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The premise here is that an arms dealer contracts with a practitioner of black magic, the aim being to loose all the demons of hell upon the Earth for one night -- JUST TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS. What happens, unfortunately, is Armageddon; once loosed, the legion of demons cannot be whisked back to the underworld.
Some who've complained that "Black Easter" seems short and incomplete should know that there's a good reason for that: Blish considered it to be merely the first half of a novel, the other half being "The Day After Judgement." In 1990, a small publishing house called Gregg Press finally released the two novellas as the single novel Blish had intended, under the title "The Devil's Day." Presented in that way, both "Easter" and "Judgement" seem whole, and the entire story arc just makes more sense.
Both "Easter" and "Judgement" are worth reading. True, even for me they don't pack the punch they did when I first read them as a teenager in the 1970s. But still, there are some very dark, disturbing concepts here. Essentially, Blish is writing about the terrible price that experience and knowledge can extract from a person, even to the point of destruction.
And in fact, if the two books are considered as one book under the title of "The Devil's Day," then another of Blish's claims holds water: He considered this the final book of a trilogy about the price of knowledge, with the first novel being 1959's "A Case of Conscience" and the second being "Dr. Mirabilis," published in 1964. His title for the trilogy was "After Such Knowledge," a phrase pulled from the writings of T.S. Eliot.
Those first two books do not share the same character set that appears in "Easter" and "Judgement" or, if you prefer, "The Devil's Day." But if you're going to read "Black Easter," I would definitely pick up a copy of "The Day After Judgement" and read the two novellas back to back as a single novel, as Blish intended. They are fascinating books, their central question being, "What would happen if good were NOT necessarily stronger than evil?"
Finally, I do agree that Blish as a writer can be a bit problematic -- especially annoying is his tendency at times to tell rather than show. But in his best passages here, he presents a world both fascinating and repellent, an Earth awash in wickedness unleashed not with great malice but simply recklessness.
Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null) is a classic Nebula-nominated work by James Blish, in which an arms dealer contracts with a black magician by the name of Theron Ware to literally let all hell break loose for one night on earth - out of curiosity to see what would happen and to boost profits from arms sales. Most of the narrative is an intricate exploration of the ritual involved, based on actual books of such rituals, although there is a pleasant diversion involving a rather fetching succubus.
The white magicians of the Catholic Church are also involved, but are limited to observations of protocol due to their non-aggression compact with the forces of black magic. However, what everyone, including Ware himself, was implicitly relying on to contain the ritual, falls apart in the concluding punchline to the novel.
There is a sequel - The Day After Judgement - but it never truly rises to the force of the concluding punchline of the first novel (which in turn would probably have been more effective as a shorter work). The apocalypse ensues, but the demons mysteriously seem restrained in their destructive force. The original characters from the first novel attempt to reverse the apocalypse, on a quest to the City of Hell that has risen in the place of Las Vegas (where else? Although Stephen King had a similar idea in The Stand…). The mystery is uncovered when they encounter a mournful Satan in finest Miltonian form.
RATING: IT'S A RAVE 3 STARS***
It terrified me and continues to do so. Movies, except for Curse of the Demon, do not scare me. Books do. Because you don't need blood and guts in books to "capture" a reader, you just need a good story. And this is a wizard of a story.
A man hires a Black Magician to open the gates of hell and let all the demons out for one night.
There are White Magicians who try to stop it.
There are some really great scenes and they are totally unforgettable.
A simple story, perhaps. But the telling is rich and the ending is totally unexpected.
If you read this you will need to read the sequel, which is The Day After Judgment. Another good story and it takes place, literally the day after the events in Black Easter.
Blish, to paraphrase a character in a movie, had a very devious mind, I am very happy to say.
This is the perfect book for Halloween. Read it aloud to kids at a party and they will be quiet. Better to hear the horrors sneaking up.