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The Necromancer’s House

March 10, 2014

On one leg of our recent trip to San Francisco, I sat next to a friendly and talkative off-duty flight attendant, and our conversation ranged from musical theater to restaurants in different cities. When it veered into the realm of television, I said I watched Supernatural and he said he was interested in a show called Resurrection because “people come back from the dead.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I’m against that!”
I said this with such vehemence that it took him, literally, aback—he shrank away from me into his seat. Then he realized what I’d said and started laughing, I guess because one doesn’t often meet people who have such an, ahem, animated reaction to the subject of imagined resurrection.

It was soon after this that Jenny at Reading the End published her review of Christopher Beuhlman’s The Necromancer’s House, saying that the main character
“is able to take VHS tapes with recordings of dead people and open ‘trap doors’ in them, which allows you to have real conversations with the people recorded on the videotapes. He does this for money sometimes, or in exchange for spells from magicians with different specialties to his. (For once, Jeanne, necromancy pays. Actual dollars.)”

I wondered if my reaction–that this is not resurrection and therefore not what I think of as the kind of necromancy that doesn’t pay—was merely a semantic distinction, so I looked it up. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

1.a: The art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment.
1. b: fig. and in extended use. Something resembling necromancy in nature or effect.
2. As a count noun: an act of necromancy; (more generally) a spell.
3. With capital initial. A name formerly given to the part of the Odyssey (Book 11) describing Odysseus’ visit to Hades.”

So communicating with the dead, rather than attempting to bring them back to life, is the main definition of necromancy. Of course that can pay “actual dollars,” as anyone who sets herself up as a “medium” knows. But what is the price for trying to communicate with the dead? Staying trapped in the past is the price Christopher Beuhlman’s fictional necromancer, Andrew, pays.

Andrew is doing more than providing opportunities for conversation via VHS tapes of dead folks. He has made a deal with a demon so he can continue to live with his lover Sarah and their dog after their deaths. But he has forgotten how this happened, saying airily that he must have done it “just to see if I could.” When the demon calls Andrew to account, he asks
“Do you know what I’d have done to you if that were true? If you had bound me to your will for something so petty and egoic as a test of your own power? No, Andrew. The fleshed call those of my rank for a very few reasons. All of those reasons are only subcategories of two motivators. Extreme love. Or extreme hate.”

Inside the necromancer’s house, magic has gotten out of hand. The action of the novel began when a friend and sometimes housemate of Andrew’s, a magical Russian spirit called a rusalka, drowns a man who turns out to be the son of Baba Yaga. She then comes after Andrew, at first by way of his friends, then bringing her chicken-footed hut to his house, and eventually by mounting a direct attack, taking over his body with her spirit.

Andrew, has protected his house with spells, including “a Tri-Star vintage rolling canister vacuum cleaner…slightly modified” with
“a disturbing amalgamation of tools and taxidermied animals parts; the wheels that would normally support the larger rear of the appliance (now reversed to serve as the beast’s puffed-up chest) have been replaced by a chimpanzee’s arms, currently resting on their elbows, hands folded as if in prayer. An especially large alligator donated the tail snaking from the tapered end of the wedge, where the hose once attached. Said hose has been grafted to the larger end and pressed into service as the neck supporting the head, a sort of welded brass-and-metal rooster head with gogglish eyeglass lenses for eyes and the tips of kitchen knives for a crest. The beak looks fully capable of biting through a truck tire. For good measure, folded vulture’s wings perch on the slanted back.”

When Andrew’s friend Anneke pretends to attack Andrew in order to test the house’s defence, “serpentine objects fly from Andrew’s closet, brown and black, four of them, whipping at high speed….Belts….The belts wrap around Anneke’s hands and feet, bind them together, hog-tie her. A fifth belt loops around her neck, but only tightens enough to let her know it’s there….The phone rings again. Levitates off the bed, floats over to her. The speaker cozies up to her ear. Andrew’s voice, prerecorded. “Honi soit qui mal y pense! Try not to move too much, as the belts tighten when you struggle. Especially the one around your neck. I’ll be with you at my earliest convenience.”

Baba Yaga proves stronger than Andrew’s protection spells, although their climactic battle is not a straightforward battle of good against evil.

