Drop the Lamp and Back Away Slowly

Everyone’s read that type of story, and you know the ones I mean: Deal with the Devil, Genie in a Bottle, Magic Fish, Magic Ring, et many ceteras. And anyone who has read that kind of story must come to one reasonable conclusion, and that is, if you come across any kind of wish-fulfulling object and actually make a wish, you have to be out of your ever-lovin’ mind.

Wishes almost never go right. At least in the traditional Deal With the Devil (DWTD) story that makes sense. Even in the most benign interpretations, Lucifer is a trickster figure of the first rank. Of  course he’s going to pull a fast one so that he gets your soul but you don’t get what you wanted out of the deal, yet and at the same time technically fulfilling his obligations under the contract. In the better DWTD stories the guy or gal with the soul to barter understands that going in and tries to figure out the absolute ironclad way to phrase their request so that they manage to do what almost no one else ever does—beat the devil at his own game. It happens, sometimes. More often not, and at the end the reader gets a couple metric tons of irony dropped on their heads. I’ve been guilty of it myself. One of my earliest published stories was called “Big Ears,” and was about a not-as-clever-as-he-thought Scottish laird who makes his deal with the devil’s cat. Needless to say, he doesn’t get away with it. And a half. One reason those stories were around as long as they were (and you still see one now and then) is that they are fun to write. Not fun to be in.

You’ll note that for the most part I’m talking about modern retellings, not the traditional fairytales. In “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” things work out pretty well. The genie has limitations and quirks, but he isn’t out to cheat or thwart Aladdin. He gives Aladdin what he asks for, and it’s more or less what he meant. In a modern retelling, you almost never see that. For instance, Master says, “Genie, I wish to live forever!” and Genie says, “Your wish is my command.” And now the guy cannot die. He just gets older, and older, and older…For extra credit, now the poor schmuck would have to waste a wish to fix the mess created by the previous wish. Or, in the case where it’s one wish to a customer, he’s simply S.O.L.  Now, we all know that an eternity of increasing age and infirmity was not what the guy meant. The genie knows that’s not what the guy meant. But it’s at least technically what he asked for. As in the DWTD stories, the cautious genie-utilizing personnel are going to phrase their requests very, very carefully. And likely get burned anyway.

Part of the reason for that is obvious. If everything goes right, you don’t have a story. Or at least a very interesting one. Poor but deserving lad finds a magic ring. Magic ring solves all his worries and he lives happily ever after, the end. Great for him, but boring for the reader. It stands to reason that things go wrong. But do they always have to go wrong in the same  way? “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” still works after a thousand years for the simple reason that getting that lamp doesn’t solve all of Aladdin’s problems, in fact it causes some. He’s got someone working against him, someone who understands the nature of his good fortune and knows how to end it. It’s his own courage and wit that saves the day, and the magic lamp and ring only serve as catalysts to allow that to happen. Most modern retellings dwell on the wishes themselves, and how it is they, not external forces or personal rivalries or simply bad judgment, that causes the grief. Or to be even more specific, it is the protagonist’s very desire to have his or her wishes fulfilled that dooms them.

Now we’re down to a subtext so obvious it barely qualifies as one, and why I think there’s a strain of Puritan disapproval at the heart of most of these stories. You can’t get something for nothing. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing is free. Anything worth having is worth working for. The world doesn’t owe you a living. You didn’t do anything to deserve that. You are not worthy. Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?

This is manifest most obviously in the DWTD stories. By definition, anyone willing to cut that kind of deal deserves what they get.  One expects comeuppance because comeuppance is so clearly indicated. There are exceptions, but they just prove the rule. One of the most depressing counter-examples I’ve ever come across is an anime called “Hell Girl” (original manga by Miyuki Eto). In this series, people who have been driven to desperation beyond all bearing by an ongoing injustice have the option of striking a deal with the Hell Girl. She wreaks quite appropriate vengeance on the victim’s tormentor, but now both tormentor and tormented belong to hell. Forever. The victim did one thing and one thing only to deserve this fate—they agreed to the deal. Talk about lose-lose, but at least one knows the price going in. There is no deception.

That doesn’t explain the same dynamic working in a magic lamp or other magical wish-granting context. “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” Why the automatic subversion? One could understand the occasional glitch in a magic-ring wish. The ring is an object, not a person (human or otherwise). Would it not be amazingly literal where wishes were concerned? A wish like “I wish to be the head of this entire kingdom!” is an accident waiting to happen. Yeah, I know, it’s a plot device. Screamingly obvious in a classic story like Robert Thurston’s “One Magic Ring, Used.”  The magic ring works perfectly until the bearer really, really needs it to work. Then it doesn’t. No reason. It just. Doesn’t. Nasty, but to me just a slight variation on the thwarted intent theme.  Just considered as a plot device, of course, it’s a useful thing. A wish unanswered or gone wrong can power an entire novel, or even a series, if there’s enough sorting-out to be done. I get that. What I don’t get is the automatic fallback to the perversion of the wish. Puritanism aside, to me it gives the aura of magic a distinct whiff of legalese, in which atmosphere no magic can survive for long.

Which to my mind is another answer to why these stories are distinctly out of fashion now, and for those who think I’ve just answered my own question with the use of the word fashion (as in Old Fashioned, not hip, not current, not chock full of interstitially new weirded steampunk vampire zombie goodness) I say “Cowpies.” Fashion’s got nothing to do with worth. Something’s only out of fashion until it isn’t. Then someone breaks the paradigm in a way no one expected and “everything old is new again,” which is where we got “New Weird,” for example, in the first place. No, what’s actually out of fashion is guilt and the subtext of punishment and the heavy-handed moralizing that we’ve attached to something as basic and human as wanting something you don’t have. That’s what stale and overdone, not the wish. Not the idea of desire, and the metaphor for achieving that desire. Maybe one day we will all be enlightened in the Buddhist sense, but until then, we yearn. We want things, whether its an object or a situation or someone’s love. That’s what we do as human beings, and the metaphor of the granted wish is still powerful.  Where there are powerful human desires there are stories, good and maybe even better than good, but not if we’re lazy. Not if we take the easy path. This time, let the wish go absolutely right, and let the person making the wish answer this question in their lives: “Ok, now what?” I submit that, if there’s no story there, you’re just not trying.

Am I seriously suggesting a revival of the magic lamp, DWTD, magic ring story? Not really. First of all, they’ve never gone away completely. The suggestion about not taking the easy path?  That applies to just about any story you’d care to write and, yes, I’m serious about that. Maybe no one else here needs that reminder, but I know I do. That’s the sort of thing I never want to forget.

Must be the Puritan in me.