Blackest Magick In Practice – a Guest Post by Dave K, aka HellbornHero
Magic is pretty universally useful stuff, it is the ultimate problem solving tool. From the smallest and most subtle effects, right up to ascension to godhood and reweaving the fabric of reality, magic is at its most base analysis raw potential. However, in this Villain’s most humble opinion, not all magic is created equal.
Those of you who haven’t read the title of this piece and have perhaps forgotten which website you’re currently perusing will be positively shocked to learn my scandalous opinion on which particular flavour is most fun. Yes of course Black Magic, the darker the better, is the stuff I want to talk about today. A miracle will never be as interesting to me as a malediction, no answered prayer as entertaining as darkest ritual. I only recently realised quite how passionate I am about this view. I have found another hill upon which I am willing to die, and while I am most certain of the position I am not certain why, so please join me as I dig a little deeper.
To start with, we have to determine what constitutes black magic. TV Tropes helpfully did this for me years ago by deciding that black magic must tick at least one of the following three boxes:-
The source must be some horrifying power or place. Demons, Devils and Hell or whatever passes for the local equivalent. Eldritch Horrors if we’re in Lovecraft territory, The Dark Side of The Force and the like.
The cost must be some resource that heroic characters would largely be unwilling to acquire or use. Torture and pain, sacrificing human lives or souls, methods broadly agreed to be evil or at least very taboo.
The effect of the magic must be vile in the suffering and or damage it causes.
There’s some wiggle room in here but I feel like that is a good starting point. Now onto the analysis
My first thought was that perhaps it was a raw expression of power inherent in black magic, but this falls apart under exploration. Demons are reduced to ashes by Angels, the Aurors defeat the Death Eaters, the Power of Three overcomes The Source, and so on. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s a common enough occurrence that I don’t think it reinforces my idea. For example Willow from Buffy The vampire Slayer grows massively in power when she overcomes the temptation of dark magic to draw on the white. Morgause and Morgana practice the dark arts and both find themselves vanquished by the somehow more morally appropriate magic of Merlin. Most egregious of all are those circumstances where all magic is black magic, as the frequent outcome of that state of affairs is people who can rewrite reality to their whim somehow being brought low by men with swords or guns (I’m looking at you Conan). It’s positively heartbreaking.
The cost of black magic is almost always higher too, so I’m clearly not shopping around for a metaphysical bargain. Demons and devils demand your soul, dark gods require the most abhorrent of rituals and sacrifices for their blessings. Frequently blood is spilled and flesh consumed merely to achieve the same benefits the heroes amass merely by trying their hardest, asking the gods nicely or being ‘pure of heart’ (barf). One doesn’t hope to have to sacrifice soul or flesh for power, so this can’t be the answer either. Harry in the Dresden Files at different points gains access to power boosts from Heaven and Hell themselves. Hellfire gives him a boost to his power output, at the cost empowering his anger and lessening his self control. On top of that to gain access to this gift he has invited the echo of a fallen angel into his head, braced and waiting for the moment it can overcome his mind and will to take total control of his body. By contrast the heavenly magic of Soulfire allows him to perform feats of magic far more powerful and complex than he otherwise could, with a comparatively minor risk to his body, and he receives access to this great power at zero cost.
By all accounts it isn’t in the effects said magic produces either. Dark and Light both get to do things the other cannot, but in most cases this is either balanced or leaning in favour of the forces of good. For every cruel curse Voldemort created, it was ultimately the powers of love and self-sacrifice that saved the day for Harry and co. The Night King and his near infinite army of the death couldn’t hope to match the practical omniscience of The Three-Eyed Raven. The glorious demonic space bending eldritch abomination Dormammu was trapped in time by Doctor Strange and the Infinity Stone powered Eye of Agamotto. The Time Stone is a rather more neutral force than one inherently good but I feel the point stands.
Is it just window dressing and spectacle? I don’t think so. The appearance of the Angel Castiel was dripping in grandeur and majesty, doubly so compared to the understated summoning of demons in Supernatural, who appear with rather less pomp. The Divine Light of The Traveller in Destiny presents far more of a visual feast than the oppressive shadows cast by the presence of the aptly named Darkness. Kaecilius and his zealots conjure subtle weapons that appeared almost to be made of glass, where Doctor Strange and the heroic sorcerers call forth energy that glitters like fire and sunlight.
In the beautiful Netflix adaptation “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, which contains some of my very favourite depictions of witchcraft in recent years, the witches and warlocks of that world can do some pretty special magic thanks to their Devilish heritage. Given the right incantations and magical objects or concoctions almost all avenues are open to them. We witness the brewing of potions and performance of wicked rituals with great joy. However the forces of light show up in season two and pretty effortlessly dismantle all attempts of both the Church of Night and The Academy of Unseen Arts to defend themselves. Indeed the day is only won when Sabrina herself is revealed to posses some Angelic inclination of her own, and uses outright miracles to effortlessly succeed without any difficulty or price whilst the purely Devilish players in the game look on in impotence and awe. Regardless of all of this however, I’d rather be a warlock. With insincere apologies to all my righteous, goodly or angelic friends I have to declare once and for all; you’re just not as cool as us.
Even my historical research bears this out. John Dee may have pried the secrets from angels, but they’re boring compared to what lurks in Lesser Key of Solomon. What interest do holy books hold compared to works of Witchcraft and Demonology?
It can be hard to unpick the good and evil magics from the people that utilise them, and I’m not sure I’ve necessarily done a very good job here, but at the end of the day I feel like there might be an astoundingly simple answer. Sacrificing someone on a stone altar in the name of Shub-Niggurath is always going to be cooler than calling down the light of heavenly angels, regardless of what dark horrors or celestial miracles we get out of it. We know this, feel it in our bones regardless of whether or not we can explain it logically. It is good to be bad.
In researching this I stumbled upon something fascinating, a small piece of psychology research bears me out in an odd sort of way. A study from Harvard University appears to demonstrate a couple of things that I find in conjunction have very interesting implications. The first is that there is a literal strength in performing moral actions. Actively attempting to be heroic or villainous, to do good or evil, be naughty or nice, to behave or transgress increases your capacity. It can grant willpower, increase resistance to discomfort and pain, increase strength and endurance. The second result has some interesting implications for the world at large and us villains in particular. Those people envisioning themselves as being villainous experienced greater gains than those who were being benevolent.
So it is possible that those of us drawn to the villainous already knew this on some unconscious level. There is power in evil, and we here have elected to be powerful. That explains this website at the very least. What greater display of power is there than magic? Forcing reality itself to change in compliance with our will is about as big a power move as one could ever expect to accomplish. I’ve always had great interest in magic and the occult, both in fiction and in history, and I suspect those of us who value the ideas of magic and of power are more likely to have reached this realisation on the power of the villainous our own, even if we have not consciously realised that we have done so, or why we came to this conclusion. Evil is good.
I could spend a few thousand words talking about depictions of black magic from various media and try to pick apart why they make my little black heart feel all warm and fuzzy, but it might well be unnecessary. All that beautiful stuff is art, but the love of the bad was inside us all along.
If anyone can come up with a finer explanation than that, for the love of all the is unholy please @ me on Twitter, this concept is becoming an obsession.
Thanks to Dark Lord Journal for having me and until next time, I’ll leave you with a quote from everyone’s favourite Lovecraft, P.H. Lovecraft – “Y’all stay bad now.”
Dave K is writing for several unannounced projects that will be revealed to the world by @HellbornHero on Twitter when they’re good and ready. Or in most cases, Bad and ready, as you would imagine.