Thomas M. Disch Biography


In Person











































Thomas Michael Disch was born at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa on 22 February 1940 at 10:22 p.m. He was the first son of Felix and Helen Disch and named for his paternal grandfather Thomas Disch. The Dischs were a Catholic family. His recollections of his crippled, censorious hard-Catholic Grandmother Disch would be used in "The M.D." Both the paternal and maternal families were Minnesota-based. Felix Disch was born in 1898 into a German immigrant family. Helen Gilbertson was born into a Norwegian immigrant family. Felix Disch was a travelling salesman selling subscriptions to "Colliers magazine" when he met Helen Gilbertson in the late 1930s. Felix was too old for army service in WWII, and after the two were married Helen travelled with him, hence Thomas's birth in Des Moines. Thomas M. Disch's earliest years were spent in St. Paul before the family moved to 4104 Bryant Avenue South, Minneapolis.His strongest memory of this early period is of exercising his imagination listening to "Let's Pretend" on the radio. One striking encounter, used for "The M.D.", involves his kindergarten teacher at Incarnation School, a nun who disabused her charges of a belief in Santa Claus as pagan idolatry (an early example of faith meeting fiction which is a recurrent theme in Disch's work). A polio epidemic in the summer 1946 meant his mother confined him indoors and used it as an opportunity to teach him to read. His unexpected advanced literacy meant he skipped straight from kindergarten to second grade when he returned to Incarnation School.

In 1948 the family moved to 706 North Main Street in Fairmont, Minnesota when his father got a job selling insulation and Quonset housing. Thomas was aware that this was not the best area of Fairmont, and self -references to being a writer hailing from the wrong sides of the literary tracks often recur. Thomas went to St Paul's Convent School from 4th to 8th grade. As a junior free-thinker he found himself in conflict with the school authorities, but he would, in retrospect, be grateful for the firm grounding in grammar the nuns drilled into him. To earn money when he was ten, Thomas delivered newspapers (a significant plot device in "On Wings Of Song") and he would graduate when he was a little older to being a door-to-door magnetic potholder salesman (vide "The Businessman"). One of the friends he made while delivering newspapers was Bruce Burton. Thomas and Bruce would play Story Tag, and when Bruce's contributions suddenly soared ahead in invention it was eventually revealed that he had been cribbing from "Astounding Science Fiction.". While Thomas had been an avid reader, this was his introduction to science fiction which would be his passion during 7th and 8th grades, which happily coincided with the heyday of Asimov, Bester, Heinlein et al. Going to see "The Greatest Show on Earth", a film banned by the Legion of Decency would instigate one of his first major crises of faith in 1952.

In 1953, just before Thomas would start high school, the family moved to the Twin Cities. His first year of high school at Alexander Roseville was undistinguished academically, but his algebra teacher introduced him to the wonders of classical music and opera., just one means of distinguishing himself from his family. The next year, his sophomore year, he asked to switch to Cretin, a Catholic military high school. Thomas avoided the military part of the curriculum by playing tenor saxophone in the school band. Thomas had a number of altercations with his Cretin biology teacher, Brother Anthony, and when he was excluded from Brother's Anthony's classes Thomas used it as an opportunity to read authors from the Church's Index of Forbidden Authors. Thomas would finally have left the Catholic Church by the age of fifteen and so in his junior year he transferred to Central High School. In the summer between Cretin and Central High School he got a job as a library page at St Paul Public Library, where one day he was dragooned into being the audience for a lecture by Anna Andahazy, formerly of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. He so fell in love with ballet that his last two years of high school were spent in evening and weekend ballet classes, which study Disch would claim as the major defining experience of his adolescence, developing self-discipline in an artistic endeavour, and introducing him to older non-conformists. Meanwhile, in his junior year at high school, his English teacher encouraged his fascination for poetry and drama. Disch would even visit the poet Allen Tate at the University of Minnesota to get his blessing for a career in poetry. Disch received his high school diploma in 1957. He then worked that summer as a trainee structural steel draftsman to save up for a move to New York City.

