The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew L. Tompkins is a book right up our alley. It travels effortlessly right up our alley, in fact.
This book moves past the garbage cans, feral cats that protect the cans they call home or cafeterias, around the now less-important yellow police tape and chalk outlines of fallen individuals (likely victims of the mean-spirited cats), under the poorly functioning but profusely dripping air conditioning units perched precariously on rotten wooden window sills, up the darkened stairway and to our screen door.
The book was published in association with the exhibition “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic” held at Wellcome Collection in London between April and September 2019. It looks like it would have been a great exhibition to attend. Check out the link to see some of the great offerings.
Here’s our checklist for an entertaining magic-related history book:
- Mentions the Fox Sisters, Maggie and Kate. We don’t care if the work includes mention of their older and more exploitive sister, Leah.
- Has dramatic images of both séances and the expose of séances.
- Mentions Houdini’s importance in the stemming of Spiritualism.
- Mentions Ectoplasm – we don’t need to see pictures of it being manifested during or after séances – those make us gag.
- Posters, news clippings of either séances or their exposures.
As a bonus, if there is mention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Daniel Dunglas Home, the book is a must for us.
This wonderful book hits all the essential points and the bonus targets.
For those of us obsessed with this part of American and European history, much of the story told in the book is familiar. There were no new bits of information about the characters or their efforts to deceive or to uncover the deception. In fact, one (probably us) could argue there is a relative dearth of depth in the research revealed here. We have no doubt the author knows the history but because the book is to accompany an exhibition, it wasn’t intended to be a scholarly journal article.
The lack of depth is acceptable to us considering our knowledge about the history and the inclusion of images we have not before seen.
The book is replete with images – every page has fantastic illustration of the individuals involved – and is broken into five “Acts” and the segmentation fits well with the information provided. The penultimate chapter tells the story of parapsychological investigators and includes coverage of The Amazing Randi’s work along with Penn & Teller and Banachek, to debunk claims by folks like Uri Geller and Daryl Bem.
The final chapter looks at the psychology of illusion and, unfortunately, reveals some magic secrets that we thought should be kept in the Magic Fraternity’s vest pocket. How concerned are we about these reveals? So concerned that we won’t even tell you the tricks involved, lest someone finds them too easily.
Here’s the strange thing, though. We didn’t order this book or purchase it at a store. We didn’t even know of its existence. It showed up in our mail one day. Spooky, no? We receive things from magicians looking for reviews but they are usually sent after we at least provide our address (we’re above the shop that makes cakes and biscuits for dogs on Santa Monica Blvd., in West Hollywood but usually the Post Office requires more address information. Also there are two bakeries for dogs on Santa Monica in WeHo so the need for an address is even more profound.)
So, was it some evidence of spiritual forces that we received this book? Probably. We can imagine no other explanation, therefore it must be the spirits.
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