I have many evocative memories of the house my brothers and I lived in in the winter of 1976. The smell of the kitchen - kerosene and chilblain ointment, and the underlying taint of damp mould. The creaky old sofa. The little round hole in the upstairs window. The thin polystyrene layer on the bedroom walls that made for laughably poor insulation. And, of course, the time I tried to conjure spirits into a crude Solomonic circle.
'You have to get in the circle with me,' I told my younger brothers. 'The book says so!'
I clutched my cut-out cardboard pentagram in my fist and cursed their recalcitrance.
This all sounds like the prelude to a horror story - early Stephen King perhaps - but it actually happened. I was eight or nine at the time and had recently found a book that told you how to do magic. Unlike the Puffin Book of Magic
, a manual of conjuring tricks which explicitly warned you that it was not
going to give you special powers, the book I'd found was far more encouraging.
The Puffin book's back cover read 'This book will not teach you how to make palaces appear, or turn your teacher into an ice-cream frog.' (Ever since, I have wondered what an ice-cream frog was.) Depressing news for a skinny young boy in National Health glasses. Imagine my delight, then, when I read quite a different message on the back of my new discovery, How To Make Magic
'There is more to magic than magic tricks. First make your own magic wand, then learn how to do mind reading and fortune telling, how to weave spells, brew magic potions, summon spirits and hunt ghosts.'
AWESOME. None of the Puffin book's limp disclaimers here. This was the real stuff. Proper magic. Weave spells! Brew magic potions! SUMMON SPIRITS!
In later life, I sometimes wondered what on earth had been going through the minds of whoever wrote that book. I didn't doubt my recollection of it, much less that of the spirit-summoning fiasco, but I did wonder just how much of it I'd recalled correctly. Surely, even in the 1970s, people didn't write occult handbooks for kids?
And then I found it again.
The front cover tells us right away that something is deeply amiss here. This is a children's book, one of many in the 'How To' series. It is the only children's book I have ever seen that has a goat skull on the cover. Look carefully in the bottom right hand corner. That's a dagger. Possibly even a Wiccan 'athame', by the look of it. And I have no idea what is going on with that disembodied head, or mask, or whatever the hell it is. I will say this, though: the front cover of what's supposed to be a children's book features an altar setup that puts the likes of 'Teen Witch' to shame.
Just look how innocuous the other titles in the series are! 'How to make presents from odds and ends' 'How to sew presents from scraps'. It were the 1970s, you know. Winter of discontent. Make do and mend.
The introduction. 'Perhaps you are one of those rare people gifted with real magical powers, as well as having a few baffling tricks up your sleeve.' The implication is clear: there is stage magic, and then there is real magic. It's basically encouraging the kids of 1974 to believe in the occult. As a kid in 1976, I thought this was the coolest thing ever.
One of the book's stage magic sections, this section is relatively innocuous. I say 'relatively' because it still recommends that the child reading the book should pop along to the chemists and BUY SOME FUCKING SALTPETRE. Oh for the lost days of our youth when a small boy could come skipping out of a chemist's shop with a manual of witchcraft in one hand and a bag of bomb ingredients in the other.
Note the mention of an adult figure, whose sole function is to provide a lighted cigarette. This, I think, shows the authors' overall regard for adult responsibility here.
Savour, if you will, the chilling sentence 'You might like to write a special chant to help create the right sort of atmosphere.' The atmosphere in question presumably being pant-crapping terror with a lingering aroma of tobacco, adult indifference and gunpowder.
And now the wrongness begins in earnest. (We're still in the stage magic bit, remember. We haven't even STARTED on the occult stuff.) Look at that picture. Reflect that the book not only encourages you to stick a burning flame in your mouth, it manages to make that even worse
with the accompanying photo.
Here's a fun crafting project, kids. Make your own ouija board!
The observant among you will note that cutting a hazel branch at sunrise to catch the sun's new light and power is something actual witches were believed to do.
Not a joke, not stage magic. Actual witchcraft for kids. Or what people thought witchcraft entailed in 1974, anyway.
Ask a kid to magic a wart away nowadays, and they'll just look at you funny...
('Horsehair from an old mattress'? Horsehair? Just how old would a mattress need to be to have horsehair in it?)
Always remember to collect your herbs when the moon is waxing, children.
'Ask an adult to singe the ends of the paper with a lighted cigarette.'
Evidently this book's idea of an ideal parent is someone who constantly smokes and doesn't ask awkward questions about what you are up to in the attic with the herbs you gathered at full moon and the wand you cut at sunrise. We'd be straight on the blower to social services today, of course.
'Remember to carry your spell scroll with you on all magical occasions!' Magical occasions? It's beginning to look like the reader can expect to be invited to a Sabbat just as soon as they've finished the basics.
Put them into the bottle. Leave for three days in the sun. Shake them daily. Listen to your parents anxiously telephoning the doctor.
'Has your teacher, or a friend, made you a little angry lately?'
'Yes, magic book. They have. Will you help me to hurt them, magic book?'
'Of course, my child. Of course...'
I bet this is how Ginny Weasley felt when she first picked Tom Riddle's diary up.
And that wonderful little disclaimer: 'They may not have much effect.' Not MUCH effect. Why, I wonder, did the book not just say 'Of course, magic isn't real and this is all for fun'?
'Ask your parents if you can bewitch a corner of your garden at home. The centre piece should really be a tree around which you should plant a circle of white flowers - snowdrops or daisies, perhaps - in honour of the moon goddess.'
What do you mean, you don't remember agreeing to worship the moon goddess? Tough shit, kid. You want to work real magic instead of that make-believe stuff, you honour the moon goddess.
... yes, folks, this is it. This is the very double page spread that led to me attempting ritual magic before the age of 10. Even now, I am staggered
that a book would recommend this. The circle and triangle diagram are based on a genuine grimoire of demonology, the Goetia or Lesser Key of Solomon.
And this, of course, is the most memorable line from the whole book:
'Be careful not to put the pentagrams upside down because they look a bit like the Devil with his horns and you don't want him turning up.'
How exquisitely English is that? Like a brusque nanny being strict about the rowdy boy from the council estate who you aren't allowed to have at your party. We don't want HIM turning up.