The devil you know

Susan Miura

The start of Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, plunges us both into the thick of an adventure and onto the stage of the Curran Theatre, a creaky old Victorian stage in 1920’s San Francisco. President Warren Harding, bloated, corrupt and ailing, takes the stage to join a master illusionist Charles Carter. Harding is to participate in the final illusion in Carter’s show, which has been notable as much for its taste in onstage gore as it has for sleight-of-hand. As Harding assists, Carter challenges the devil to a duel of magic-one that ends with the president cut into bloody chunks and dropped from the rafters. Moments later, Carter kills a lion onstage and pulls Harding, intact, from the beast’s stomach. Two hours later, the president is dead of mysterious causes, and Carter takes flight, disappearing on a passenger train and leaving no trace, but for his luggage, tagged for transport to Athens on a ship called The Hercules. Despite a careful search by the Secret Service that fails to find Carter hidden anywhere aboard the ship, when The Hercules pulls out of port, there he is on the deck, “In a bowler hat and chinchilla coat, sipping champagne and waving adieu from the aft deck,” according to Gold.

Carter’s adventures could only be more remarkable if they were true. And they are, in a way. Carter Beats the Devil has borrowed heavily from history, particularly in the person of the title character, a contemporary of Houdini. And while first-time author Gold is occasionally pulpy in his storytelling (for example, Carter makes an enemy of a fellow magician named Mysterioso, who develops the unappealing habit of killing people by puncturing their body with playing cards; fifty-two times, no less!), he is rigorous about his history. Every scene in the book is set in real locations and extrapolated from real events. Indeed, a good chunk of the book’s plot centers around a teenaged genius from Beaver City, Utah, who was tilling a potato field and spontaneously dreamed up the mechanics of projecting an image via an electron beam. The boy was named Philo Farnsworth and his invention was television, even though he’s virtually unknown for having invented it.

 

Well, Glen David Gold has heard of him, and in Gold’s world, Farnsworth’s invention is so threatening that the Secret Service has hired an anarchist (called only “The Spider”) to kill him. Further, fearing that Carter the Great might try to save the boy, they have drugged Carter, handcuffed his hands and feet, wrapped him in 50 feet of rope, tied him in a postal sack, nailed him into a wooden crate, and thrown him into the ocean. If scenes such as this seem pulled from comic books, well, there is a reason: In notes at the end of the book, Gold thanks “an unbeatable troika of genius storytellers” for inspiration in creating Carter’s story: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the creators of Marvel Comics, Spiderman and Captain America, respectively.

As a result, the book moves at a remarkable clip, sometimes jumping breathlessly from one dazzling event to another, but Gold doesn’t mind slowing down now and then, often to offer a near-photographic look at the popular entertainment of the Twenties. The last century’s obsession with spiritualism was still very much alive at this time, and the seances and secret organizations that sprouted from that obsession had taken on a newly mechanized sophistication. While conjurers still advertised themselves with painted images of imps and phantoms dancing on their shoulder (some of which are lovingly reproduced in this book), their onstage effects increasingly relied on electronic gimmicks, mechanical trap doors and tricks of electrical lighting. None of this was possible prior to the dawn of this century, in theaters that were lit by gas.

Gold does a marvelous job of detailing Carter’s career as a performer, winding his way backward through Carter’s biography, including a long and carefully sketched look at his years on the vaudeville circuitñparticular interest for students of theater. Here, re-created with great affection by Gold, are the novelty performances of the era, frequently overlooked by histories of theater, despite the fact that the luxurious performance houses that formed the circuit are often in use today (local examples include the Historic State and Orpheum theaters downtown). In these scenes, Gold hints at the larger influence vaudeville would have in popular entertainment. There is, for example, a surprisingly tender scene in which Gold has the magician spend an evening in a brothel with a quartet of brothers named Leonard, Julius, Adolph and Herbert, who scrape out a living performing a miserable comic sketch called “Fun in Hi Skule.” While Gold is too canny to say it outright, these young performers would eventually change their first names and become the darlings of vaudeville, later moving on to headlining on Broadway and in film. The brothers’ last name? Marx.

 

Carter Beats the Devil, Hyperion Books, $24.95.