Christopher Zeischegg’s The Magician (review by O F Cieri)

Christopher Zeischegg’s novel The Magician is an ironic title. The main character is a semi-fictional representation of the author and subject to forces he can barely combat. He has no control and every miracle he manages to scrounge up bleeds him dry. Throughout the book he’s whipped from one torture to the next until he manages to fashion temporary solutions through sheer coincidence, but around the borders of his tragedy are real magicians. Their goals are selfish or charitable depending on their character. Fictional Christopher’s biggest struggle is to articulate his needs for cosmic forces and their representatives without getting more hurt.

The Magician was originally conceived as a multi-media piece, with the writing taking a backseat to the development of a film version of the first half. Zeischegg got his degree in film, and his background as a porn performer meant he had access to equipment, performers and special effects specialists. Zeischegg could only raise the budget for a short film, but still managed to fill it with the first half of the Magician’s plot. The project was scheduled to tour on the festival circuit, but the pandemic cut their options short. The trailer is available on Zeischegg’s website for an example of some of the major beats of the story.

He published a companion art book to connect the novel to the film. Stills from the movie are interspersed with text that explains the inspiration behind the Magician. The first half of the book is a fictional retelling of Zeischegg’s five year stint after he quit acting in porn. Most of the information in the companion book is available in interviews with Zeischegg, but it provides a timeline that contextualizes the novel into the events he describes.

After a painful series of suicide attempts, Zeischegg and his girlfriend broke things off for good. She moved in full-time with her sugar daddy, who gave her all the free drugs and alcohol that Zeischegg wouldn’t. Furious, Zeischegg tried to kill him through black magick. The Magician began life as a Grant Morrison style chaos sigil, a sledgehammer to re-create reality to better suit the author. In the process of writing the story, Zeischegg got his own sugar daddy and moved in with him full-time. Zeischegg eventually broke things off when his sugar daddy began to ignore the boundaries between them and imagined a deeper emotional connection, but the experience took a heavy emotional toil. Zeischegg questioned the validity of killing his ex’s employer, whom he now saw as a lonely older man, fully worthy of empathy. 

For a project that blends reality so tightly with fiction, it feels impossible to extract the telling of the story from the story itself. The Magician is like the photo negative of a Dennis Cooper novel, where the perspective comes from the tortured hustler rather than a voyeur. The timeline of the novel is murky, but at the end the distance between Christopher and his porn career feels like a five year gap. There is a heavier emphasis on loss and aging as Christopher begins to recover that implies a longer span of time then the weeks to months laid out in the story.

In the novel, Christopher is encouraged to go to a support group for the friends and relatives of alcoholics. While there, he runs into someone he’s vaguely familiar with, but when he approaches her she attacks him, drags him out to her car, and takes his blood. The narrative toys with the genre conventions of fantasy that give main characters in other stories caring teachers. In The Magician, Christopher is used to incubate a demon to fulfill the real magician’s desires. She has just enough patience to feed him, give him somewhere to sleep for the night, and to cut off his pain so he stops whining. However, the promise to learn lingers. While in ritual Christopher retreats to his childhood comforts and prays to God, rejecting the opportunity for control that magick offers. The beats of the first half almost feel like a Satanic moral fable, where Christopher folds his hand and waits for a cleaner solution whenever he gets close to his goals. To punctuate this point is an increase in cruelty each time he fails to rise to the occasion. When, at last, he has the opportunity to kill the man who nearly killed him, Christopher is too afraid to go through with it. While his false mentor moves through the world without fear, taking whatever she wants without worrying about the consequences, Christopher is frozen by preliminary guilt. The moral of the story feels clear cut.

When his mentor quits the narrative to be a full-time necromancer in her own world, the book switches gears. The stakes are lowered and the setting returns to Christopher’s mothers house, where he deals with the consequences of the plot. The events of the story have long-lasting effects on his body and mind that begin to affect his family, the way real world trauma does. But the way his family begins to dissolve under the weight of his failures is pure myth, literally spoiling his loved ones with spiritual rot. The demon in his belly must be ejected for the safety of everyone around him. 

Religious trauma plays a larger role in the second half. After breaking his leg in an earlier chapter Christopher’s mobility is severely reduced, cutting him off from potential jobs and keeping him isolated to the tiny world of his mother and her husband. Christopher regresses to a childlike state where he has to wait for people to pick him up, drive him places, and make decisions for him. Despite his handicaps he feels the adult pressure to care for his family, especially as tension mounts when the demon he’s carrying begins to devour his mother. 

Zeischegg’s worldbuilding has a rich minimalist feel to it full of raw organic materials, ancient illustrations and symbols drawn in blood. The influence of melodic death metal soaks through descriptions of magick and death. The rituals and demons feel like a Denis Forkas illustration, where monstrous figures are mounted on velvet blackness. 

Christopher gives his mother’s Christian world the same distance he gave the world of necromancy. When presented with the opportunity to do nothing but have faith and pray he loses interest and casts around for direct action, blood and sex. His relationship with the church counselor, Dean, feels like something from Bulgakov’s the Master and Margherita, and at one point Christopher evokes an old image of witches luring churchmen to complete his final ritual;

I’d ride him, like a horse, to find my cypress and hen’s blood.”

At the end of the story Christopher remains a false magician, aware of the power he could have but unable to capture it. He is a wraith, lingering at the margins of communities he longs to be in.

I started follow Zeischegg’s work after hearing interviews with him on Wake Island. From there I picked up his first book, where the delicacy of his language remains consistent through all his other work. Zeischegg combines the poetic language of worship with the bottomless dread of existentialism the way Lovecraft did. Unlike Lovecraft, Zeischegg has returned to Christian mythology to populate his metaphor of an empty clockwork universe. Zeischegg’s universe is a cold and unforgiving place, and any higher power that can be contacted is only as charitable as it is hungry. For an equivalent exchange of flesh, it will grant your every wish. The real magicians in this book have a gravity that the Christians in Christopher’s life don’t share. Zeischegg is committed to portraying Evangelical Christians as intelligent, mature adults, but still critiques their narrow focus. While recovering at home he has nothing to watch; his mother and her husband don’t have internet or cable, just twelve Denzel Washington DVDs. When talking to a congregant about despair, the man encourages a cheerful outlook to the point of delusion. When the novel concludes, Christopher finds an excuse for his bizarre behavior by blaming it on drugs, which his family accepts because they have been primed to by the media they consume. 

At the end of the novel Christopher asks a magician how he discovered his craft; the magician says that he found a book in the woods after shooting himself in the head. In this world the only path to true knowledge is to touch the edge of reality, to punch out of the known and enter the surreal underbelly of everything. The Magician is a personal meditation on trauma and recovery, but it is also a half-lucid exploration of Zeischegg’s lifelong interests when compared to the American Christianity he grew up with.


O F Cieri is a self-taught writer based out of NYC. She has been published in Ligeia Magazine and Hobart Pulp, with an upcoming book available on Castaigne press. In 2013 she won first place in BMCC’s Poetry Competition. In 2016 she won an Honourable Mention in LaborArts Make Work Visible Competition. Her non fiction has been carried by Hyperallergic and the Invisible Oranges. In 2021 one of her scripts was produced by the Lurking Transmission podcast for their Halloween anthology episode. Early in 2022 she was published in a digital anthology of work about rural California called Los Suelos. 

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