“The life of puppets […] is the dance of the fingers. Puppeteers of old—they say—would connect wires from their veins, feeding lifeblood to puppets to entice the spirits of the earth to enter them. Today, we do this with strings. You move, like so, and he moves. A thing is dead until it moves. You bring it life.”
This is the lesson that the street puppeteer, Yves, dispenses to the protagonist of Jason Marc Harris’ debut novella, Master of Rods and Strings, within its first few pages, and is one that proves prophetic not only for Elias Clermont as he aspires toward the dangerous and clandestine path of mastering the “Old Art” of occult puppetry, but also for us as we descend into a world filled with hexes, necromancy, and—of course—possessed puppets.
Over the course of the novella’s 92 pages, Harris constructs a version of France that is at once magical, alien, and horrific. In it, puppetry is a celebrated profession and cultural nexus—one that is held especially sacred by the townsfolk of Saint Siméon. Its practitioners are seen less as performers and more as mediums—their abilities to imbue their marionettes with life being the much more literal result of a technique known as “blood alchemy” rather than the typical product derived from smoke, mirrors, and thrown voices. But while some are unable to learn the technique, and others master it using only their own blood, there are those who employ more nefarious means to entice the “spirits of the earth” to reveal themselves and enter into their puppets.
One such puppeteer is a man known as Pavan. An accomplished and illustrious marionettist, Pavan runs the Lycée Avancé des Marionettes—a renowned school for gifted young puppeteers–and he has taken a keen interest in Elias’ older sister, Sonja. Under his tutelage, Sonja is inducted into the school and given a puppet named Angélique with which to learn, but she is separated from her family, and Elias, in the process. Elias mourns the loss of his sister but, more so, he envies the attention that Pavan lavishes upon her. He is jealous of his sister’s natural inclination toward the art of puppetry, and chafed by his parents’ refusal to support his desires to undertake puppetry himself.
Later, Pavan intimates that he intends to take Sonja on tour, preventing her from seeing Elias or returning to the family farm in the foreseeable future. At the same time, a mysterious and pervasive blight on the family’s crops conspires to drive Elias and his parents from their farmhouse in Saint Siméon. Before leaving, Elias seeks out his sister and finds her with Pavan at his mansion on the East side of town. There, he witnesses a horrifying ritual unfold:
As orange flames blurred and waved in the fireplace, Uncle Pavan, now bare-chested but colored with jagged inky angles of arcane etchings in his flesh, pulled at the strings of the dancer, Angélique, shining with starry specks hanging from her cottony hair.
Then Angélique stepped forward and seemed to dance by herself.
I stared with fury and agony at the hideous performance of Uncle Pavan. He no longer held the puppet’s strings. Yet its arms and legs stretched forward—one glitter-dusted pink cloth palm reached toward the drops of blood that slid down my sister’s face. I held my breath, astounded that the rumors of Uncle’s living puppets were true, and I raged inside … to see that my sister should be so grotesquely used.
After witnessing Pavan’s puppets feed on the blood of his sister, Elias flees and returns home. Days later, he learns of Pavan and Sonja’s departure for their tour, and, shortly after, Elias and his parents leave Saint Siméon for Marseille. Years pass, and then, one day, Elias discovers a newspaper clipping detailing his sister’s sudden collapse during a performance. Haunted by the memory of the clandestine acts he witnessed at Pavan’s mansion, Elias confronts his parents about their unwillingness to bring Sonja home and protect her from Pavan. When they refuse to act, Elias runs away, vowing to challenge Pavan and liberate Sonja from his grasp himself.
The remainder of the novella details Elias’ journey toward that goal, as well as his burgeoning skills in both puppetry and the occult arts that surround its practice. Along the way, he constructs his own puppet named Virgil—a glass-eyed doll rescued from the refuse of Marseille and steadily improved by Elias with deadly tools discovered on his journey. He attends a puppetry festival where he gleans new knowledge of puppetry practices the world over and incorporates them into his own repertoire of skills. Under the employ of Dr. Mersault at the Museum of Found Puppetry, Elias journeys to an ancient cave where he and Virgil commune with prehistoric powers, producing new magic in the process. All of these things and more pull us deeper into the world that Harris has carefully constructed, revealing an intricately woven lore and how Elias’ ambitions work to propel him toward mythic status within it.
Beyond the narrative veil, though, Harris’ novella also interrogates the intimate link between artistry and suffering. Elias’ evolution from envious outsider yearning to become a skilled puppeteer like his sister to master of occult puppetry asserting dominance over his life, his fellow puppeteers, and even the powers that lurk beyond the theatre of human experience, is rife with pain and loss. From losing his family to living in poverty to falling prey to Pavan’s sick games, Elias sees himself slowly removed from not only everything he has ever known and loved, but from any future that could ever hope to heal those psychic wounds. Rather than despair at these losses, though, the mounting pressure of them only serves to further galvanize Elias’ drive to master the Old Art and propels him toward a goal far more ambitious than simply seeking retribution for Pavan’s exploitation of Sonja. He even says as much directly when, in Part III of the novella, he declares:
No longer need I hold human hands when through my puppetry I could command the stage of sacred history. I sacrificed family and the dream of love, but my heart must be with my art alone. Not merely the physical craft of performative puppetry, but the epiphanic mysteries that occult puppetry permitted me to penetrate. Into this sanctum sanctorum of wisdom I’d enter with dear Virgil, who was not my creation but my intimate companion in this vale of tears, a partner who helped guide me past each precipice and chasm. He heralded me towards true knowledge, the songs and dances of not only the ancient world but the unseen vistas of a dazzling new horizon. One day, because of our shared purity of desire, we would pull the levers and the strings of the cosmos.
Each loss that Elias experiences over the course of the novella becomes a calculated transaction to him—family for opportunity, love for dedication, heroism for mastery. The further in his journey that Elias progresses, the more saving Sonja becomes subsidiary to his lust for power—his drive to dominate Pavan and establish himself not just as a master of occult puppetry, but the Master. And so, while Master of Rods and Strings is certainly both a classic revenge story and a model of the difficult path toward truly mastering a craft, it is also a thoughtfully constructed warning of how it is all too easy to let the pains one suffers in the name of ambition supplant—and even corrupt—one’s goals, no matter how good or pure or heroic those goals may seem at the offset.
In the end, Master of Rods and Strings asks us a simple question: what would you give to achieve greatness? For Elias Clermont, the answer is everything, and it’s up to us to decide if the end truly justifies the means.
Master of Rods and Strings, by Jason Marc Harris. Vernacular Books, July 2021. 92 pages. $12.99, paper.
Maxwell Malone is a horror and weird fiction author from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan currently masquerading as a technical writer on California’s Central Coast. His work has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various YouTube narration channels. You can find him on Twitter @maxwell_irl.