VACUI MAGIA | L.S. Johnson
Halloween has come and gone, but I figure we’ll keep the scariness going for one more week with this story about witches and witchcraft and grave-robbing, among other Halloween-y elements. This story, “Vacui Magia,” appears in speculative fiction mainstay Strange Horizons.
In fact, this story isn’t scary, though it does contain elements of suspense. More than that, this piece is incredibly intense from an emotional standpoint, thanks to its beautiful, imagistic prose and exceptional use of both flashbacks and the second-person voice. For sheer, punch-to-the-kidney emotional rawness, I’ll hold this story up to any work of weepy Lit Fic you care to show me. It’s really that powerful, proving once again that the only thing really separating mainstream realist literature and speculative genres is snobbery.
As with any fine short story, the premise can be uttered in the space of a sentence, but the layers of subtext and implication could fill a novel. The five-second pitch for the story is this: An aging witch (the “you” character, since we’re in 2nd p) is making a golem, a magically fabricated baby. This is ostensibly to provide a grandchild for her dying mother, but also–we quickly discover–because of other reasons, such as longing for a child of her own, reconnection with her own childhood, reconnection with her decreasingly lucid mother, and I’m sure plenty of other reasons as well. So, our author has essentially taken the centuries-old tradition of the “golem” and repurposed it for an intimate tale of motherhood and loss. Instead of creating an inhuman mud-creature as in traditional golem-making, the witch in this story is fashioning a baby, an adorable little human, from sculpted clay and the bones of a deceased infant. Suddenly, a two-dimensional creature of folklore is an emotionally rich source of conflict.
The story is told in the form of a recipe or how-to article, explaining all the ins and outs, all the dos and don’ts of baby synthesis. It reminds me a lot of “The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate,” published in Nightmare Magazine and discussed here a little while ago.
This didactic approach to narrative has a number of benefits for our story: it makes the second-person voice work, and work well. It also sets the readers up with expectations of what should happen and creates a sense of conflict/danger by telling us explicitly what not to do (don’t name the baby, don’t think of it as a person, don’t get attached…). Further, the how-to structure instills the witch character, the You, with a rich humanity, a super-relatable vulnerability (she has insecurities, she’s afraid of being alone, etc.). For my money, this witch is as human and complex as a character can be, stereotypes notwithstanding.
There is an incredible sense of danger in this story as we see our protagonist-You slip further and further into emotional connection with this child. The fact of witchcraft, of a taboo process that involves semi-necromancy, challenges the expectation readers would normally hold toward a mother-daughter dynamic. We normally expect the bond between mother and child to be a positive thing, something natural and celebrated; most literature dealing with this subject adheres to this. But “Vacui Magia” reverses all of that, makes this mother-child relationship (by virtue of its artificiality) something to be scorned, kept in the shadows, forbidden and wrong.
And I suppose this is what makes it such a dark piece. It isn’t the fact of witchcraft or dead baby bones so much as the forbidden nature of this manufactured baby. Nature is both thwarted and overpowering, it seems, for the barren protagonist’s maternal affinity for this baby-thing is taking hold of her to the point that it almost, in a psychological sense, destroys her. The outcome of this how-to article is both calculated and desperate: the witch lets the baby crumple into clay and be stolen away by the sea.
This piece is very much open to interpretation. It seems to offer a commentary on societal constraints and expectations, the maternal instinct, motherhood as reconnection to girlhood, the nature of lineage and so on. I’ve checked out a couple other reviews of this piece, and these reviewers each saw something different in the story, which either points to my overly rigid critical tendencies or the fluidity of this piece’s implications. I imagine it’s the latter.