The Device of the Sinister Magician in Lovecraft and Springsteen
Fair warning: I’m about to be a huge nerd right here.
First of all, what I’m not claiming. I am not claiming that the writings of H.P. Lovecraft have had any significant direct, or even indirect, influence on Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting; much less that Springsteen has consciously based any lyrics on Lovecraft.
What I am claiming is that both Springsteen’s song “Magic,” from the last year’s record of the same name, and Lovecraft’s iconic short story “Nyarlathotep” draw on a literary trope I’ll tentatively call the Device of the Sinister Magician, and that if present in such disparate works, the Device can reasonably be surmised to predate them both, and with a bit of looking can probably be found in other texts.
The basic outline of the Device of the Sinister Magician, as I see it, is something like this: A magician (or some other performer) arrives in a town or city. He — it seems usually to be a he, though there’s no reason it has to be — begins giving performances or exhibitions, which quickly attain a reputation for being impressive and unusual. We (the readers or listeners) are made privy to such a performance. The show typically begins with (relatively) mundane demonstrations, but suddenly or gradually the audience, and with them the reader/listener, come to perceive not merely otherworldliness but menace — perhaps explicit or perhaps implied — in the performance, and the performer begins to be understood not as mere entertainer but as a messenger, prophet, harbinger or even agent of some terrible force that approaches, or some terrible future that looms. The performance is, ultimately, though again perhaps only by implication, revealed to be an apocalyptic fortelling.
Now, like most literary tropes, this one admits of considerable variation in its use. Individual instances may not precisely fit my checklist. But the general outlines, and the general feeling, of the Device will be recognizable.
“Nyarlathotep”, H.P. Lovecraft’s 1920 short story, is an account of the end of the world. The narrator belongs to a civilization at its peak, but with a sense of teetering on the brink of ruin. The title character arrives in the narrator’s city, preceded by his reputation:
Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences – of electricity and psychology — and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude.
(I won’t quote much more; the story is quite short, and Lovecraft’s evocative language is best experienced as a whole piece.)
The narrator attends one of Nyarlathotep’s demonstrations, and despite his skepticism and scientific outlook is disturbed and frightened by the implications of what he sees. It is clear that it’s a vision of Armageddon, but at the narrator’s feeble insistence that it’s all just show, Nyarlathotep kicks his audience out.
On reaching the street, they discover that Nyarlathotep’s prophecies are coming true, and their city is in ruins.
Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to shew where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top.
Nyarlathotep also figures occasionally in later stories by Lovecraft and by other writers working in the Cthulhu Mythos. He often plays the role of something like a particularly malevolent trickster god, who brings revelation and ruin in equal measure.
In Springsteen’s song “Magic”, from his 2007 album of the same name, rather than a member of the audience the narrator is the magician himself, relating his performance directly to the listener. The details of the setting, his arrival, his reputation are elided (though there’s plenty of context — namely, this is a Springsteen song — to infer that the setting is Anytown, USA).
Instead, the magician begins right away describing his performance. And to start with, he’s doing the normal, fun but unthreatening illusions one might expect: “I got a coin in my palm/I can make it disappear/I got a card up my sleeve/Name it and I’ll pull it out your ear.” (I think there’s something interesting about the nature of the illusions in each stanza, but I’ll get to that shortly.) The chorus, however — “This is what will be/This is what will be” — adds a ritualized, prophetic air to the proceedings, and soon the nature of the tricks begins to seem less benign.
In the second verse, the magician promises death-defying escapes, and cautions his audience, “Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see.” In the third, things get downright creepy, as he introduces the most clasically menacing illusion in a magician’s repertoire: “I got a shiny saw blade/All I need’s a volunteer,” and begins to invoke imagery of desolation.
The fourth verse has shifted fully into the prophetic mode, and deserves quoting in full:
Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s comin’ up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be
The apocalypse Springsteen’s magician foretells is a more mundane one than Nyarlathotep’s — but it’s also more believable for that, because it sounds a lot like times of violence, oppression and societal strife America has already seen.
I’d like to make a couple of extra notes about “Magic,” as well. First, the order and nature of the illusions is interesting to me. He begins with making a coin disappear, making a card appear, and producing a rabbit from a hat: the coin seems to be an illusion of destruction, but I think it can reasonably be assumed that making the coin reappear is an implied part of the trick, and so for the time being I’ll claim that these are all illusions of creation and/or transportation. There are three tricks in this set. There are only two illusions in the second set, and both are escapes: first from handcuffs, and then, more dramatically (and with a much stronger implication of death) from a chained, submerged box. And finally, the single, crowning illusion of the performance is one of death and destruction, sawing a person in half. So this sequence also contributes (along with the music itself, which I haven’t touched on at all: but go buy this album if you don’t already have it, it’s really top-notch) to the growing unease/tension/dread.
Second, there’s a moment that really fascinates me. Before the third verse begins, we hear Springsteen singing “I’ll cut you in half…” with an echoey effect. But echoes happen after the initial sound, and the lines “I’ll cut you in half/While you’re smilin’ ear to ear” come in the middle of the third verse. This echo appears, then, to have “traveled backward in time,” and though this may be a stretch on my part, I’m inclined to view this as a clever, subtle way to impute to the magician some degree of exemption from the normal flow of time — thus legitimizing his prophecy.
Sinister Magicians Elsewhere?
I’ve spent a bit of verbiage on these two instances of my little pet trope here (and as we all know, two data points make a trend!) but I strongly suspect that similar or related patterns can be found elsewhere. There are echoes of the Device of the Sinister Magician in the elaborate stage shows of Alice Cooper and Kiss, and in movies like The Illusionist and The Prestige. I’m convinced there’s some older root as well — as I said at the beginning, I believe not that Springsteen was directly influenced by Lovecraft, but that both draw on older ideas which have become part of the background fabric of the culture.