For fans of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and A Discovery of Witches comes a brilliantly imagined debut novel brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic.
Revelation “Reve” Dyer grew up with her grandmother’s family stories, stretching back centuries to Reve’s ancestors, who founded the town of Hawley Five Corners, Massachusetts. Their history is steeped in secrets, for few outsiders know that an ancient magic runs in the Dyer women’s blood, and that Reve is a magician whose powers are all too real.
Reve and her husband are world-famous Las Vegas illusionists. They have three lovely young daughters, a beautiful home, and what seems like a charmed life. But Reve’s world is shattered when an intruder alters her trick pistol and she accidentally shoots and kills her beloved husband onstage.
Fearing for her daughters’ lives, Reve flees with them to the place she has always felt safest—an antiquated farmhouse in the forest of Hawley Five Corners, where the magic of her ancestors reigns, and her oldest friend—and first love—is the town’s chief of police. Here, in the forest, with its undeniable air of enchantment, Reve hopes she and her girls will be protected.
Delving into the past for answers, Reve is drawn deeper into her family’s legends. What she discovers is The Hawley Book of the Dead, an ancient leather-bound journal holding mysterious mythic power. As she pieces together the truth behind the book, Reve will have to shield herself and her daughters against an uncertain, increasingly dangerous fate. For soon it becomes clear that the stranger who upended Reve’s life in Las Vegas has followed her to Hawley—and that she has something he desperately wants.
Brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic, The Hawley Book of the Dead is a brilliantly imagined debut novel from a riveting new voice.
Praise for The Hawley Book of the Dead
“An informed and assured launch . . . Readers will be thoroughly engaged [by] the literary, magical, horse-loving Reve.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Enthralling . . . a magic-fueled tale of contemporary romantic suspense.”—Booklist (starred review)
“The core narrative is strong [with] a proper hook. . . . The scenes with Reve and her daughters ring true.”—Library Journal
“An impressive debut novel that combines various genres seamlessly.”—Huntington News
“Engrossing . . . a novel well worth discovering . . . In the vein of authors like Deborah Harkness and Katherine Howe, magic and reality are perfectly blended.”—BookPage
“With a rapid pace and exquisite details that clearly set the scene and mood, [Chrysler] Szarlan’s novel is a great read for those who love fantasy and tales of witchcraft.”—Shelf Awareness
“The Hawley Book of the Dead had me completely spellbound from beginning to end. A storytelling virtuosa, Chrysler Szarlan has woven a wondrous, scintillating web of suspense, love, history, and magic that will keep you eagerly turning the pages late into the night. Even readers not normally drawn to the supernatural will be swept away by this book; it has everything a great adventure should have—and so much more.”—Anne Fortier
“A haunting story of love, loss, family secrets, mysteries, and magic.”—Lauren Willig
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Las Vegas, Nevada—August 2013
On the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake. We lived in the desert south of Las Vegas, where no lilacs bloomed for a hundred miles. I might expect to smell bee brush or desert lavender in the fragrant air, but never lilacs.
I pulled a strand of coppery hair across my face. The tang of magic lingered on me from our show the night before: the sweet of stage makeup, the bitter of smoke powder.
Jeremy was fast asleep, one arm flung out, reaching for something invisible, which he often did in his waking, working life. Never a white rabbit, a paper bouquet. Sometimes he’d conjure a peacock when a dove would suffice for other magicians, a javelin instead of a knife. I nuzzled his golden head. My lovely husband smelled the same as I did, of the theater, of magic.
He reached for me with his long hands, pulled me close. “Good morning, love,” he murmured, his voice thick with sleep. “Sniffing for contraband?”
My sense of smell has always been keen. I use it to discover the secrets our daughters carry. Years ago, our twins Grace and Fai stuffed their backpacks full of Halloween candy, meaning to eat up every last scrap on the playground at school. I caught the scent of Snickers on them, nixed that plan. On their first day of seventh grade I began snuffling for cigarettes or pot on their clothes like a German Shepherd. They had just marked their fifteenth smoke-free birthday. Ten-year-old Caleigh only needed to be given the once-over for stray bits of cheese, her strange craving. She’d fill her pockets with cheese at school, come home reeking like a wheel of cheddar. At the theater, and at the barn where we kept our horses, I was always on the alert for any hint of smoke, of fire.
I curled my body into Jeremy’s while he smoothed my tangled hair, his eyes still closed. He wasn’t ready to leave his dreams yet.
“No, not contraband,” I told him. “Lilacs. I woke up smelling lilacs.”
His blue eyes sprang open. “I was dreaming of lilacs,” he said. “Masses of them, growing by a white house. But no matter how many I cut, they always disappeared from my hands.”
“Like magic,” I said lightly, trying to shake the feeling of something impending, a shadow passing over us. The image made me shiver, and not with cold. “Imagine that.”
He pulled me closer. “In the dream, I was trying to bring them back for you, Reve.”
