Short Fiction: The Uncanny Death of Ozymandius McKaye

Posted: July 29, 2009 in Braak, Short Fiction
Tags: ,

In history and geneology, there are innumerable highly-specialized and often under-appreciated fields of study.  The history of 16th century printer’s inks, for instance, is fully as rigorous as more popular fields (the history of mathematics, for instance, the history of the Medicis, the history of historians), and is yet generally considered to be a waste of precious, history-gathering resources.

The history of magic occupies a position much like this:  it is a difficult and often fascinating subject, and yet it’s fruits are considered to be full of empty calories.  What does it matter, really, how David Devant performed the Mascot Moth?  Who really cares whether or not Selbit was actually the first person to perform Sawing a Woman in Half?  And yet, no doubt in many respects because of the triviality of the results, historians in this field are some of the most enthusiastic and obsessive historians at work in the world.

There is one name that aggravates them to no end, one name that provokes exasperated sighs and groans of frustration, one name that is, without question, the most famous in the field:  Ozymandius McKaye.

1904, at the Hippodrome in New York.  Ozymandius McKaye, in his old-fashioned white-tie formal wear, his long black tails and his starched white collar, is mercilessly drumming at an audience of five thousand people with his relentlessly charming patter.  His assistants roll a platform onstage.  The platform is raised above the floor and surrounded by four traunslucent paper walls.  Ozymandius continues with his hypnotic, almost mindless patter.

The life of Ozymandius McKaye can be summed up quite sufficiently when one considers his name.  Ozymandius was, in fact, born with the name “Percival Purl,” a name that would be a quite satisfactory name for a stage magician.  It is, in fact, a name uncommonly suited to the task of representing a stage magician; it is a name that, in its conception, was naturally destined for only one of two possible outcomes:  hero of an 18th century romance novel, or the name of a fin-de-siecle conjuror.  Changing his name away from the quite exceptional birthname perfectly represents a life spent in the pursuit of pointless embellishment.

In the field of stage magic, there are two essential elements:  first is the mechanics of the illusion.  Second is the patter.  Now, suffice it to say that no magician would survive the cutthroat environment of the 1890s without a generous helping of both.  And there were, moreover, some magicians who were genius at both the invention and the artistry of their craft.  However, by and large all magicians were better at one than the other, and Ozymandius McKaye was no exception to this.  He was an excellent patter-man, charming, devilishly handsome, fast on his feet and quick with a quip or joke, but he had only ever devised one original conjuration in his entire life.

Ozymandius’ tricks were all purchased wholesale from less-successful magicians, or out of the back of catalogues, or (in the memorable case of Archibald’s Miraculous Teakettle) simply stolen out of a trash bin behind Maskelyne & Cook’s Egyptian Hall in London.  When he did try to put something unique into his routine, it was almost always a disaster.  He suffered from a complicated mind that led him to add unnecessary flourishes, anticlimaxes, useless peripheral mechanics; all of which only compounded the difficulty of his act without noticeably improving the effects.  If it weren’t for his brilliant patter, Ozymandius would never have made it even as far as he did–a half-rate conjurer working the Sun Circuit in the American Southwest for fifteen years.  As it was, he would have no doubt faded into an obscurity from which even the most devoted magic historians might never have rescued him, were it not for his one and only original effect.

“And now,” declaims Ozymandius,”the star of the show, ladies and gentlemen I give you Raj Prava, the mightiest elephant in all of India!”  Two men, both dressed as Pierrot clowns, lead out a magnificent bull elephant, who trumpets impressively for the audience.  The clowns lead the elephant up onto the rolling platform, where his silhouette can be seen behind the paper walls.

“I’ve seen this,” whispers an audience member nearby.  “Harry Houdini did it.  Just you watch; two men rolled that platform in, I’ll bet it’ll take twenty-five to roll it off.”

Ozymandius’ journal entries regarding “The Elephant Vanishes” are painfully sparse.  “I’ve done it!”  He declares on July 6th, 1903.  And “A new trick–a vanished elephant.  It came to me in a dream.  So simple!  Why has no one thought of this before?  Will take the sketches to Alan tomorrow.”  Thus began Ozymandius McKaye’s involvement with Alan Wakeling, a now-infamous engineer of magical effects, whose name has become, to learned circles, a by-word for the dangers of revealing a magician’s secrets.

At this time, Alan ran a workshop in Boulder, Colorado, a sort of headquarters for the magic acts of the American west.  He produced the material for some of the most famous effects in history, including the first Divided Woman Box, and later, the six rotating tables used in Holdin’s notorious Rotating Flower Production.  He was known as a soft-spoken man, a brilliant mechanic and uncommon director, but absolutely devoid of stage presence.  He was rumored to be discreet, and, as it turns out, it might be said that he was discreet to a fault.

“Alan’s on board,” says Ozymandius in July of 1903.  “He says he’ll make me the most famous magician in history.”

The trick was performed three times in Colorado, using a horse as the vanished party–elephants being somewhat famously difficult to come by.   The second performance was outdoors, where there was no possibility of a secret trap door, or any apparent way to sneak the horse away from the audience.  By the third performance, the manager of the Eastern Lodge Magic Theater was forced to hire additional private security to keep the audience from storming the stage.

McKaye was contracted almost immediately for a limited-engagement at the Hippodrome in New York City, with a whole elephant provided by the Ringling Brothers.  He wasted no time packing his bags.

