) and solving the mystery kills the magic. But part of the job of being a writer, particularly one who deals in magic in their writing, is to understand things others don’t, and to poke at mysteries until they’re not mysteries any longer but tools. There’s a reason I opened The Dead Isle with a coin; I didn’t understand at the time, but I felt I had to include it. I understand better, as I get older.
The process of writing is sometimes the process of breaking down symbols from our culture, not just from our own heads. It’s an oddly un-artistic activity, quite analytical. Perhaps that means there’s no more magic for us, but to be able to wield those symbols skillfully makes us magicians, in a sense. That’s pretty powerful.
The mundane is full of magic, and magic is made out of the most interesting mundanities. That’s an elemental aspect of both steampunk and magical realism. It’s really no wonder they attract me; they engender a sense of wonder at the world.