Magic, I'm finding out,is hard work. When I asked Roger Williamson for a demonstration of The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, I certainly didn't think I'd have to participate. The mask I'm wearing makes it damn difficult to circumambulate the tiny, windowless chamber in Williamson's basement. And the candlelight strobing through the thick haze of pungent kyphi incense isn't helping, especially since I'm supposed to be keeping in step with him as he performs the ritual. And, whatever I do, I'm supposed to stay inside the black magic circle painted on the white floor.
"Before me Raphael. Behind me Gabriel. On my right hand Michael. On my left hand Auriel." Williamson chants over a viscous electronic drone from Coil's Time Machines, his arms extended in the shape of a cross. His voice grows richly guttural as he intones each angel's name. "For about me flame the Pentagrams, and in the Column stands the six-rayed Star."
For Williamson, owner of Magus Books & Herbs, getting around the circle is as easy as bagging an ounce of henbane. He learned the rudiments of ceremonial magic literally on his mother's knee. And today it is the guiding force in the Williamson abode, an unassuming, two-story stucco house on a quiet cul-de-sac in southeast Minneapolis. Despite the lateness of the hour, only Roger's wife Suzanne has succumbed to the ministrations of Lord Morpheus. Ashes, a preternaturally kittenish gray tabby on the verge of 20, launches periodic yowling campaigns, still hoping to bully her way outdoors.
Though the 56-year-old first took to ensorcelling many decades ago, it was only after self-publishing The Sun at Night, the first of his five books on magic, that he decided to delve into the mysteries of retail. "I had this huge occult library that I'd brought over from England," he recalls, pouring each of us a glass of wine--the first of many--at the dining room table upstairs. With his close-cropped silver hair, aquiline nose, and steel-gray eyes, Williamson looks every bit the wizard, in a Clive Barker-movie sort of way. "And I started selling some of it--sending out lists in the hope of selling more copies of my book. Pretty soon, it occurred to me that I could make a living selling the stuff. So, 12 years ago, I rented a little space in the back of the Dinkydale mall and opened the shop."
His trick worked. Williamson won't provide too much detail about the store's finances. ("Let's just say I'm not planning an early retirement," he hedges.) But Magus, now across University Avenue from Dinkydale, seems to be thriving--at least enough for Williamson to maintain one full-time employee and a few part-timers. Like most surviving brick-and-mortar book operations, the shop is heavy on the outreach (as if genital-shaped candles and Williamson's perpetually cheery disposition weren't enough). Magus maintains a well-appointed website (www.magusbooks.com), a magazine (Evolve), and a quarterly print catalog. And the store also offers Tarot readings and classes in everything from basic Voudon (the tourists call it "voodoo") to egg dyeing, as well as Sonic Seance, a monthly in-store performance series featuring the likes of TVBC frontman Paul Metzger and laptop dronemeister Datura 1.0.
Williamson's wizardly workday begins for real shortly after closing time. His sixth book, The Lucifer Diaries," is scheduled to manifest itself among mortals next month. And he's just released On the Arrival of the Machine and Its Mode of Operation, a self-released spoken-word CD with musical accompaniment by his son Luke. (The 27-year-old is also part of industrial hip-hop crew A-Pod and breakcore duo Shift). In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal here that I'm credited in the liner notes for "frogs"--samples from a field tape by the great frog recorder Felix Hess, which I passed along to Williamson several years ago when I worked at a record store. The frogs only get a few seconds on the disc, far less than its real star, the ancient Egyptian god of deserts, storms, and the outer realms known as Set.
"Set is an important deity to me," Williamson explains, lighting an American Spirit. "He's the outsider god's outsider god. To me, he represents rebellion in the truest sense, in that he encourages us to transcend the limitations imposed by family and society."
Cosmic grease monkey that he is, Williamson doesn't seem the least bit daunted by the conventional wisdom that pegs Set as Satan's old-school, Nile Valley counterpart. "I don't believe in good and evil," he deadpans, eye contact perfect as he produces a ragged smoke ring. "I believe in energy."
There's no lack of that commodity in the Williamson abode. The seemingly immortal cat is still speaking its piece. And bouncing up the stairs to his second-floor lair, Williamson seems awfully fit for a tipsy man of fair-to-middling age. But then, for Williamson, magic equals self-creation, self-transformation. "Magic appeals to people with theatrical inclinations," he offers, comfortably reunited with his wineglass. "What with all the incense and dressing up and waving your arms about. But to me, at the end of the day, it's a way of rearranging your perceptions, so that you can approach what seem like crises to most people as opportunities. It's only by changing yourself that you can change the world around you."