I searched his eyes for trouble, found none. I kissed his cheek, rubbed his face with mine, an old trick, older than our act together, older than our marriage. My way of claiming him.
By nighttime, he was dead. I had shot him, while the odor of lilacs still clung to us. Stronger than ever.
It haunted me all day, that purple, heady scent.
Jeremy rose first. He showered, then made us breakfast. Black coffee, fresh eggs scrambled with our housekeeper Marisol’s green salsa, prosciutto pink as the Nevada dawn outside the window. Caleigh’s version of green eggs and ham. It was a Saturday. The twins slept in, but Caleigh waited at the table for her food, weaving the supple white string she favored for her games. Caleigh, the prodigy of string. She fashioned intricate webs that seemed to foretell our future—patterns she named “Chuck E. Cheese Sunday,” or “Listen to the Rain” when Marisol complained her plants needed a real soaking. Somehow we would end up at Chuck E. Cheese’s most Sundays, which we all despised except Caleigh, and it always did rain after she’d been weaving her rainy string pattern.
She plied the string that morning. She didn’t look up when she asked if we were going to the barn.
“I don’t think so. Grace and Fai need new sneakers.”
“We get to go to the mall!” Up she jumped, did a little dance in her penguin pajamas, and showed us the pattern I recognized as “The Mall,” an escalator she kept in motion with her busy hands. I poured coffee for myself, then grabbed a mug for Jeremy, the one that told him he was the World’s Best Dad. The lilac smell was beginning to annoy me. I checked the collar of my robe. Not there.
Jeremy leaned into me, reaching for his coffee, a casual hand on my waist. “If you think of it, stop at Madame Lee’s. We need more glow sticks for the fireworks illusion.”
“I thought we got three cases last time.”
“Went through them. Dan ordered more, but we need them tonight.”
With a cast of nearly a hundred, performing illusions and tricks six nights a week, we were always running out of something, something was forever breaking. Jeremy was resigned. I was impatient.
“What do those girls do with them all?”
“I’ll leave it to you to ask them, Revelation.” He used my full name only when I became stern, when it suited me better than my dreamy nickname.
“You’re afraid of them.”
“Big strapping American showgirls? I should think so. Any of them could land me in the hospital with one swift chorus-girl kick to the bu . . . behind.”
Caleigh twirled up to Jeremy. “Bum, bum, bum, you were going to say bum!” she sang. He swooped her up, smacked her cheek with a kiss.
“I can’t get away with anything in this house, can I? So I’m off to the theater, where I might get some respect.” He set Caleigh down, gave me a quick kiss, and there it was again. Lilacs. I pulled him to me, stuck my nose in his shirt collar. No. Only the scent of him. A nutmeg smell, and something indefinable, clean like freshly cut hay. I held him tighter, felt him breathe into me. He took my face in his hands and kissed me again, a deep kiss. Then he walked out into the Nevada sun, which was sharp as a knife that morning, the heat already settled into every crevice of the day.
Beyond that moment I’d never know what he thought, what he felt. He’d never tell me, after we’d gotten home and the girls were in bed. Not that night or any night after. Instead, what happened at the theater haunts me, in the dark and in the daylight. Whenever I close my eyes, the images come rushing at me, as crystalline and sharply focused as a movie in 3-D.
This is the way Defying the Bullets works: The magician appears to prepare the gun before volunteer audience members who examine the bullets, testify that they are real. It appears that the magician loads the gun, but he or she palms the bullets, the gun having been previously loaded with blanks. No real shot is ever fired. Unless someone switches the blanks for bullets. That had happened to magicians before. It happened to Chung Ling Soo in 1918. Whether it was an accident or not was never discovered. But Chung Ling Soo was no less dead.
I arrived at the theater early, just after four. I walked under the ladder of a man updating the marquee. The Bijoux was an old theater, and we liked to keep some things a little old-fashioned to match its age. We hadn’t yet gone completely digital, like most of the Strip. The marquee proclaimed the great revelation and the maskelyne mind—the amazing maskelynes’ venetian carnevale—mascherari.
When Jeremy and I began our act together, we played small houses, just the two of us, sometimes even bars and the occasional wedding. The basis of magic is a good story, and the stories we told at first were simple, like the Something Out of Nothing story, turning thin air into doves or ravens, always adding something a little disruptive, lovely, or large. We worked our way up, and in time the illusions got bigger and more splendid. We built enough of a reputation and audience to justify leasing our own theater. We discovered the Bijoux then, the magical elements still in place after all its incarnations.
The Bijoux’s history mirrored the unsettled nature of our ever-changing city in the desert. Originally a vaudeville house built in 1913 on Fremont Street, it was revamped for magic when Harry Houdini came through, and trapdoors for every possible purpose were installed. In a fit of nostalgia, its owner moved it to the Strip in the 1960s, when Fremont Street was dying, and the Bijoux was repurposed as a supper club. Then the New York–New York Casino was built around it, and it became a movie palace under the Statue of Liberty. When we leased it for our shows, we added lighting and fly elements. We built a turntable to revolve sets, and a huge lift. But much of the theater remained the way we’d found it, mysterious. The feeling prevailed that at any moment the ghost of Houdini or Al Jolson or Judy Garland might wander by.
