Within the rebellious, free-wheeling canon of the SF New Wave (Spinrad, Aldiss, Ellison), I find that Thomas M. Disch’s work had a more sinisterly absurdist, yet humanistic slant than most of his peers. And while some of his stories are playful, many of them contain a dark core, a nebulous yolk, if you will. He exposes the frailties of the dirt-poor and the delusional, the maligned and the forgotten. His interest doesn’t focus on the successes of technology, nor the constructions of the operatic hard-sci-fi opus. His work is about failures in the grid, in and out of the body, and most importantly, the failures of America and its delusional inhabitants. The work in this 1970s collection touches on such disastrous themes, while not so much rooted in SF as it is in the horror genre. Saying it simple, this is damned good shit, humorous and dark.
The most memorable stories in the collection:
‘The Roaches’ – living in New York City can be quite awful for those struggling with the low payroll. Amidst tenement living, loud neighbors and a series of dead-end jobs, the main character here is befriended by a cockroach. No longer suicidal, and no longer feeling alone, she creates a telepathic bond with more and more roaches each day. And soon they become her own horde of assassins. (David Hartwell selected this one in his fine collection, ‘The Dark Descent’ – well deserved).
‘Come to Venus Melancholy’ – a first person account of an off-world computer losing its mind to jealousy and loneliness.
‘Linda and Daniel and Spike’ – a revolting tale about an imaginary lover who impregnates a schizophrenic woman in Manhattan. Up there in the high regions of literary ‘nasties’.
‘Descending’ – a loser maxes out his credit card in a department store, only to find himself stuck on a never-ending descent on an escalator. To some consumer Hell skipping on a sad time loop? Or just a bad dream? Sam Beckett in the shopping mall; Kafka goes to Woolworths.
‘Now is Forever’ – a regeneration machine gives you anything you want, but when there’s no more desire and you can have what you want by the press of a button, events take a turn for the worst. This one reads like an apocalyptic version of ‘Groundhog Day’, the snake eating its own tail, again and again and again….
‘The City of Penetrating Light’ – the last man of Earth, an astronaut who was in space when the bombs were dropped on earth, now contemplates suicide, but he keeps getting interrupted by some stranger calling him on the phone.
‘Casablanca’ – Disch here is channeling Paul Bowles in fine fashion. While the nuclear bombs are dropped on America, an elderly American couple on holiday try to figure out what to do. As the anti-American hatred takes hold, the couple go through a series of mundane horrors that eventually turn nasty as they try to find safety. Written in 1967, this story is far from dated, and probably stings much more to the reader today than in the year it was written.
I hope some reputable publisher puts this one out in a brand new edition. Searching the web, it feels as though this collection is one step away from being completely forgotten. Disch wasn’t for everybody. But damn, to me he was something special, a glorious madman who not only had imagination, but lots of heart too.