What’s fun about this novel are the details about the way magic works. Andrew’s friend Anneke, who is trying to learn to use magic, asks “why are there no schools…Harry Potter and all that.” Her teacher tells her “magic is artisanal. You apprentice. One at a time.” When she persists, he tells her a few tales of magic schools and what went wrong, culminating in this story:
“Last big one was France, outside Paris. Between the wars. Like a dozen users, thirty or so students. They exchanged oaths of fraternity, made loyalty and friendship more important than the magic, drummed out anybody who seemed greedy. Called themselves The Order of the Duck. I saw pictures. Real cute with the short pants and tall socks, even berets and sacks of baguettes, like the stereotype.
And then?
Something came and killed them.
A demon.
Sort of. Hitler.
She furrows her brow.
Couldn’t they fight, or hide?
Can’t fight an army. And it’s hard to hide from other users.
Hitler had users?
He looks at her.
She remembers a picture she saw of Adolf Hitler, surrounded by wide-eyed adorers, all of them half mad. Hitler calm in the middle of the storm of madness. They were looking at him like they were starving for something, something in his words and eyes, something only he could give them. They were addicted to him.
Oh my God, she says. He was one.
Michael nods.
Only the very luminous can make it out, but those tapes of him ranting in German? I’ve listened to them. It’s not German. It’s not a human language at all. Something taught him those words. Something he conjured. And you can only hear it for a moment. Because it starts to work on you, starts to sound like German. And if you speak German, it starts to sound like the truth.”

The truth is that dark magic is always a tiger that a magician thinks he has by the tail until the moment it turns to bite him. You may well shrink back in your own seat as I turn to you and declare that the idea of necromancy is often more than just a moral in a fairy tale, that there’s inevitably a price in the real world for any attempt to speak to the dead.

Or you may do as my seat-mate did on a more recent flight, and ignore the woman reading a book with a title like The Necromancer’s House right next to you.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2014 5:00 am

    The book sits itself pretty well within that “World of Darkness” meme from the roleplaying game Vampire the Masquerade, which itself took itself from the 1990s era Vampire fiction of Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite and others. Which is to say, there is a lot of mopping about and navel gazing. I did like the Butler who was a dog, and the evil mermaid-like girlfriend.

    • March 11, 2014 7:41 am

      The humorous touches are what makes this one good. I remember Anne Rice vampire books as being very concerned with good and evil, but Andrew seems quite human.

  2. March 10, 2014 8:03 am

    WASN’T the magic cool? I thought it was great in that aspect. I’d love to read more books set in this world — like how all the magic-users did trades with each other, and that stuff. I would totally read a book about Anneke’s future career.

    • March 11, 2014 7:43 am

      Yes, Anneke’s story helped to humanize Andrew, but she does have a story of her own begging to be told.

  3. March 10, 2014 9:39 am

    Hm, this is now two reviews that sound most intriguing. But Baba Yaga! Hut with chicken legs! What to do? (Love the bits you quoted, btw)

  4. March 10, 2014 6:32 pm

    Oh, I *can* only imagine your outburst and his reaction! We usually squash our true thoughts in favor of consideration for another’s opposite beliefs, or to be polite but I love that you said, “I’m AGAINST that!”
    I am so glad he gave his response more thought. What a delightful exchange.
    I enjoyed this post and now have to run off and see Jenny’s since I seem to have missed that one. I am sure I would have -at once- wondered how you would respond. Brilliant.

    • March 11, 2014 7:54 am

      Well, you know, it’s not often you have a conversation with a stranger that touches on actual evil! Also, I think the poor guy was braced for a blow–he was my age and lived with a male partner, so I think he’s had a difficult life in central Ohio (he told me he lived in Columbus) and it’s probably always been a risk for him to talk too freely to local women of his own age, many of them “Mrs. Grundy” types.

  5. March 11, 2014 12:05 am

    That was fun to read! Thank you for your kind attention.

    • March 11, 2014 7:55 am

      Glad I could return the favor of being fun to read!

  6. March 12, 2014 11:24 am

    The book sounds good! And I had a good laugh at your seat-mate’s reaction to your outburst 🙂

    • March 17, 2014 11:17 am

      As Jenny’s mother always says, it was a “caustic blurt.”

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