Disch, Thomas M. 1940–
Disch, Thomas M. 1940–
(Thom Demijohn, a joint pseudonym, Thomas Michael Disch, Tom Disch, Leonie Hargrave, Cassandra Knye, a joint pseudonym)
PERSONAL: Born February 2, 1940, in Des Moines, IA; son of Felix Henry and Helen (Gilbertson) Disch.
Education: Attended Cooper Union and New York University, 1959–62.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Karpfinger Agency, 500 Fifth Ave., Ste. 2800, New York, NY 10110.
CAREER: Writer, 1964–. Majestic Theatre, New York City, part-time checkroom attendant, 1957–62; Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York City, copywriter, 1963–64; theater critic for Nation, 1987–91; theater critic for the New York Daily News, 1993–. Artist-in-residence, College of William and Mary, 1996–. Lecturer at universities.
MEMBER: P.E.N, National Book Critics Circle (board member, 1988–91, secretary, 1989–91), Writers Guild East.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Prize, 1975, for story "Getting into Death," and 1979, for story "Xmas"; John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and American Book Award nomination, both 1980, both for On Wings of Song; Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominations, 1980, and British Science Fiction Award, 1981, all for novella The Brave Little Toaster.
The Genocides, Berkley Publishing (New York City), 1965, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Mankind under the Leash (expanded version of his short story, "White Fang Goes Dingo" [also see below]), Ace Books (New York City), 1966, published in England as The Puppies of Terra, Panther Books, 1978.
(With John Sladek under joint pseudonym Cassandra Knye) The House That Fear Built, Paperback Library, 1966.
Echo Round His Bones, Berkley Publishing, 1967.
(With Sladek under joint pseudonym Thom Demijohn) Black Alice, Doubleday (New York City), 1968.
Camp Concentration, Hart-Davis, 1968, Doubleday, 1969.
The Prisoner, Ace Books, 1969.
334, MacGibbon & Kee, Avon (New York City), 1974, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(Under pseudonym Leonie Hargrave) Clara Reeve, Knopf (New York City), 1975.
On Wings of Song, St. Martin's (New York City), 1979, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Triplicity (omnibus volume), Doubleday, 1980.
(With Charles Naylor) Neighboring Lives, Scribner, 1981.
The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, Harper, 1984.
Amnesia (computer-interactive novel), Electronic Arts, 1985.
The Silver Pillow: A Tale of Witchcraft, M.V. Ziesing (Willimantic, CT), 1987.
The M.D.: A Horror Story, Knopf, 1991.
The Priest: A Gothic Romance, Knopf, 1995.
The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft, Knopf, 1999.
One Hundred and Two H-Bombs and Other Science Fiction Stories (also see below), Compact Books (Hollywood, FL), 1966, revised edition published as One Hundred and Two H-Bombs, Berkeley Publishing, 1969, published in England as White Fang Goes Dingo and Other Funny S.F. Stories, Arrow Books, 1971.
Under Compulsion, Hart-Davis, 1968, also published as Fun with Your New Head, Doubleday, 1969.
Getting into Death: The Best Short Stories of Thomas M. Disch, Hart-Davis, 1973, revised edition, Knopf, 1976.
The Early Science Fiction Stories of Thomas M. Disch (includes Mankind under the Leash and One Hundred and Two H-Bombs), Gregg (Boston, MA), 1977.
Fundamental Disch, Bantam, 1980.
The Man Who Had No Idea, Bantam, 1982.
(With Marilyn Hacker and Charles Platt) Highway Sandwiches, privately printed, 1970.
The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, Basilisk Press, 1972.
ABCDEFG HIJKLM NOPQRST UVWXYZ, Anvil Press Poetry (Millville, MN), 1981.
Orders of the Retina, Toothpaste Press (West Branch, IA), 1982.
Burn This, Hutchinson, 1982.
Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We?, Hutchin-son, 1984.
Yes, Let's: New and Selected Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
Dark Verses and Light, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
(Under name Tom Disch) A Child's Garden of Grammar, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1997.
The Tale of Dan de Lion: A Fable, Coffee House Press, 1986.
The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances, Doubleday, 1986.
The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, Doubleday, 1988.
(Ghost editor with Robert Arthur) Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories that Scared Even Me, Random House, 1967.
The Ruins of the Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future, Putnam, 1971.
Bad Moon Rising: An Anthology of Political Foreboding, Harper, 1975.
(With Naylor) New Constellations: An Anthology of Tomorrow's Mythologies, Harper, 1976.
(With Naylor) Strangeness: A Collection of Curious Tales, Scribner, 1977.
Ringtime (short story), Toothpaste Press, 1983.
(Author of introduction) Michael Bishop, One Winter in Eden, Arkham House (Sauk City, WI), 1984.
Torturing Mr. Amberwell (short story), Cheap Street (New Castle, VA), 1985.
(Author of preface) Pamela Zoline, The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories, McPherson & Company (New Paltz, NY), 1988.
