Mister Magic by Kiersten White
Del Rey (August 8, 2023)
304 pages; $25.20 hardcover; $13.99 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms
Reminiscing about the children’s shows many grew up with is a blurry experience. From The Magic Garden to Barney and Friends, there’s often a bit of weirdness, even some scariness, when the program is looked at without the innocence of youth to soften the edges. Revisiting those times can rip the scabs off some tough times, some repressed memories.
Kiersten White has crafted an entertaining and damn creepy romp through those shows in Mister Magic, which might just cause a therapy visit or two. For a Bram Stoker-winning author, she definitely lives up to the hype, surpassing her previous work, Hide, which was impressive.
Val lives on a farm, helping tend the animals and training the kids who come seeking the experiences which will shape their young minds. When her father passes away, she begins to discover he wasn’t all he stated to be, and her past is mired in shadows. She receives a visit from friends she can’t recall, who wish to take her to a reunion for a kids’ show that is alien to her. Isaac, Javi, Marcus, Jenny, and she used to be the “Circle of Friends” on the show that many cultish fans worship but nobody has a copy of. Zero recordings remain, which speak to the creepiness factor. And why was it filmed in the desert instead of a studio?
When she arrives in the town of Bliss, she discovers a few things which raise the red flags: 1. There was a sixth member — but who was it and what happened to her? 2. Her mother is still alive and living nearby. 3. Who was Mister Magic and why is the town hellbent on resurrecting the broadcast?
Her castmates and childhood family appear to be honest and just as broken as she is, yet Val can’t shake the feeling that there’s much more to the tale, whether they’re aware of it or not. And why do so many blame her for the downfall of the program, or the tragedy which ended it?
They take up residence in the old house, one character on each floor, with only a bed and television and VHS player for furnishings. What’s the strange hum that she swears she senses coming from somewhere in the house?
The mysteries unravel and yet compound as White weaves a mesmerizing tale of groupthink and pop culture that runs dark. While the stars are now adults, have any of them truly grown up? Why is the town so infatuated with them, especially Val? They await the gala to jumpstart the reunion and are expected to give interviews to the moderator of a podcaster situated in the basement of the isolated house — yet why is it remote? The group reconnects and battles with their memories, rediscovering the odd roles and “powers” that Mister Magic granted them on the show. Was it all TV tricks, child’s play with a following that turned the nostalgia dangerous?
The manner in which White tells the tale is hypnotic, the pieces of the puzzle floating into place one by one, yet with a deft touch.
The IT comparisons may be apt, yet in a much more subtle brush. Think Barney by way of Cthulhu with a splash of The Wicker Man.
Highly recommended reading for anyone who survived those awful shows. Also, make sure to circle back to White’s other great work.