Guest blogger Jenny Davidson is the author of four novels and two nonfiction books about 18-century British literature. Her new novel, The Magic Circle, follows three young women at Columbia University as they get involved in an unusual and dangerous game.
One of the strange things about working on a college campus is that you constantly overhear the same snippets of information as you pass by tour groups. I've been teaching at Columbia University since 2000, and I must have seen a tour guide point to Buell Hall a hundred times and identify it as the oldest building on campus, the only vestige of the insane asylum that used to stand where Columbia does now.
I don't believe in ghosts, but I couldn't help thinking about the influence the asylum's history might exert on contemporary characters living on the same site. I wrote The Magic Circle to find out what would happen if three young women—two longtime friends whose relationship has been strained by the arrival of the third in New York—became fired up by the story of the asylum and decided to work out their obsession in the form of a live-action role-playing game, or LARP.
LARPs are relatively new. They have something in common with live theater, but they can accommodate elements of everything from scavenger hunts to urban exploration. The LARP I'd most like to have participated in was a month-long Swedish game called Momentum whose players embraced the roles of dead revolutionaries in an occult battle to save the world. Others that have caught my attention are a massive location-based Japanese game, Mogi, in which players used mobile phones to stalk one another and poach items for virtual collections; and Jane McGonigal's reconceptualization of her recovery from a serious head injury as a kind of game, with tasks and levels to complete at each step.
The games my protagonists play are darker and more violent than any of these. For a long time, I've been fascinated by Euripides' play The Bacchae, which describes a confrontation in which secularism and sanity are completely overwhelmed by the sacred madness the god Dionysus triggers in his followers. What if these three women fed The Bacchae into a game system that already included the history of the mental asylum and the notion that Morningside Heights might have a secret occult history bound up in its architecture and landscaping?
Intellectuals and urban explorers, Ruth, Lucy, and Anna are desperate for stimulation—even when it means risking their own physical and emotional safety. The term "magic circle" refers to any field of play where special rules apply. But when the boundaries of the magic circle become porous, games can have fatal consequences.