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The Prestige

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The Prestige

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Author: Christopher Priest
Publisher: Gollancz, 2011
Touchstone, 1995

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Contemporary Fantasy
Magical Realism
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The Prestige

The Prestige

Touchstone Pictures

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In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other's ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians' craft can command--the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations... to descendants who must, for their sanity's sake, untangle the puzzle left to them.



It began on a train, heading north through England, although I was soon to discover that the story had really begun more than a hundred years earlier.

I had no sense of any of this at the time: I was on company time, following up a report of an incident at a religious sect. On my lap lay the bulky envelope I had received from my father that morning, still unopened, because when Dad phoned to tell me about it my mind had been elsewhere. A bedroom door slamming, my girlfriend in the middle of walking out on me. 'Yes, Dad,' I had said, as Zelda stormed past with a boxful of my compact discs. 'drop it in the mail, and I'll have a look.'

After I had read the morning's edition of the Chronicle, and bought a sandwich and a cup of instant coffee from the refreshment trolley, I opened Dad's envelope. A large-format paperback book slipped out, with a note loose inside and a used envelope folded in half.

The note said, 'Dear Andy, Here is the book I told you about. I think it was sent by the same woman who rang me. She asked me if I knew where you were. I'm enclosing the envelope the book arrived in. The postmark is a bit blurred, but maybe you can make it out. Your mother would love to know when you are coming to stay with us again. How about next weekend? With love, Dad.'

At last I remembered some of my father's phonecall. He told me the book had arrived, and that the woman who had sent it appeared to be some kind of distant relative, because she had been talking about my family. I should have paid more attention to him.

Here, though, was the book. It was called Secret Methods of Magic, and the author was one Alfred Borden. To all appearances it was one of those instructional books of card tricks, sleight of hand, illusions involving silk scarves, and so on. The only aspect of it that interested me at first glance was that although it was a recently published paperback, the text itself appeared to be a facsimile of a much older edition: the typography, the illustrations, the chapter headings and the laboured writing style all suggested this.

I couldn't see why I should be interested in such a book. Only the author's name was familiar: Borden was the surname I had been born with, although when I was adopted as a small child my name was changed to that of my adoptive parents. My name now, my full and legal name, is Andrew Westley, and although I have always known that I was adopted I grew up thinking of Duncan and Jillian Westley as Dad and Mum, loved them as parents, and behaved as their son. All this is still true. I feel nothing for my natural parents. I'm not curious about them or why they put me up for adoption, and have no wish ever to trace them now that I am an adult. All that is in my distant past, and they have always felt irrelevant to me.

There is, though, one matter concerning my background that borders on the obsessive.

I am certain or to be accurate almost certain, that I was born one of a pair of identical twins, and that my brother and I were separated at the time of adoption. I have no idea why this was done, nor where my brother might be, but I have always assumed that he was adopted at the same time as me. I only started to suspect his existence when I was entering my teens. By chance I came across a passage in a book, an adventure story, that described the way in which many pairs of twins are linked by an inexplicable, apparently psychic contact. Even when separated by hundreds of miles or living in different countries, such twins will share feelings of pain, surprise, happiness, depression, one twin sending to the other, and vice versa. Reading this was one of those moments in life when suddenly a lot of things become clear.

All my life, as long as I can remember, I have had the feeling that someone else is sharing my life. As a child, with nothing to go on apart from the actual experience, I thought little of it and assumed everyone else had the same feelings. As I grew older, and I realized none of my friends was going through the same thing, it became a mystery. Reading the book therefore came as a great relief as it seemed to explain everything. I had a twin somewhere.

The feeling of rapport is in some ways vague, a sense of being cared for, even watched over, but in others it is much more specific. The general feeling is of a constant background, while more direct 'messages' come only occasionally. These are acute and precise, even though the actual communication is invariably non-'verbal.

Once or twice when I have been drunk, for example, I have felt my brother's consternation growing in me, a fear that I might come to some harm. On one of these occasions, when I was leaving a party late at night and was about to drive myself home, the flash of concern that reached me was so powerful I felt myself sobering up! I tried describing this at the time to the friends I was with, but they joked it away. Even so I drove home inexplicably sober that night.

In turn, I have sometimes sensed my brother in pain, or frightened, or threatened in some way, and have been able to 'send' feelings of calm, or sympathy, or reassurance towards him. It is a psychic mechanism I can use without understanding it. No one to my knowledge has ever satisfactorily explained it, even though it is common and well documented.

There is in my case, however, an extra mystery.

