The following is Ann VanderMeer’s introduction to The Divinity Student, originally written for the Centipede Press edition of the title and included in the Cheeky Frawg e‑book edition. Fans and readers may know that The Divinity Student was originally published in 1999 by Ann via her publishing imprint Buzzcity Press. This, then, is both a story of her initial encounter with Cisco’s novel and a fitting introduction for uninitiated readers. – The Editors
When I first encountered Michael Cisco’s work, I was publishing a magazine titled The Silver Web. At that time I had no intention of venturing into the book publishing world and was content to continue with short fiction only. I often found novels in my mailbox from writers hoping for publication and I turned them all down, manuscripts returned unread.
However, Cisco’s cover letter intrigued me. He said he had been referred to my press by Thomas Ligotti. So of course I had to find out just what it was in Cisco’s work that Ligotti trusted I would enjoy. My intention at this time was merely to read the manuscript and then to return it with a polite rejection.
And then I read the first chapter. Holy crap! In the first chapter a man gets struck by lightning on a hill, and then these shadowy people come out of nowhere to stuff his dead, smoking body full of pages of archaic texts. This brings him back to life and onward to a secretive mission. Holy crap!
So I continued to read on until I realized this was a book I absolutely must publish. I was so completely drawn into the hallucinogenic story that I couldn’t put it down.
As The Divinity Student continues on his journey and enters the city of San Veneficio, he is introduced to a wide variety of characters, and he learns the truth of his mission. He is more than a lowly word-finder, working in the dark shadows of Mr. Woodwind’s office to find words that have fallen out of favor. It is his secret mission to unlock those secret words that have the power, and dare I say it, the magic to transform not only The Divinity Student, but the world.
It is a strange, dark and wonderful adventure that Michael Cisco takes us on — from an isolated Seminary into the bustling dangers of San Veneficio, an odd yet somewhat familiar city in a world of his own making. And just as The Divinity Student is sent on this holy mission to uncover the power of language, so too does Cisco present us with his command of these very words. He draws the reader in with promises of the forbidden and then delivers not just the visions, but the real thing, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.
While reading his work, you feel as if you are under the influence of some kind of mind-blowing drug, you’re not quite sure if it is dangerous enough to hurt you or if you will make it through to the end unscathed. But by that point you don’t really care — you just cannot stop reading.
Needless to say, I did publish The Divinity Student, and to great critical acclaim. The novel received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and won an International Horror Guild award. It continues today to be discussed in literary circles and is held up as the perfect example of the modern gothic fantasy novel. Praise from fellow writers was expansive. Brian Stableford said, “It is a brilliantly bizarre and compulsively readable heroic fantasy for everyone who understands why the pen is mightier than the sword.” Paul Di Filippo described the hero as “a neurasthenic Clint Eastwood drifter, a linguistic bounty hunter whose prey is not a man, but an enlightenment beyond logic,” and Ligotti, who was instrumental in bringing the novel to my attention, called it, “a festival of unrealities, an entrancing body of hallucinations mutilated with surgical precision by a masterful literary maniac.”
Since the publication of The Divinity Student in 1999, Cisco’s work has been compared to Borges, Kafka and even William Burroughs (one of his literary heroes). He has published a number of amazing novels. But this is the book that started it all, the one that began his journey into the world of words. It is also the book that got us all hooked on the drug known as Michael Cisco.