An ancient man let us in through the stage door the day we first viewed it. He wore a stained red cardigan, faded overalls, and bedroom slippers. His hair was cropped short, his pink scalp showing through the white stubble. His eyes shone silver, clouded with cataracts. He locked the door behind us and shuffled down the hall without a word. He motioned to us to follow.
He led us backstage, through a maze of fraying curtains. Racks of sequined costumes bloomed with dust, last worn by chorus girls who were now grandmothers. Steamer trunks were stacked or spilled open, revealing the stage props of another age: top hats and bouquets of disintegrating paper flowers. A ventriloquist’s dummy stared at us with his shrewd doll’s eyes. The old man stopped at the edge of the stage but signaled us to walk onto it. Then he threw a switch and we stood blinking out at the candy box house, row upon row of velvet seats, gold balconies.
I jumped when he spoke. “You’re standing on a trapdoor built for Harry Houdini. 1921. Of course, Houdini wasn’t a true magician. Really only an escape artist.” He said it dismissively. “I saw Devant’s ‘Asrah’ here. Now that was magic. The lady I fell in love with was his assistant. 1919. And Chung Ling Soo was here, when I was a boy. 1914. Performed one of the greatest illusions I’ve ever seen. The one that finally killed him.”
Jeremy and I glanced at each other, and I knew with the sure knowledge of the married that he was thinking the same thing I was. If this man was telling the truth, he’d have been over a hundred years old.
“Born with the century. December thirty-first, 1899.” Maybe the old guy had a career as a psychic. “Never did see your great-great-grandfather, John Nevil,” he said to Jeremy. “But your great-uncle played this theater. 1923.”
Jeremy was descended from a magical family. Jeremy’s great-great-grandfather, John Nevil Maskelyne, had been one of the few innovators in the long history of magic. He invented magical levitation, and when he retired, he sold that trick and others for an obscene amount of money. Some descendants of John Nevil struggled to make magic pay, squandering their inheritance from the Original Levitating Girl on magic ephemera, on water torture boxes and fancy dress for the stage and hiring the prettiest assistants. But Jeremy’s grandfather and father coddled their share of John Nevil’s profit. They shunned the stage, were bankers both, performed another kind of magic by making money appear. Jeremy didn’t grow up with the magical arts as a kind of second language, touring England and the Continent with magician parents as some of his cousins had. But when he was a boy, in the attic of the family home in Devonshire, he came across an old leather-bound book, scratched and shredding, full of odd symbols and drawings of elaborate machinery, written in code it would take him months to decipher. One of John Nevil’s magic notebooks. It was Jeremy’s start in stage magic, the start of his journey to Las Vegas, to me, and then the Bijoux. John Nevil Maskelyne’s history was the spark to our success as magicians, in the tiny minority who actually made a living from magic. The old man seemed to know all about it.
On that first day in what would become our theater, Jeremy told him, “You have the advantage of us, I’m afraid.”
He extended a gnarled hand for Jeremy to shake. “Pleased to meet you. Wesley Knowles. Otherwise known as one of the Five Chinese Brothers. Not Chinese, not even Asian. Not brothers. Don’t expect you ever heard of us. We were tumblers and jugglers. Minor act. Stopped performing after the Oriental craze went bust with the country. 1929. I stayed on here. Marooned. Before Vegas was even Vegas, only a railroad town. I’m the sole survivor. Now the oldest living authority on theatrical magic of the twentieth century. Last magic act to play this house was Blackstone. The father, not the son. 1957. Until you, that is. If you stay. Hope you do. Bring the magic back.”
Wesley had a keen knowledge of every trick or illusion ever performed, and often gave us ideas, solving problems we came up against with simple and elegant machinations. For he stayed with us or, rather, with the theater. He had rooms above the stage. As far as we could tell, he never left the building. Wesley was frail but not decrepit, whatever his age. If he was 103 when we met him, he would have been 113 on the day Jeremy died. He was there on that day of the lilacs. He always was.
Dan Liston, the prop master and general technician, worked with Jeremy on a new and improved water escape on the floor below the stage. Dan maintained every prop, from fly mechanisms we relied on to hoist us forty feet in the air, to every coin Jeremy palmed. He was a perfectionist, but I made it a point to go over the props before every performance. It was my old habit to check, clipboard in hand. Before each show I literally checked off every prop used by even the lowliest cast member.
That day, the prop tables were the same as they ever were. The guns we used for Defying the Bullets lay shining in their case when I opened the box.
Dan had outlined and numbered every item so we all knew which prop we needed to pick up for each trick. Wesley shuffled by, saluting me, as if I were a general and he a foot soldier in an army of magicians. Were his eyes bluer than usual, less watery? Did he seem taller? The silvery wisps of his hair combed over his pink scalp darker than usual? Not that I noticed. He seemed the same.