Ozymandius then begins to tell the story of the magic vanishing box, how he was given the secrets by an ancient Indian Guru, how no one in the western world had ever seen its like, drawing the suspense out like a master.  Is he covering for time?  Giving his assistants the opportunity to, somehow, spirit the elephant away?  It’s shadow, ears and trunk still twitching, does not vanish.  And where would it go?  There is forty feet of bare stage on every side, and the box is raised up from the ground.  The platform can be seen bowing in slightly, under the weight of the elephant.

After four weeks, Ozymandius McKaye had the most popular magic show in the history of that esteemed city, selling seats even faster than Harry Houdini.  But, in common with many skilled conversationalists, Ozymandius could not help but want to reveal the secret.  The mystery of his greatest illusion was like a hot coal in his pocket, trying to burn itself free.

“Am going to reveal the mechanics to the Times,” Ozymandius writes in his journal in December of 1904.  “Alan tells me not to.  Says that ‘Magicians guard an empty vault.  No trick is any good once they see how its done.’  Or some rubbish.  The trick is brilliant; this will make me famous.”  This is McKaye’s last journal entry on the subject, dated just before his momentous meeting with Irving Harp, a columnist in the Arts section of the New York Times.

“Now,” says Ozymandius.  The lights dim as he begins to chant in a language that might be an ancient mystic tongue, or might be mindless gobbledy-gook.  At once, he slaps the side of the great box.  The papers walls fall in with a crash, there is a puff of smoke.  The elephant is gone.  The platform is no longer bowed in.  There is nothing but empty space.  As a final denouement, Ozymandius chooses four young girls from the audience–they squeal with delight when he points at them–and shows how easily they can pull the platform offstage.  The elephant is gone, and even the most humorless theater-goers, the kind of men and women who seem obsessed with discovering every secret and peculiarity of the magic show, are at a loss for words.

“Mirrors?”  They wonder.  “Smoke?  Trapdoors?”  But nothing comes to mind which might explain it.

Ozymandius McKaye met with Irving Harp the night after the last performance, stopping only briefly to share a few heated words with Alan Wakeling about the whole affair.  Ozymandius would not be deterred, he insisted on his meeting, and insisted on this, what he declared would be his greatest reveal yet.  The magician and the reporter met in Ozymandius’ hotel room.

No sooner had Mr. Harp arrived, however, and Ozymandius began coughing.  Slightly at first, then excitedly, then apoplectically, a fit of volcanic paroxysms so strong that Mr. Harp was obliged to call for the hotel doctor.  Harp explained in his memoirs:  “I tried to offer him a glass of water, be he waved his arms around wildly, knocking it from my hands.  At once his eyes bulged and his face turned red, purple, black.  By the time the physician had arrived, Mr. McKaye was dead on the floor of his own hotel room.”

That Mr. McKaye had been poisoned there was no question.  He had always been a healthy, robust man, without so much as a mild hayfever in his thirty-eight years.  With what poison, and how that poison was administered, was never established by the police.  A number of suspects were interviewed, among them Harry Fisk, the Hippodrome manager–with whom McKaye had argued about his contract–and McKaye’s wife Estella–who was known to suspect her husband of being a philanderer.  Nothing conclusive was ever established.

Whatever the secret of The Elephant Vanishes, Alan Wakeling took it to his grave, refusing the small fortunes offered by such luminaries as David Copperfield and Lance Burton to divulge the secret, refusing to unburden himself even at the last moments of his life.  The mystery of this effect, witnessed and described in detail by some several thousand men and women, has never been explained, and for this reason Ozymandius McKaye remains the most notable name in the small but enthusiastic circle of historians of magic.

  1. Hsiang says:

    Oh you magnificent bastard.

  2. braak says:

    What does this mean? Have you just been waiting for an excuse to pretend I was Erwin Rommel?

  3. Hsiang says:

    I read your short story!

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I really enjoyed it, as well, but couldn’t top gushing ending in “magnificent bastard”…

  5. Moff says:

    I’m pretty sure this story is even more ingenious than I already think it is, and I will simply admit to not being quite smart enough for it to click.

  6. braak says:

    Uh-oh. Hmmm.

    Is it possible that it’s also more ingenious than I think it is?

  7. Moff says:

    I was concerned that there was a brilliant, subtle, O. Henry–esque twist I was missing. But now I’m less so.

    (P.S. Is there and am I?)

  8. braak says:

    ….uh….maybe….maybe there IS something. Maybe it’s a big secret! A secret that I can’t reveal to you, because it will make it less interesting!

    No, I don’t think so. I mean, it comes across that Wakeling was the one that poisoned McKaye, right? I was thinking of changing the wording on some of the last paragraph to make it sound a little more like the ending of the story in italics. But I don’t know; this is a rough sketch, anyway, and I’ll acknowledge that it’s not one of my best.


  9. Moff says:

    No, no, no! I really like it! And I was pretty sure that, yes, it was Wakeling. If anything, I guess I thought that was fairly apparent but that wouldn’t he have been a suspect?

    I wondered if I was missing something because (1) the story reads like patter in many places, and so I wondered if you were trying to divert readers’ attention from some minor but essential clue, and (2) there’s a whole “elephant in the room” theme going on here, so then I wondered if there was something big but unspoken I should have noticed.

    (I apologize to everyone else if I have somehow impeded your enjoyment of the story by way of my simplistic comments, and I apologize to you, Chris, if I have conveyed the sense that I didn’t enjoy the story or thought it somehow flawed, and in the process saddened you. You should ask my wife sometime about how well it goes whenever I offer what I think is (solicited) constructive criticism of her fiction couched in many compliments. To date, I don’t think it hasn’t ended in tears.)

  10. donaldconrad says:

    Brilliant melding of stories by way of italics. Enjoyed this. Thanks.

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