In Manhattan he moved into an apartment on West 88th Street with three friends, dancers from the Andahazy school who had come to make their careers. While his friends studied at the Metropolitan Opera Disch worked at a book store and also took a night job at the "Daily Mirror" newspaper. One of his friends got him a few "supering"-ing jobs at the Metropolitan Opera, so Disch could later claim to have appeared in "Swan Lake" with Dame Margot Fonteyn (but only as a spear carrier), as well as blacking up for "Don Giovanni (suggesting the "phonies" in "On Wings of Song") and as a slave in the Bolshoi Ballet's "Spartacus". Just before his eighteenth birthday Disch lost his virginity to an English actor. Upset by his sexuality and lack of career prospects, he joined the army. After about a month he realised that joining the army had been a mistake. He confessed his homosexuality, but when this didn't earn his immediate discharge, he went AWOL, but returned before it became desertion. After a brief spell at Governor's Island and threats of suicide, he was sent to a combination prison and mental hospital at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he enjoyed the vivid company and arts therapy (all of which may have some bearing upon "Camp Concentration"). Disch was eventually discharged in May 1958 and he returned to New York City where he found employment working in as cloakroom attendant at the Majestic Theatre, which gave him free access to the run of Broadway. Acting upon vague impulses, he passed an examination and won free tuition to study as an architect at Coopers Union but dropped out after about six weeks.

By the summer of 1959 he had a job at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, that paid for evening classes to NYU Washington Square College, where he was editor of the evening student newspaper and president of the evening student council. His first required course in World History inspired him to change his major from English to History. One of his evening class courses was on "The Novella", to which he submitted the science fiction story "The Cthonian Smell" (a forerunner of "Et in Arcadia Ego") as a term paper, and where one of his fellow classmates was John Clute. Disch's extracurricular activities combined with good grades led to a full-tuition scholarship to the NYU day school. In his junior year he took a course "The Quest for Utopia" to which he submitted "A Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the USA" that would be published later in "Fantastic" magazine. In May 1962, he had a "breakdown", when instead of cramming for mid-terms or seeking some kind of escape from NYU, he felt compelled to try and write a publishable short story. The result was "The Double Timer", and while it was returned by "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" it was accepted by Cele Goldsmith, the editor of "Fantastic" and "Amazing" magazines, who bought it for $112.50, his first sale. "The Double Timer" appeared in "Fantastic" October 1962. Cele Goldsmith would also publish the first short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Zelazny the same year.

Disch did not return to NYU, and instead took jobs as an insurance claims adjuster, a bank teller, and a proof reader/copy editor at the National Industrial Conference Board to support his writing habit, with further sales to Cele Goldsmith or else not at all. His second attempt at a story, "White Fang Goes Dingo" was rejected, but after revisions would be printed in 1965 and then expanded to appear as a novel. Disch, Clute and Pamela Zoline shared an apartment on Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson, from autumn 1962 to spring 1963 (which is interpreted in the later short story "Slaves"). Cele Goldsmith discouraged him from continuing his first attempt in spring of 1963 at a science fiction novel, "A Game of Armageddon" (a Pohl-Kobluth style satire about advertising executives promoting mass suicide as the world votes on a referendum for nuclear self-annihilation). In summer of 1963 he briefly returned to Minnesota, where he befriended John Sladek, had a job as a mortuary attendant, and played the part of "Cowboy" in "The Connection", the avant-garde Firehouse Theater's inaugural production. His first published poem would be in the Summer 1964 "Minnesota Review". When he returned to New York, an old friend from the Metropolitan Opera, David Leddick, a rising advertising executive, gave him advice and an introduction for a job in advertising. A prospective advert promoting the virtues of Campbell's Pork and Beans rubbed into one's face as the secret of a good complexion earned Disch a post in October 1963 as a trainee copywriter at the advertising agency of Doyle Dane Bernbach. Disch managed to keep the job for over a year with a weekly salary of $100 and would write ads for Volkswagen, the Lowry Organ, Nikolai Vodka, and Hartmann Luggage. Copy writing taught him skills of revision, compression and surprise, which meant he began to write poetry that was publishable. Several stories that Disch had published under the pseudonym "Dobbin Thorpe" in "Amazing", particularly "Now is Forever", earned him an invitation to the 1964 Milford SF Writers Conference. Milford was an annual workshop organised by the editor and writer Damon Knight where the more literary science fiction writers could meet and network. There Disch had his first encounter with scientology, faced a little sibling rivalry with Harlan Ellison (cf. Ellison's "A Time for Daring", The Book of Ellison..."Tom Disch, who couldn't write his way out of a pay toilet if he had to..."), and, most importantly, was taken up by Damon Knight who contracted his first novel, "The Long Harvest" for Berkeley Books, a paperback house. In November 1964, Disch sublet his apartment to John Sladek. Disch then flew to Mexico, where with his advance of $750, he rented a villa in Amecameca previously rented and recommended by his editor at the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", Avram Davidson. There in the shadow of two volcanoes, he finished the novel, now titled "The Genocides", just before his twenty-fifth birthday. Having mailed the manuscript to NY, he went through a beachcomber phase, travelling with Tony Clark, a dashing conman acquaintance, through Guatemala, British Honduras and climbed Aztec pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula. After a dull but brief spell spent with the drunks and wastrels at the artist's colony in San Miguel de Allende, Disch booked a passage liner back to NYC, returning to his apartment and his friend, John Sladek.

