Black Easter is a Nebula Award-nominated fantasy novel by James Blish in which an arms dealer hires a black magician to unleash all the Demons of Hell on earth for a single day. It was first published in 1968. The sequel is The Day After Judgment. Together, those two short novels form the third part of the thematic "After Such Knowledge" trilogy (title from T. S. Eliot's Gerontion, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?") with A Case of Conscience and Doctor Mirabilis. Blish has stated that it was only after completing Black Easter that he realized that the works formed a trilogy.
A shorter version of Black Easter was serialized as Faust Aleph-Null in If magazine, August–October 1967; the book edition retains the phrase as its subtitle.Black Easter and its sequel were later published as a single volume under the title Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (1980); a 1990 edition from Baen Books was renamed The Devil's Day.
Black Easter and The Day After Judgment deal with what sorcery would be like if it existed, and the ritual magic for summoning demons as described in grimoires actually worked, and its background was based closely on the writings and practising magicians working in the Christian tradition from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
In the first book, a wealthy arms manufacturer, Dr. Baines, comes to a black magician, Theron Ware. Initially Baines tests Ware's credentials by asking for two people to be killed, first the Governor of California, Rogan (Reagan was governor at the time of writing) and then a rival physicist. When this is accomplished to Baines' satisfaction, Baines reveals his real reason: he wishes to release all the demons from hell for one night to see what might happen. The book includes a lengthy description of the summoning ritual and a detailed (and as accurate as possible, given the available literature) description of the grotesque figures of the demons as they appear. Tension between white magicians (who appear to have a line of communications with the unfallen host in heaven) and Ware is woven over the terms and conditions of a magical covenant that is designed to provide for observers and limitations. Black Easter ends with Baphomet announcing to the participants that the demons can not be compelled to return to hell: the War is over, and God is dead.
The Day After Judgement, which follows in the series, develops and extends the characters from the first book. It suggests that God may not be dead, or that demons may not be inherently self-destructive, as something appears to be restraining the actions of the demons upon Earth. In a lengthy Miltonian speech at the end of the novel, Satan Mekratrig explains that, compared to humans, demons are good, and that if perhaps God has withdrawn Himself, then Satan beyond all others was qualified to take His place and, if anything, would be a more just god. However, the defeat of Satan is complete. He cannot take up this throne and must hand the burning keys to Man, as this is the most fell of all his fell damnations. He never wanted to be God at all, and so having won all, all has He lost.
Algis Budrys was dissatisfied with Black Easter, declaring it, despite Blish's outstanding craftsmanship, to be "an unreasonably inflated short story." He particularly faulted the novel's abrupt conclusion, characterizing Blish as an author "genuinely concerned with religion, not with trick endings."
It is likely that Blish got the name for his black magician from the titular character in Harold Frederic's 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. The quest for knowledge leading to damnation is central to the lives of both the black magician in Blish's novel and the Methodist minister in Frederic's novel.
Many of the white monks at Monte Albano are named after Blish's fellow science fiction writers:
- Anthony Boucher: "Father Boucher, who had commerce with some intellect of the recent past that was neither a mortal nor a Power, a commerce bearing all the earmarks of necromancy and yet was not;"
- Jack Vance: "Father Vance, in whose mind floated visions of magics that would not be comprehensible, let alone practicable, for millions of years to come;"
- Robert Anson Heinlein: "Father Anson, a brusque engineer type who specialized in unclouding the minds of politicians;"
- Roger Zelazny: "Father Selhany, a terrifying kabbalist who spoke in parables and of whom it was said that no one since Leviathan had understood his counsel;"
- J. Michael Rosenblum: "Father Rosenblum, a dour, bear-like man who tersely predicted disasters and was always right about them;"
- James Blish: "Father Atheling, a wall-eyed grimorian who saw portents in parts of speech and lectured everyone in a tense nasal voice until the Director had to exile him to the library except when business was being conducted;"
(Black Easter, pp 119–120)
Grimoires and assorted texts mentioned
Blish says in his foreword that all of the magical works and quotations mentioned in the text actually exist, as do the magical symbols reproduced, and "there are no Necronomicons or other such invented works"
- Ars Magna by Ramon Llull
- The Nullity of Magic by Roger Bacon
- The Book of Ceremonial Magic by C. A. E. Waite
- Enchiridion of Leo III
- The Effects of Atomic Weapons by the U.S. Government Printing Office
- The Book of the Sayings of Tsiang Samdup
- Grand Grimoire
- Grimorium Verum
- Clavicula Salomonis
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
- Ketterer, David (1987). Imprisoned In a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish. Kent State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87338-334-9.