Not only have I never been able to trace my brother, as far as records are concerned I never had a brother of any kind, let alone a twin. I do have intermittent memories of my life before adoption, although I was only three when that happened, and I can't remember my brother at all. Dad and Mum knew nothing about it; they have told me that when they adopted me there was no suggestion of my having a brother.

As an adoptee you have certain legal rights. The most important of these is protection from your natural parents: they cannot contact you by any legal means. Another right is that when you reach adulthood you are able to ask about some of the circumstances surrounding your adoption. You can find out the names of your natural parents, for instance, and the address of the court of law where the adoption was made, and therefore where relevant records can be examined.

I followed all this up soon after my eighteenth birthday, anxious to find out what I could about my brother. The adoption agency referred me to Ealing County Court where the papers were kept, and here I discovered that I had been put up for adoption by my father, whose name was Clive Alexander Borden. My mother's name was Diana Ruth Borden (ne;e Ellington), but she had died soon after I was born. I assumed that the adoption happened because of her death, but in fact I was not adopted for more than two years after she died, during which period my father brought me up by himself. My own original name was Nicholas Julius Borden. There was nothing about any other child, adopted or otherwise.

I later checked birth records at St Catherine's House in London, but these confirmed I was the Bordens' only child.

Even so, my psychic contacts with my twin remained through all this, and have continued ever since.

* * *

The book had been published in the USA by Dover Publications, and was a handsome, well-made paperback. The cover painting depicted a dinner-jacketed stage magician pointing his hands expressively towards a wooden cabinet, from which a young lady was emerging. She was wearing a dazzling smile and a costume which for the period was probably considered saucy.

Under the author's name was printed: 'Edited and annotated by Lord Colderdale.'

At the bottom of the cover, in bold white lettering, was the blurb: 'The Famous Oath-Protected Book of Secrets'.

A longer and much more descriptive blurb on the back cover went into greater detail:

* * *

Originally published as a strictly limited edition in 1905 in London, this book was sold only to professional magicians who were prepared to swear an oath of secrecy about its contents. First edition copies are now exceedingly rare, and virtually impossible for general readers to obtain.

Made publicly available for the first time, this new edition is completely unabridged and contains all the original illustrations, as well as the notes and supplementary text provided by Britain's Earl of Colderdale, a noted contemporary amateur of magic.

The author is Alfred Borden, inventor of the legendary illusion The New Transported Man. Borden, whose stage name was Le Professeur de la Magie, was in the first decade of this century the leading stage illusionist. Encouraged in his early years by John Henry Anderson, and as a prote;ge; of Nevil Maskelyne's, Borden was a contemporary of Houdini, David Devant, Chung Ling Soo and Buatier de Kolta. He was based in London, England, but frequently toured the United States and Europe.

While not strictly speaking an instruction manual, this book with its broad understanding of magical methods will give both laymen and professionals startling insights into the mind of one of the greatest magicians who ever lived.

* * *

It was amusing to discover that one of my ancestors had been a magician, but I had no special interest in the subject. I happen to find some kinds of conjuring tedious; card tricks, especially, but many others too. The illusions you sometimes see on television are impressive, but I have never felt curious about how the effects are in fact achieved. I remember someone once saying that the trouble with magic was that the more a magician protects his secrets, the more banal they turn out to be.

Alfred Borden's book contained a long section on card tricks, and another described tricks with cigarettes and coins. Explanatory drawings and instructions accompanied each one. At the back of the book was a chapter about stage illusions, with many illustrations of cabinets with hidden compartments, boxes with false bottoms, tables with lifting devices concealed behind curtains, and other apparatus. I glanced through some of these pages.

The first half of the book was not illustrated, but consisted of a long account of the author's life and outlook on magic. It began with the following words:

* * *

'I write in the year 1901.

'My name, my real name, is Alfred Borden. The story of my life is the story of the secrets by which I have lived my life. They are described in this narrative for the first and last time; this is the only extant copy.

'I was born in 1856 on the eighth day of the month of May, in the coastal town of Hastings. I was a healthy, vigorous child. My father was a tradesman of that borough, a master wheelwright and cooper. Our house—'

* * *

I briefly imagined the writer of this book settling down to begin his memoir. For no exact reason I visualized him as a tall, dark-haired man, stern-faced and bearded, slightly hunched, wearing narrow reading glasses, working in a pool of light thrown by a solitary lamp placed next to his elbow. I imagined the rest of the household in a deferential silence, leaving the master in peace while he wrote. The reality was no doubt different, but stereotypes of our forebears are difficult to throw off.

