I am a sucker for horror stories that play with memory, nostalgia, and the strange phenomena of growing up (whatever that’s supposed to mean). I also love cyclical horror; about a monster, or an event, or a killing, that comes back around and around and around again, and the characters’ efforts to either stop that cycle, or merely survive it.
Stephen King’s It is maybe the easiest example of this kind of horror, but it’s far from the only one, and it seems like the subgenre is only getting more and more popular. Maybe it’s a side-effect of Hollywood’s attempts to harness Gen Xers’ and Millennials’ nostalgia, with varying degrees of success, and those of us in those age cohorts (especially horror fans, who have always been the hardest people for Hollywood to please or placate) trying to reclaim the stories we love from being fed into the churn of endless content. Maybe it’s the feeling of the present constantly accelerating towards chaos, even as any hope for a pleasant or even safe future recedes away, causing us to look to the past and seek out both comfort and terror there, a search for meaning and honesty in what we’ve lived through, when meaning and honestly seem in such short supply in the present.
Mister Magic is a book about a group of former child actors, who worked together on a show that shares the book’s title. Something happened to them on the set of that show, and whatever it was, it shut down production forever. Stranger still, it erased all physical and digital records of the show, so that Mister Magic has become that rarest of things in a world where everything that ever existed is available forever: a source of nostalgia that is impossible to revisit. Viewers remember watching that show, but their memories have done what memories do: fade, mutate, get tangled up with identity and ideology and dreams. What they all agree about is that whatever happened to that show they loved when they were kids… it was terrifying. Or was it amazing? Was it both?
The actors have all grown up, and their own memories of the show are as fallible as the viewers: the main viewpoint character actually has no memories of it at all, until her old friends show up and tell her about a cast reunion, put on by a podcast host with some mysterious patrons (but who are not, one immediately senses, mysterious Patreon supporters, like every other podcast has). They are brought together again, in the house where they all lived while working on the show.
And then… well. It starts happening again.
What is it? Why is it happening? Who, or what, was the show’s star, the mysterious Mister Magic, and was he their protector, their tormentor, or something else?
There are answers in the book, but the joy of reading it — and there is quite a lot of joy in this book, a high note running over a growling bass of dread and uncertainty, the kind of joy that comes from having found, at long last or once again, your people — doesn’t come from the answers. It comes from asking ourselves as we are reading about these characters, what have we forgotten, or misremembered? What parts of your own lives were more magical, or more terrifying, than we want to believe? What shadows are cast by the flickering CRT light of nostalgia? Only Mister Magic knows for sure. For most of us, we must find contentment in the question itself… unless of course, whatever it was we can’t quite remember, happens again.
Because sometimes, it does.