When “Black Magic” first appeared in 1909, Marjorie Bowen was 24. At that time the young Englishwoman had already brought out five books, including “The Viper of Milan,” “The Glen O’ Weeping” (a.k.a. “The Master of Stair”) and “The Sword Decides.” These remarkably accomplished novels — focusing on struggles for political power in, respectively, Renaissance Italy, late-17th-century Scotland and the so-called Dark Ages — earned Bowen acclaim from such literary eminences as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. The adolescent Graham Greene particularly admired Bowen’s narrative zest but responded even more deeply to her fascination with evil, her recognition that nemesis always awaits success and her understanding that human nature isn’t black and white but black and gray.
For most of her adult life, Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long (nee Campbell) was the sole support of herself and her three sons. Until her death in 1952 at age 67, she wrote indefatigably as Marjorie Bowen — and sometimes as George Preedy, Joseph Shearing or Robert Paye. Today, though, her powerful fiction is too little read, apart from a handful of eerie tales and contes cruels. These include the Christmastime ghost story “The Crown Derby Plate,” the gruesome “Scoured Silk” and a breathtakingly sexy and chilling novella, “Julia Roseingrave,” which opens with the Devil knocking on the door of a lonely country house and requesting a room for the night.
Of Bowen’s dozen or so supernaturally inflected historical novels, “Black Magic” is by far the best known. Subtitled “A Tale of the Rise and Fall of the Antichrist,” this subtle and complex thriller, set in the Renaissance, consistently undermines the reader’s expectations: Schemers become saints, murderers turn out to be self-sacrificing and the diabolically wicked gradually earn our sympathy and respect.
The novel begins with a bang: “In the large room of a house in a certain quiet city in Flanders, a man was gilding a devil.” Before long, the young artist Dirk Renswoude is entertaining two guests: the self-satisfied aristocrat Balthasar of Courtrai and the angelically good-looking Theirry of Dendermonde.
Dirk is immediately drawn to the latter, whom he recognizes as a fellow aspirant to mastery of the dark arts. The two soon pledge comradeship and together travel to Basel, where Dirk pursues his secret study of black magic. Theirry, however, waffles constantly between his dream of acquiring great worldly power and an intermittent desire to renounce the Devil and all his works. When he encounters Jacobea of Martzburg, he sees in her a purity and spiritual loveliness that might save him from damnation. Quickly aware that his weak-willed friend is being tempted to good, Dirk resolves to corrupt and ruin Jacobea. Theirry, he insists, “is mine through eternity.”
Why does Dirk — clearly an evil mastermind on the rise — care so much about his wishy-washy, rather inept partner in deviltry? A powerful witch even warns him that his inordinate affection could bring his downfall. Though Dirk doesn’t hesitate to murder, he nonetheless behaves as tenderly as an infatuated woman with Theirry. One wonders how early readers responded to this portrait of a friendship that certainly seems homosexual in nature.
However, Bowen never hints at any physical intimacy between the two. Dirk, in fact, hates to be touched. So might there be some other undisclosed bond between the two? There is a mystery at the heart of “Black Magic” that I won’t reveal, but it involves one of the most haunting legends of the Middle Ages.
After the two young Satanists transfer their operations to Frankfurt, they find themselves caught up in court intrigues swirling around the Emperor of the West, his iron-willed, exquisitely beautiful Empress, the ambitious Balthasar and sad-hearted Jacobea. Dirk plots to ensnare them all in his coils. As he declares in a moment of triumph, “I do think God is very weak.”
In the novel’s final third, the scene shifts to Rome. By this time, the reader cannot help but admire Dirk, who is cut from the same cloth as those heroically amoral overreachers in Jacobean tragedy. He has struggled against great forces, assumed multiple disguises, remained true to his convictions and even retained his love for Theirry, despite the latter’s lies and betrayals. Now in possession of immense riches and power, Dirk reminds his often faithless comrade, “I never broke my vows. I loved you then . . . and it ruined me, as the devils promised. Last night I was warned that you would come to-day and that you would be my bane . . . well, I do not care since you are come, for sir, I love you still.”
Together, he adds, they can yet realize all their dreams of world domination, with one caveat: “Be true to me, for on your faith have I staked everything.” But can Theirry resist the gentle Jacobea or a new sexual temptation, a dark beauty who wears a mask and is known only as “the dancer in orange”?
An enthralling storyteller, Bowen excels equally in colorful descriptive passages, whether depicting a cardinal’s gorgeously luxurious apartments or the wild vegetation, cypress groves and marble fragments of ancient Rome:
“The stillness of great heat was over city and ruins, noiseless butterflies fluttered over the shattered marble, and pale narcissi quivered in the deep grass; the sky, a bronze gold over the city and about the mountainous horizon, was overhead a deep and burning blue; a colour that seemed reflected in the clusters of violets that grew about the fallen masonry.”
Throughout “Black Magic,” Dirk’s energy, fidelity and courage remain unshaken. Even when others urge him to flee from disaster, he proudly answers, “Whatsoever I am, I perish on the heights, but I do not descend from them.” Is he the Antichrist or simply an antihero? Whatever the case, he remains indisputably fascinating, and “Black Magic” makes for ideal summer reading. Just don’t give away its secret.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Marjorie Bowen