"The Genocides" was published in 1965. It stood out as an alien invasion story in which the few remaining humans are implacably and disinterestedly annihilated in the course of an anonymous alien invasion to convert the Earth into industrial farming territory. Judith Merrill, editor of the annual "Best SF" anthology and one of the arbiters of the growing taste for more literary sf, gave "The Genocides" an almost breathless and extended rave review in the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", calling it a "truly outstanding first novel and an easy contender for best novel of the year by anyone." To balance that, Algis Budrys, the house-reviewer for "Galaxy" magazine abominated the book as a fashionable and less talented exercise in nihilism-manqué aping the real originality of the then emergent J.G.Ballard.

Disch worked the summer and autumn of 1965 at another ad agency saving up money to travel Europe with Sladek. Sladek and Disch shared the same sense of humour and collaborated on several minor short stories, as well as drawing up outlines of novels to sell. By October Disch had contracts for four novels: a clichéd gothic romance, The House That Fear Built to be written with John Sladek as "Cassandra Knye"; to expand his short story "White Fang Goes Dingo" into "The Puppies of Terra", (which would be published in its paperback original under the slightly dubious title "Mankind Under the Leash"); "Echo Round His Bones"; and "Camp Concentration"; as well as working with John Sladek on a satirical racial thriller, "Black Alice" published in 1968 under the joint pseudonym "Thom Demijohn". John Sladek and Disch sailed to Casablanca, writing "The House That Fear Built", whose background draws upon Disch's time in Amecameca. The two moved to the Costa Del Sol where Disch expanded "The Puppies of Terra", another alien invasion, but one where humans have become pampered pets, a story full of humour and literary allusions. It was during a painful recovery from hepatitis contracted from polluted sea food that Disch wrote "Echo Round His Bones", his variation on the traditional sf techno-thriller. In the spring of 1966 Disch and Sladek caught a boat from Gibraltar to London, where they would meet up with John Clute and Pamela Zoline. There they all became part of the "New Worlds" crowd, since Judith Merrill had provided Disch and Sladek an introduction to Michael Moorcock, the magazine's editor. "New Worlds" was the British arm of the New Wave of science fiction, bringing the excitement of sex, drugs, rock n'roll and a knowledge of literary modernism to science fiction. At "New Worlds" Disch found an outlet for those of his short stories which had been unpublishable in American markets such as "The Squirrel Cage", "A1" and "Linda, Daniel and Spike". Alongside J.G. Ballard, Disch soon became one of the idols of the British New Wave of science fiction. Moorcock was also the editor of Disch's first collection of short stories "102 H-Bombs", and Disch would occasionally provide lyrics and poems for some of Moorcock's later books.

In summer 1966, Disch holidayed in Amsterdam, Switzerland and Germany. He then settled in the ski resort of Reutte in the Tyrolean Alps with Sladek and wrote much of "Camp Concentration". The sale of a short-short story to "Playboy" afforded him enough to take a break of a week in Paris. Following the death of Disch's mother in the late autumn of 1966, he and Sladek returned to a flat share in Camden, where Disch completed "Camp Concentration" by the early spring of 1967. The book is set in the near future and is set in the form of a journal by the poet, Louis Sachetti, who has been jailed because of his conscientious objection to an American war in Asia. Sachetti is soon moved to another military complex, where he finds himself participating in an experiment to use a syphilitic-derivative to enhance human intelligence at the expense of a rapid death. The book alludes heavily to Marlowe's and Thomas Mann's treatment of the Faust legend. The journal format allows Disch to indulge in stylistic pyrotechnics and employ various narrative sharp turns, besides incorporating a wide range of cultural allusions and meditations on death. Though much overlooked at the time "Camp Concentration" is now recognised as one of the classics of science fiction. The book however was not acceptable to its contracted publisher, Berkeley, and so it would appear in 1967 in "New Worlds", for whom Disch had effectively been writing it. It would be published in small hardback runs in England in 1968, and America in 1969. [Disch's disappointment at the book's treatment led him to declare it ineligible for any of the major American science fiction awards **, though] it would win the Australian 1969 Ditmar Award.

About the time of his 27th birthday, Disch briefly fell in love with the poet Lee Harwood (who is referenced in "Camp Concentration"). The affair lasted about six weeks and then Harwood said he would be happier with his heroin habit (which may be reflected in Disch's story "Colors".) In spring 1967 Disch began work on a new novel, "The Pressure of Time", a rich attempt at portraying a world where immortality is a fact, and its characters thwarted in love. Disch would briefly visit Ireland (apparently uncongenial). Disch was still looking for other places to distract him, and Samuel R. