Tom Disch

1940–2008
Tom DischJamie Spracher

A pioneering author of speculative fiction, Tom Disch was also a noted poet, librettist, children’s author, essayist, theater critic, writer of historical novels, and author of computer-interactive fiction. Born in Iowa in 1940, Disch grew up in Minnesota and moved to New York City in the late 1950s. He attended both Cooper University and New York University, but did not graduate from either institution. During his time in New York, he held a series of low-paying jobs, including advertising copywriter and extra in productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Disch published his first fiction in a magazine called Fantastic Stories in 1962.Two years later. Disch left advertising to become a full-time writer. He published his first novel, The Genocides, in 1965. He moved to London in 1967 and became part of the burgeoning New Wave science fiction movement there, joining writers such as John and Judith Clute, John Sladek, and Michael Moorcock. A long career of writing in multiple genres and forms—science fiction novels, short stories, as well as collections of poetry, criticism, and children’s books—followed until Disch’s death, of suicide, in 2008.
 
Disch’s novels and stories are known for their genre-bending conceits, grim visions of the future, and exuberant, elegant writing. While labeled a writer of science fiction, Disch’s work frequently explodes such boundaries. According to John Cowley in theBoston Review, Disch’swriting continually expanded beyond the genre, not only into related forms such as horror and Gothic, but also into historical fiction, children’s books (the wonderful The Brave Little Toaster), and poetry, the genre in which he most desired to succeed. His last books would have to be called philosophical romances, a genre to which many speculative writers are drawn after the duties of worldbuilding and character-creating have grown tiresome. The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten (2008); The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World (2008)the titles suggest the contents.” A prolific writer in all genres, Disch’s most admired novels include Camp Concentration (1969), 334 (1974), On Wings of Song (1979), and a series of novels known as the “Supernatural Minnesota.” Of the formal variety of his prose and poetry both, the critic David Yezzi remarked: “Describing a Disch novel or poem, we might say, ‘tragical-comical-futuristical-historical-horrifical-satirical.’ While all of Disch’s work variously combines these elements, that last, satire, binds the lot—poetry and prose—with a cinch knot very few of his subjects escape. Pedophilic priests, 1970’s workshop poetasters, doctors, businessmen, and canonical novelists all blunder under his scrutiny.”
 
Though perhaps best known as the novelist Thomas M. Disch (the name he published fiction under), Tom Disch also wrote many well-received collections of poetry. Describing Disch’s strengths as a poet, Dana Gioia noted: “His subjects are rarely personal, except insofar as Disch represents himself as what Auden once called the ‘average thinking man.’ He therefore cultivates a general rather than a private voice. His tone is cosmopolitan and public rather than intimate and sincere. The structure of his poems more often depends on the logical progression of his ideas than on the associational links of his images. His natural manner is witty and discursive, not serious and lyrical. Most of his poems fall into traditional forms and genres… most amazingly, one gathers in reading him that Disch is more interested in writing verse than poetry (though there is certainly no surer way to good poetry than to begin by producing good verse). In short, Disch is every bit at one with his age as John Dryden would be in a surrealist café.” Yezzi also spoke to Disch’s seeming distance from contemporary poetry trends: “In their buoyant musicality, their humor, and their reluctance to over-poeticize experience or mystify the reader, Disch’s poems stand apart from current fashion.” Disch’s books of poetry include a collaboration with the poet Marilyn Hacker, Highway Sandwiches (1970); The Right Way to Figure Plumbing (1972); Burn This (1982); Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poetry (1989); Dark Verses and Light (1991); The Dark Old House (1995); About the Size of It (2006); and the posthumously published Winter Journey (2010), a cycle of poems Disch composed after the death of his long-time partner, the poet Charles Naylor.
 
After returning from London, Disch lived in New York City for nearly 30 years with Naylor. A series of tragedies marked his final years, including a fire that nearly destroyed his apartment, the long illness and death of Naylor, the loss of his house in upstate New York to mold, and worsening health conditions. After his suicide on July 4, 2008, friends and acquaintances paid tribute to a writer whose influence on an entire genre has been profound. Elizabeth Hand remarked in Salon, “Few people make a successful career of contemplating death and suicide; fewer still approach the subject with the genuine ebullience and elegant despair of the prolific, criminally underappreciated writer Thomas M. Disch… He wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, for the sheer joy of it and for an even more primal impulse: to tell a story to the dark.”


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.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • (With Marilyn Hacker and Charles Platt) Highway Sandwiches, privately printed, 1970.
  • The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, Basilisk Press, 1972.
  • ABCDEFG HIJKLM NPOQRST 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?, Hutchinson, 1984.
  • Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
  • Dark Verses and Light, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • Haikus of an AmPart, Coffee House Press (St. Paul, MN), 1991.
  • The Dark Old House, Robert L. Barth, 1995.
  • About the Size of It, Anvil Press (Vancouver, BC), 2006.
  • Winter Journey, Payseur and Schmidt (Cauheegan ,WI), 2010.

CRITICISM

  • The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1995.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  • The Castle of Perseverance: Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2002.
  • On SF, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2005.

NOVELS AND NOVELLAS

  • 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.
  • (With Charles Naylor) Neighboring Lives, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • The M.D.: A Horror Story, Knopf, 1991.
  • The Priest: A Gothic Romance, Knopf, 1995.
  • The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft, Knopf, 1999.
  • The Word of God, Or Holy Writ Rewritten, Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 2008.
  • The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World, Subterranean (Burton, MI), 2008.
  • The Proteus Sails Again, Subterranean (Burton, MI), 2008.

STORY COLLECTIONS

  • 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.
  • The Wall of America, Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 2008.

JUVENILE

  • 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.
  • A Child’s Garden of Grammar, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1997.

EDITOR

  • 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.
  • The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian SF, Harper, 1975.
  • (With Naylor) New Constellations: An Anthology of Tomorrow’s Mythologies, Harper, 1976.
  • (With Naylor) Strangeness: A Collection of Curious Tales, Scribner, 1977.
  • (Ghost editor with Robert Arthur) Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories that Scared Even Me, Random House, 1967.
  • 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.

LIBRETTI AND PLAYS

  • (Librettist) The Fall of the House of Usher (opera; composer, Gregory Sandow), first produced in New York, NY, 1979.
  • (Librettist) Frankenstein (opera; composer, Gregory Sandow), first produced in Greenvale, NY, 1982.
  • (Adaptor) Ben Hur (play), first produced in New York, NY, 1989.
  • The Cardinal Detoxes (verse play), RAPP Theater Company, 1990.

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.

 



Further Reading

BOOKS

  • 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, Gale (Detroit), 1989.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, 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, Gale, 1981, pp. 148-54.
  • Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale, 1993, pp. 107-23.
  • Stephens, Christopher P., A Checklist of Thomas M. Disch, Ultramarine (Hastings-on-Hudson, NY), 1991.

PERIODICALS

  • 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.

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LIFE SPAN 1940–2008

Tom Disch

Biography

A pioneering author of speculative fiction, Tom Disch was also a noted poet, librettist, children’s author, essayist, theater critic, writer of historical novels, and author of computer-interactive fiction. Born in Iowa in 1940, Disch grew up in Minnesota and moved to New York City in the late 1950s. He attended both Cooper University and New York University, but did not graduate from either institution. During his time in New . . .

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