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The Sources of Magical Power, Part One

Antiquity through the Renaissance

By John Michael Greer

Once upon a time, operative mages in the Western world could quite easily pick up a newly published novel or a magazine fresh from the press, and read stories that featured real magic of the sort they themselves practiced. I’ve been reminded of that in recent weeks, after spending some of my free time reading old issues of Weird Tales. There was an entire genre of stories, awkwardly labeled “occult detective” stories, that pitted a protagonist with some degree of occult knowledge and training against anything and everything the magical lore of the time could throw at him: vengeful ghosts, mages gone wrong, incantations lingering from the distant past, Satanists looking for that perfect sacrifice for the Evil One—and all of it based on a good practical knowledge of occult philosophy.

There were quite a few of these occult detective stories. Algernon Blackwood wrote some fine atmospheric stories about his “psychic doctor,” Dr. John Silence. Seabury Quinn, who had the perfect Weird Tales day job as a specialist in mortuary law, kept readers of that magazine enthralled with the exploits of ze verry French doctor Jules de Grandin. Manly Wade Wellman, arguably the best of the lot, had no fewer than three characters in the genre: Silver John, the Appalachian balladeer; John Thunstone, an engaging blend of occult adept and two-fisted adventure-story hero; and Lee Cobbett, an Everyman with a knack for blundering into and out of an assortment of occult scrapes. It’s an irony of literary history that contributions of actual occultists to the genre, such as Dion Fortune’s Adventures of Doctor Taverner, were decidedly second-rate by comparison.

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