Review: Essential Stewart James, Genii
Genii Magazine | October 2007
by Jamy Ian Swiss
Who is Stewart James and why does Allan Slaight keep putting out books of his material? The answers to these questions will already be obvious to many, but if they are not yet obvious to you, Mr. Slaight now offers an easy point of entry to the work of the remarkable magical creator, Stewart James.
Previously, Mr. Slaight has compiled, edited, and published two incredible works—indeed, the biggest books in the history of magic literature—namely Stewart James in Print in 1989, and subsequently The James File [reviewed in August 2000 Genii]. The first book consisted of all of James’s published and marketed tricks and presented 453 James items in more than a thousand pages. The second (actually a two-volume work) was based on extensive (to put it mildly) notes and correspondence, presenting a total of 566 tricks, 478 of which were seeing first-time publication in its 2,590 pages; the set was accompanied by a separated hardbound 122-page index which itemized more than 15,000 entries covering the combined works.
Okay, so maybe you haven’t read them yet. I know, you’ve been meaning to get to it. But—panic not. Your time is at hand. Allan Slaight asked a group of friends and James fans, many of whom had contributed in various ways to the original books, to submit their personal lists of 50 favorite Stewart James items. This list of notable experts and enthusiasts pitched in with their preferences, and from the results, Mr. Slaight has assembled this streamlined stroll through the world of Stewart James.
Mr. Slaight was barely an adolescent when he first discovered Mr. James’s legendary trick, “Miraskill,” in Jean Hugard’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks. It wasn’t long afterward when he discovered “Sefalaljia” in Annemann’s Practical Mental Effects. Shortly upon turning 16, Mr. Slaight wrote a letter to James, and received an encouraging response shortly thereafter. Thus began Allan Slaight’s lifelong fascination with the magic of Stewart James—and with the extraordinary man behind it.
The assemblage of magic that Mr. Slaight presents in these pages provides a snapshot of James’s strengths. The focus is on card magic that often relies on ingenious mathematical methods of James’s own devise, demanding little in the way of technical skill yet consistently producing clear and mystifying plots. This is not to say that a volume of Stewart James material is going to entirely delight those in search of professional performance material. Those with the deepest appreciate for James’s unique output are frequently enamored by the cleverness of his methods, and the remarkable effects they achieved—but as Max Maven commented in Stewart James in Print (in remarks reproduced in this condensed volume), “… I believe there exists a profound aesthetic of Method; a self-contained aspect of Methodology which is other than directly connected to functionality, but which is well worth appreciating on its own terms.” In studying James’s work, the revelation of the elegant relationship between method and effect is often the most satisfying reward to the reader. But it must be acknowledged that what Maven referred to as a “special internal beauty within methodology” may well remain invisible to some explorers.
But this new volume is the perfect vehicle for that exploration. Along with various card discoveries—including the Lie Detector plot, spelling to thought-of cards, the Ace Assembly, and much more—there are ingenious poker and gambling tricks, there is mentalism, there are tricks with numbers, and unusual plots and props. The card material includes James’s “Face-up Prediction,” remarkably a 1939 approach to what would later become known as Dai Vernon’s “Trick That Cannot Be Explained.” “Further Than That” is as commercial a plot as could be yearned for, a multi-phase card trick with a built-in presentation that has been varied and expanded on by countless performers. “The Robot Deck” wrings no less than seven distinct phases out of a remarkable stack. “The Prophet’s Choice” is James’s clever solution to Al Baker’s two-deck version of Any Card At Any Number. The aforementioned “Miraskill” is a completely mystifying but entirely impromptu effect in which the spectator shuffles the deck and then deals through it, sorting cards that appear in matched color pairs, and yet the magician repeatedly makes remarkably accurate predictions about the outcome.
The non-card material includes “A Match for Gravity,” a delightful stunt that is currently being widely marketed, and is a favorite of Barrie Richardson’s work as a professional speaker. The “Go-Go Vanisher” is a mostly forgotten dealer’s item that can achieve a variety of amazing vanishes, and includes a handling that is almost TV-magical in quality, enabling the magician to set an item in the center of a tabled handkerchief and merely whisk the handkerchief away with a flourish and the item instantly vanishes. The previously mentioned “Sefalaljia” is a close-up spirit cabinet of sorts; one phase of this extended routine, in which a ball and stemmed glass are placed side-by-side in a small box, and when the box is reopened the ball has somehow landed in the bowl of the glass, absolutely astounded me in my youth, and years later I would put it to use (with different props) in a séance show. And in “The Lovesick Tennis Ball,” a small ball is placed into a small square box with a separate lid (not unlike the box that comes with the classic “Color Vision Box”); the lid is replaced and the box is set on its side. The magician stands aside, and after a suitable delay, the lid opens as the ball comes rolling out. The spectators may immediately retrieve and examine the box and the ball, and there is no preparation to be found, as there are no other materials used to accomplish this lovely little mystery.
This is just a brief sampling of the 50 magical entries provided, which are also accompanied by several essays and biographical articles from the previous James/Slaight volumes. The book concludes with “At the Talking Table,” Mr. Slaight’s account of James’s three imaginary friends, who both kept him company through a life of emotional deprivation, and helped him create his incredible bounty of inventive magic. These pieces comprised some of the most compelling reading in the previous books, while also clearly demonstrating that Allan Slaight’s chosen title of “editor” is a vastly understated and gracefully reserved claim.
The publishers of this book, Magicana, have also, in tandem with the release of the book, published an extensive online exhibition of the life and magic of Stewart James. I strongly encourage you to explore this remarkable resource, curated by Joe Culpepper. There you can learn more about Stewart James, further details of some of the tricks I have mentioned here, and even listen to several audio recordings, and view a video performance, by Stewart James himself.
If you have already read through the previous several thousand pages of Stewart James material that Allan Slaight has presented to the world, you might still want to have The Essential Stewart James for sheer convenience and ease of access. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing that material, you will surely want to finally discover what all the fuss is about—and, as Mr. Slaight offers in his introduction, “I envy you your discoveries.”