I am a man of lost faiths. I used to believe in God, absolute moral values, meaning, objective reality and (one smiles in retrospective incredulity) Romantic Destiny. I used to believe in signs, omens, patterns, secret purpose, synchronicities. I used to believe that what Mailer said of writing, that it was a "spooky art," was true not just of writing but of life. I used to believe in magic.
I'll come back to magic in a moment.
If these are the lost faiths, are there any that endure? Yes, surprisingly: aesthetic integrity, imagination, love. If God existed, these would be the roots of His proof, though He'd be nothing like the personality split by the Old and New Testaments, whimsical bully and po-faced cosmic school monitor, respectively. If there's a divine seed buried in the human, it flowers in our eye for beauty (good art still intimates heavenly or original perfection, bad art something approaching hell), our talent for daydreaming, and our endearing habit of occasionally finding we care more about someone else than we care for ourselves.
So my universe is bearable. Sometimes delightful. Very good. But what about magic?
I still want magic, I find. The old fashioned kind. I don't believe in it, but I still have a hankering for it. Aesthetic integrity, imagination, and love are wonderful things — but without an underlying or transcendent architecture they're comfort blankets in the void. It would be much better if they were comfort blankets in a nice big house, where, once you'd found your way around and risen above your surprising impulses towards vandalism you could settle down to live happily ever after.
If magic existed, it would do what it appears to do, namely, tease you with occasional glimpses of itself.
While I was writing The Last Werewolf I didn't watch any horror movies. (I didn't read any horror stories, either, but since I haven't read a horror story since I was 13, that wasn't much of an effort.) I especially didn't watch any werewolf movies, and I extra-especially didn't watch the best werewolf movie ever made, An American Werewolf in London. The fact is that in spite of the ingredients my novel shared with it — horror, humor, gore, pathos, sex, and a grown-up love story — it wasn't until my partner said (in a tone of dismissive summation, since she was sick of me going on about this book I was writing), "Yes, I get it. It's like An American Werewolf in London," that I even thought of the movie. This seems incredible to me now. But incredible or not, it's true.
I hadn't realised how much I loved horror movies until I forbad myself from watching any. I hadn't realised how fond my memories of An American Werewolf in London were until it became the one movie I absolutely could not watch until I'd finished my novel.
Finish my novel I did, in the spring of 2009. To celebrate, my beloved and I took a four day vacation in a converted barn in Wales. In our relationship, I have nothing to do with holiday arrangements. I leave it all to her. I go where I'm told. We've found, over the years, this works best. Naturally, she's keen to apply this principle comprehensively. Naturally, I resist. Anyway, the point is I had no hand in deciding our destination, nor much of a clue beyond "the Welsh countryside," where we were when we arrived.
The first bit of magic was negative: I'd forgotten to bring the DVD of An American Werewolf in London. The second bit of magic was positive: The barn we were renting contained not only a cinema screen home entertainment system, but a well-stocked library of DVDs. Arranged alphabetically. The first of which was An American Werewolf in London.
A little glow, like the effect of the first scotch of the evening.
Paul Bowles famously noted our deluded sense of life's inexhaustibility:
[E]verything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
True, but if I live long enough to watch An American Werewolf in London another 20 times, I'm confident the pleasure will remain undimmed. For one thing, it'll mean I get to fall in love another 20 times with Jenny Agutter.
The following day we went for a walk (for which read I went for some protracted physical torture) in the Brecon Beacons. Specifically, we climbed a hill called — I kid you not — Lord Hereford's Knob. It was on the way down that the third and major bit of magic happened.
"It's here," my beloved said.
"The scene from the film. The two guys at the beginning walking along. It's here. This is where they shot it."
"An American Werewolf in London?"
"No, they're in Yorkshire. It's the Yorkshire Dales."
"Look around you. This is the valley. The two guys at the beginning walking. I'm telling you. Look."
I looked. It did appear uncannily familiar. I put myself in the director's shoes, imagined where the camera would've been for the opening shots, added the appropriate light and weather...
We argued about it all the way back to the village.
"And that's the pub they go in."
"The Slaughtered Lamb. They walk down from up there. That building there on the left is the pub."
Again, I could see it. Again, it seemed a coincidence of preposterous proportions. "What is the name of this village?" I asked her.
"Right. We'll look it up."
This is what the Internet was invented for, of course. The Internet was invented to tell you that just after completing work on your werewolf novel and celebrating by taking a vacation in the country and watching the movie that at least subconsciously provided a formal antecedent for the book, it turns out that you're actually in the middle of the movie's location, literally walking in its characters footsteps. The obvious conclusion to draw was that my Mrs. had cooked this up just for me. But she hadn't. We had an argument about it, which she won by pointing out that she just wasn't the sort of person who'd go to the trouble of doing something like that. Then we had a sub-argument about why she wasn't the sort of person who'd go to the trouble of doing something like that. It was a long evening. The moon rose.
A full moon.
Perfectly framed in the bedroom window.
Neither of us had known it was coming, this fourth magic that killed the argument and made us gawping children for half an hour.
Two or three coincidences, I know. But it's not often the universe winks at you like that. It's not often the gods who aren't there pretend they are. It's not often — contrary to the sweet lie I and countless other storytellers peddle — that life seems to have a plot, a design, a whiff of ironic magic.
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Glen Duncan is the author of seven previous novels. He was chosen by both Arena and the Times Literary Supplement as one of Britain’s best young novelists. He lives in London.
Books mentioned in this post