(Author of introduction) Philip K. Dick, The Penultimate Truth, Carroll & Graf, 1989.
The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters, Picador (New York City), 1995.
Also editor of The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian Science Fiction, 1975.
(Adaptor) Ben Hur (play), first produced in New York City, 1989.
The Cardinal Detoxes (verse play), first produced in New York City by RAPP Theater Company, 1990.
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Also librettist of The Fall of the House of Usher (opera), produced in New York City, 1979, and of Frankenstein (opera), produced in Greenvale, NY, 1982.
Contributor to Science Fiction at Large, edited by Peter Nicholls, Harper, 1976. Also contributor to numerous anthologies. Also contributor to periodicals, including Playboy, Poetry, and Harper's. Regular reviewer for Times Literary Supplement and Washington Post Book World.
ADAPTATIONS: The Brave Little Toaster was produced as an animated film by Hyperion-Kushner-Lockec, 1987.
SIDELIGHTS: An author of science fiction, poetry, historical novels, opera librettos, and computer-interactive fiction, [Thomas M.] Disch has been cited as "one of the most remarkably talented writers around" by a reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. Disch began his career writing science fiction stories that featured dark themes and disturbing plots. Many of Disch's early themes reappear in his short stories and poetry; the result, according to Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, is "never less than enjoyable and accomplished." While many of his best-known works are aimed at an adult audience, Disch is also the author of well-received children's fiction, including two fantasies, The Brave Little Toaster and The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars.
Disch grew up in Minnesota and graduated from high school in St. Paul. As a youngster he devoured horror comic books and science fiction magazines, including the influential Astounding Science Fiction. He learned his craft by reading and re-reading the work of authors such as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov—found in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. After a series of low-paying jobs in Minnesota (which included employment as night watchman in a funeral parlor), Disch moved to New York City. While living there, he worked as a checkroom attendant and advertising copywriter. His first fiction appeared in a magazine called Fantastic Stories in 1962. Between that periodical and another one called Amazing Stories he would publish nine more stories that year and the next. Although Disch has admitted to not thinking that highly of his first publishing success, he found his second effort at writing a full-length story more satisfactory. This story, titled "White Fang Goes Dingo," was first published in its short form, then in an expanded version as the author's second novel, Mankind under the Leash (later published under the title Disch prefers, The Puppies of Terra).
In 1964, having secured an advance from Berkley Books, Disch left advertising to become a full-time writer. He published his first novel the following year, a science fiction tale titled The Genocides. In large part the story of an alien invasion of Earth, The Genocides describes the last grim days of human existence, an existence where people are reduced to little more than insects in the aliens' global garden. Critics found the book frightening. "The novel … is powerful in the way that it forces the reader to alter his perspective, to reexamine what it means to be human," wrote Erich S. Rupprecht in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Disch followed The Genocides with a series of thought-provoking science fiction tales, such as Camp Concentration and 334, as well as horror novels such as The Businessman and The M.D.
Camp Concentration, 334, and On Wings of Song are widely considered Disch's best works. All three appeared in a mid-1980s survey by David Pringle titled Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. Camp Concentration is set at a secret prison camp run by the U.S. Army where selected prisoners are being treated with a new drug that increases their intelligence. Unfortunately, this drug also causes the prisoners' early deaths. The novel is in the form of a diary kept by one of the prisoners. The diary's style grows more complex as the narrative develops, reflecting the prisoner's increasing intelligence. Rupprecht drew a parallel between Camp Concentration and The Genocides. In both novels, he argues, the characters must survive inescapable situations. Disch's continuing theme, Rupprecht summarizes, is "charting his characters' attempts to keep themselves intact in a world which grows increasingly hostile, irrational, inhuman."
This theme is also found in 334, a novel set in a New York City housing project of the future. Divided into six loosely related sections, the novel presents the daily lives of residents of the building, which is located at 334 East Eleventh Street. The characters live in boredom and poverty; their city is rundown and dirty. In his analysis of the book Rupprecht noted the similarity between the novel's setting and the world of the present. He found 334 to be "a slightly distorted mirror image of contemporary life." Although the Washington Post Book World reviewer judged the setting to be "an interesting, plausible and unpleasant near-future world where urban life is even more constricted than now," he nonetheless believed that "survival and aspiration remain possible." Rupprecht praises 334 as Disch's "most brilliant and disturbing work…. One can think of few writers—of science fiction or other genres—who could convey a similar sense of emptiness, of yearning, of ruin with this power and grace…. Like all great writers, Disch forces his readers to see the reality of their lives in a way that is fresh, startling, disturbing, and moving."
Like 334, On Wings of Song deals with a future time that resembles our own. Describing the general atmosphere of the novel in the New York Times Book Review, Gerald Jonas noted: "Politically and economically, things seem to be going downhill, but in between crises, people can still assure themselves that they are living in 'normal' times." In the Village Voice, John Calvin Batchelor called On Wings of Song Disch's "grandest work." The critic maintains that the novel links Disch with other great social critics of the past, including H.G. Wells and George Orwell. "Disch," he wrote, "is an unapologetic political writer, a high-minded liberal democrat, who sees doom in Western Civilization and says so, often with bizarre, bleak scenarios."