I wondered what relation Alfred Borden would be to me. If the line of descent was direct, in other words if he wasn't a cousin or an uncle, then he would be my great- or great-great-grandfather. If he was born in 1856, he would have been in his middle forties when he wrote the book; it seemed likely he was therefore not my father's father, but of an earlier generation.

The Introduction was written in much the same style as the main text, with several long explanations about how the book came into being. The book appeared to be based on Borden's private notebook, not intended for publication. Colderdale had considerably expanded and clarified the narrative, and added the descriptions of most of the tricks. There was no extra biographical information about Borden, but presumably I would find some if I read the whole book.

I couldn't see how the book was going to tell me anything about my brother. He remained my only interest in my natural family.

At this point my mobile phone began beeping. I answered it quickly, knowing how other train passengers can be irritated by these things. It was Sonja, the secretary of my editor, Len Wickham. I suspected at once that Len had got her to call me, to make sure I was on the train.

'Andy, there's been a change of plan about the car,' she said. 'Eric Lambert had to take it in for a repair to the brakes, so it's in a garage.'

She gave me the address. It was the availability of this car in Sheffield, a high-inileage Ford renowned for frequent breakdowns, that prevented me from driving up in my own car. Len wouldn't authorize the expenses if a company car was on hand.

'did Uncle say anything else?' I said.

'such as?'

'this story's still on?'


'Has anything else come in from the agencies?'

'We've had a faxed confirmation from the State Penitentiary in California. Franklin is still a prisoner.'

'All right.'

We hung up. While I was still holding the phone I punched in my parents' number, and spoke to my father. I told him I was on my way to Sheffield, would be driving from there into the Peak District and if it was OK with them (of course it would be) I could come and stay the night. My father sounded pleased. He and Jillian still lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and now I was working in London my trips to see them were infrequent.

I told him I had received the book.

'Have you any idea why it was sent to you?' he said.

'Not the faintest.'

'Are you going to read it?'

'It's not my sort of thing. I'll look through it one day.'

'I noticed it was written by someone called Borden.'

'Yes. Did she say anything about that?'

'No. I don't think so.'

After we had hung up I put the book in my case and stared through the train window at the passing countryside. The sky was grey, and rain was streaking the glass. I had to concentrate on the incident I was being sent to investigate. I worked for the Chronicle, specifically as a general features writer, a label which was grander than the reality. The true state of affairs was that Dad was himself a newspaperman, and had formerly worked for the Manchester Evening Post, a sister paper to the Chronicle. It was a matter of pride to him that I had obtained the job, even though I have always suspected him of pulling strings for me. I am not a fluent journalist, and have not done well in the training programme I have been following. One of my serious long-term worries is that one day I am going to have to explain to my father why I have quit what he considers to be a prestigious job on the greatest British newspaper.

In the meantime, I struggle unwillingly on. Covering the incident I was travelling to was partly the consequence of another story I had filed several months earlier, about a group of UFO enthusiasts. Since then Len Wickham, my supervising editor, had assigned me to any story that involved witches' covens, levitation, spontaneous combustion, crop circles, and other fringe subjects. In most cases, I had already discovered, once you went into these things properly there was generally not much to say about them, and remarkably few of the stories I filed were ever printed. Even so, Wickham continued to send me off to cover them.

There was an extra twist this time. With some relish, Wickham informed me that someone from the sect had phoned to ask if the Chronicle was planning to cover the story, and if so had asked for me in person. They had seen some of my earlier articles, thought I showed the right degree of honest scepticism, and could therefore be relied on for a forthright article. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, it seemed likely to prove yet another dud.

A Californian religious sect called the Rapturous Church of Christ Jesus had established a community in a large country house in a Derbyshire village. One of the women members had died of natural causes a few days earlier. Her GP was present, as was her daughter. As she lay paralysed, on the point of death, a man had entered the room. He stood beside the bed and made soothing gestures with his hands. The woman died soon after, and the man immediately left the room without speaking to the other two. He was not seen afterwards. He had been recognized by the woman's daughter, and by two members of the sect who had come into the room while he was there, as the man who had founded the sect. This was Father Patrick Franklin, and the sect had grown up around him because of his claimed ability to bilocate.

The incident was newsworthy for two reasons. It was the first of Franklin's bilocations to have been witnessed by non-members of the sect, one of whom happened to be a professional woman with a local reputation. And the other reason was that Franklin's whereabouts on the day in question could be firmly established: he was known to be an inmate of the California State Penitentiary, and as Sonja had just confirmed to me on the phone he was still there.

Copyright © 1995 by Christopher Priest


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