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Now, it is well known among magicians and mediums that a canvas of unbleached muslin may be painted with chemical solutions that appear invisible when dry; if sulphate of iron is used for blue, nitrate of bismuth for yellow, and copper sulphate for brown, the picture will appear if sprayed with a weak solution of prussiate of potash.
Only Steven Millhauser’s detailed wordsmithing could make the technical behind-the-scenes aspect of a magic trick seem, well, magical. Blending the natural and the supernatural is not uncommon in fiction but Millhauser does it exceptionally well in “Eisenheim the Illusionist” and he tops it all off by making it character driven:
Eisenheim’s nature was like that: he proceeded slowly and cautiously, step by step, and then as if he had earned the right to be daring, he would take a sudden leap.
As Eisenheim’s career and fame grow, the reader can’t help but ask the question from where are his increasingly dramatic illusions originating. Millhauser plants those seeds in the reader’s mind when he explains some of the tricks at the beginning of the illusionist’s career. There is always that thought that something natural is explaining what looks supernatural – even when the reader stops getting the explanations, even when the possibility of “higher powers” is introduced. At the same time, though, whether Eisenheim is simply an expert trickster or something more, Millhauser never brushes away the mystery:
All agreed that is was a sign of the times; and as precise memories faded, and the everyday world of coffee cups, doctors’ visits, and war rumors returned, a secret relief penetrated the souls of the faithful, who knew that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.
“Eisenheim the Illusionist” is included in Steven Millhauser’s collection The Barnum Museum. I read it when I selected my third Wild Card, the Two of Hearts, for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.