Review: Essential Stewart James, Magic Magazine

January 9, 2008

Magic Magazine | January 2008

by John Lovick

Stewart James in Print and The James File are two of the largest magic books ever published (the James File is actually two volumes, but I consider it a single work). They comprise over 2700 pages and over 1000 tricks. Astonishing numbers when you consider they reflect the creative output of a single magician. I admit I’ve always been intimidated by the size of those volumes and the thought of wading through that much material was too overwhelming.

Allan Slaight, who edited those massive tomes, must have had me in mind when he compiled The Essential Stewart James. He asked a handful of magicians, including David Ben, Peter Duffie, Bob Farmer, Bill Goodwin, Max Maven, Stephen Minch, Charles Reynolds, Barrie Richardson, Roy Walton, and Michael Weber to submit a roster of their fifty favorite James tricks. From these submissions, Slaight compiled approximately sixty items to include in this slender volume, which is essentially “the best of Stewart James.” It’s perfect for readers like me, too scared to dive into the aforementioned “complete works,” and for those who have never heard of James, will serve as a wonderful introduction.

There are tricks with rope, balls, numbers, rings, and other objects, but most items are card tricks. When I read a book for review that is a collection of tricks, I generally make notes about items that I like or that I think readers will find interesting. About halfway through this book, I stopped taking notes because I was writing down virtually every trick. Even the effects I would never perform had some interesting element that I thought was worth mentioning.

James’s most famous creations are all included: Miraskill, Sefalaljia, Further Than That, and the Robot Deck are classics you should be familiar with. I’ll cite some of the lesser-known but worthy pieces. Unfortunately, I only have room for a few of the many tricks I’d like to mention.

Spell of Mystery and Vocalculate are two impossible-seeming effects that after witnessing, you could spend a year trying to reverse engineer the stack. I was floored when the descriptions of both said they use the Eight Kings stack, but that Si Stebbins will also work!
The Go Go Vanisher is a handkerchief vanisher, similar to the Devil’s Hank, but the working is cleaner and the effect more magical.

Simplicity Four-Ace Trick is an effective Ace Assembly with no sleights. Pokericulum, and So-Fair Poker Deal are two very strong poker dealing tricks and Ten Nights in a Card Room is an entire close-up card act with ten effects or phases. If you were to master this routine, your audiences would be convinced you’re a world-class card mechanic. Stranger From Two Worlds, Dollars and (6th) Sense are two strong effects with very interesting methods.

There are also excerpts from James’s writings about magic and his creative process, and there is much of interest here. For example, in 1997, as the reviewer in this magazine, Mike Close quoted Darwin Ortiz as saying, “[A new trick] should be superior to [previous tricks] in either plot, method, or presentation…” Close dubbed this “Darwin’s First Law” and used it as a yardstick to judge material that is offered for sale. I use this yardstick in my reviews. Well, James said essentially the exact same thing in 1938: “A trick is not a rehash if its entertainment value is improved, the method of working simplified, or the mystery deepened.” I propose we redub Darwins First Law as “James’s First Law.”

Finally, the most haunting aspect of the book is the biographical material sprinkled throughout. As a child, James suffered a heartbreaking amount of emotional abuse by his parents, and the isolation he suffered contributed to his creative life and process. Despite her treatment of him, and her disdain for his magic, as an adult James cared for his bed-ridden mother virtually round-the-clock for thirty years! How this all affected him psychologically is fascinating, and the coping mechanisms James developed are almost unbelievable. This is all well documented, but for those unaware of what I’m hinting at, I won’t ruin the stories, but will say that they make for fascinating reading, and elevate this book to something more than a collection of great magic tricks.

Despite the fact that according to James’s First Law, The Essential Stewart James might be considered a rehash, I’m glad this volume has been released. It has allowed me to finally dip into the world of James, and motivated me to crack open those weightier, imposing volumes.


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