Continuing to explore many literary avenues, in the 1980s and 1990s Disch published novels, stories, poetry, a libretto and an interactive computer novel. Three novels published during this period, the first of the "Supernatural Minnesota" series, further the social criticism seen in earlier works. In The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, The M.D.: A Horror Story, and The Priest: A Gothic Romance, Disch combines classic thriller techniques with a critical look at the corruption he sees in the three professions mentioned in the titles. The plots are replete with the type of strange occurrences Disch's readers have grown to expect, and the works show Disch's usual blend of styles. Writing about The M.D. in Kliatt, Larry W. Prater noted: "The novel combines elements of the macabre, of fantasy and of SF." Evidently, in life as well as literature, categories aren't important to Disch. In a Publishers Weekly interview with David Finkle, Disch refuses to see The M.D. as just a horror novel and with equal fervor defends his right to remain unburdened by a convenient label. "Every book has its own slightly different ground rules from the others," he maintained. "As long as the book plays by its own rules and those are clear, I don't think genre borderlines are especially helpful. I don't spend my life trying to determine what category I'm in." Disch told Platt: "Part of my notion of a proper ambition is that one should excel at a wide range of tasks."
Disch's 1999 novel The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft continues his "Supernatural Minnesota" series. The story revolves around Diana Turney, a substitute teacher who has recovered memories of being molested as a child at the hands of her father. Diana soon realizes that she is in control of a potent witchcraft—she is able to turn men into their totem animals, i.e., the animal they most resemble in personality. Critical reaction to the novel was largely positive. Alicia Graybill in Library Journal recommended the book, citing its "memorable characters and … darkly humorous plot." Though New York Times Book Review critic Scott Sutherland faulted the work for being too laden with allusions, a Publishers Weekly reviewer claimed the work "builds on the achievement of its predecessors and secures [Disch's] tenure as the [Jonathan] Swift of supernatural satire."
The variety found in Disch's novels and stories also extends to his poetry and work for children. Disch's work as a children's author includes titles such as The Brave Little Toaster and The Tale of Dan de Lion. In these works, Disch fully embraces the fantastic. The Brave Little Toaster tells the story of a group of small appli-ances—(including the toaster, a clock radio, and an electric blanket)—who come to life in order to search for their missing master. The Tale of Dan de Lion, presented in a series of couplets, concerns the adventures of a dandelion, his weedy family, and the rose breeder who wants to destroy them. Critics praised Disch's children's works both for the author's use of language and sense of whimsy. The Brave Little Toaster gained further recognition when it was produced as a popular animated film in 1987.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aldiss, Brian W., Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Atheneum, 1986.
Bleiler, E. F., editor, Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, Scribner, 1982, pp. 351-56.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 18, Thomson Gale (Detroit), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale, Volume 7, 1977, pp. 86-87; Volume 36, 1986, pp. 123-28.
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Chicago), 5th edition, 1991.
Delany, Samuel R., The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch, Dragon (Elizabethtown, NY), 1978.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 8: Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale, 1981, pp. 148-54.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Thomson Gale, 1993, pp. 107-23.
Stephens, Christopher P., A Checklist of Thomas M. Disch, Ultramarine (Hastings-on-Hudson, NY), 1991.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 1998, p. 114.
Booklist, April, 1998, p. 1293; April 15, 1999, p. 1451.
Kliatt, September, 1992, p. 20.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, p. 78; June 1, 1999, p. 172.
Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1981; November 21, 1982, p. 13; August 13, 1989, p. 3.
Nation, June 15, 1998.
New Statesman, July 13, 1984, p. 28.
Newsweek, March 9, 1981; July 2, 1984; July 11, 1988, pp. 66-67.
New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1976, p. 6; October 28, 1979, p. 15, 18; August 26, 1984, p. 31; April 20, 1986, p. 29; August 9, 1998; August 1, 1999.
Publishers Weekly, January 7, 1974, p. 56; January 5, 1976, p. 59; August 29, 1980, p. 363; April 19, 1991, pp. 48-49; April 20, 1998, p. 54; May 31, 1999, p. 63.
Reason, August-September, 1998.
Science Fiction Chronicle, February, 1993, p. 35.
Spectator, May 1, 1982, p. 23.
Time, July 28, 1975; February 9, 1976, pp. 83-84; July 9, 1984, pp. 85-86.
Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 1974, p. 163; June 12, 1981, p. 659; August 27, 1982, p. 919; May 25, 1984, p. 573; November 28, 1986, p. 343; September 15-21, 1989, p. 1000; November 11, 1994, p. 19.
Tribune Books, (Chicago) March 22, 1982.
Village Voice, August 27-September 2, 1980, pp. 35-36.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1981, p. 39.
Washington Post, September 23, 1979, p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, July 26, 1981, pp. 6-7; August 6, 1989, p. 5.