Sunday, January 24, 2010

Miss Marcia Kenwell had a perfect horror of cockroaches.

Great Tales of Horror - The Roaches by Thomas M. Disch
Originally published in Escapade Magazine, October 1965

During July of 2008 I was in transit, relocating myself from Chicago to Milwaukee one rental carload at a time, a process that did not truly end until September. During the blur of that summer, there were a number of events, unnoticed by most, that escaped me as well; one of those that brought me the most retroactive rue was the July 4th passing of author and critic Thomas M. Disch. In addition to his considerable talents in poetry and media criticism, he was also one of the most blindingly brilliant authors of SF and dark fantasy that either genre ever produced, and when I stumbled across the news of his passing during the Fall of '08, there were few memorials that did not remark upon his unappreciated genius and utterly original body of work. They also cited the abject tragedy of his passing, but I'll be getting to that in a bit.

In a fair, just world, Disch would have known all the accolades and hosannas bestowed upon other trailblazing SF writers like, say, Philip K. Dick, but his irascible personality and talent with a finely-tuned critical barb surely kept him from establishing a wide network of close friends in the industry. In fact, some of his most celebrated writing was harshly critical of the genre, which he often considered one step removed from children's literature. Needless to say, such opinions do not endear you to folks who award Hugos and Nebulas. (Ironically, the work that may prove to be Disch's most enduring - "The Brave Little Toaster" - was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but has gone on to become a contemporary children's classic, albeit one with some pretty dark undertones.)

After spending the 60s and 70s crafting such one-of-a-kind novels as The Genocides, Camp Concentration, The Puppies of Terra, 334 and On Wings of Song, the versatile Disch turned on a dime and began his "Supernatural Minnesota" quartet, including the horrific best sellers The Businessman, The M.D., The Sub and The Priest. To give you a sense of the man's iconoclastic nature, that last title deals with a cadre of Catholic priests who hunt down and murder pregnant teenagers. And it's actually a gothic comedy. (Is there a term for "Blacker Than Black" humor?) But for those of us who were familiar with some of Disch's short fiction, this was a welcome return to form, as many who paid tribute cited their gateway into Dischworld as being his short story "The Roaches."

The tale explores a recurring theme for the author - urban blight. Born in Iowa and raised in Minnesota, Disch spent most of his life in NYC, and his works frequently extol the attributes of the City That Never Sleeps, but the corrosive darkness that threatens to overwhelm the inhabitants is never out of eyeshot. Cockroaches become a metaphor for encroaching (heh heh) filth and decay, as Miss Marcia Kenwell, anal retentive to a fault, must eradicate the multi-legged flatmates that skitter away from view every time she flicks a light switch. Horror fans will readily recognize a similar scenario to the Creepshow vignette "They're Creeping Up On You," scripted by Stephen King some 17 years later. However, don't settle into your chair expecting you'll know exactly where this story is going. Simply and quite abruptly, Disch's tale pivots in a totally unexpected direction, as "The Roaches" winds up asking the very uncomfortable question - What do you do when what you hate and fear...loves you in return?

The new millennium was a time of enormous challenges for Disch. His response to the events of 9/11 was filled with abrasive xenophobia, further estranging him from the literary community. Always a large and imposing man, diabetes and acute sciatica left his body failing part by part, immobile and wracked with pain. Openly gay, he faced his greatest challenge when his life partner of 35 years, poet Charles Naylor, passed away in 2005. Their rent-controlled apartment was in Naylor's name, and eviction attempts and court challenges plagued Disch for the next three years. But his greatest fear was that his prolific imagination was failing him, and while he continued to produce work, he felt his gift slipping away. On Independence Day 2008, in the apartment he fought so hard to maintain and claim as his own, he put a gun to his head and ended his life. He was 68. Try though he might, Thomas M. Disch could not keep the darkness in his life at bay, but we must be grateful that so much of it found its way onto the printed page.

POSTSCRIPT - I managed to find "The Roaches" online here.


Cortez The Killer said...
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Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great read about someone who's work I've never been exposed to. Great stuff Senski. I definitely plan to pick up a copy of the Roaches. Sounds intriguing.

BTW, hope your dad is doing well.

Anonymous said...

Tom and I were friends for nearly 40 years, and then estranged (his choice) for another nearly 10.

You wrote, re: The Priest:

"that last title deals with a cadre of Catholic priests who hunt down and murder pregnant teenagers."

That's not what happens. Tom read large chunks of the novel, as it was in progress, to me one visit to his house in the country across from the Delaware River.

I do not believe he would want this particular detail to stand uncorrected.

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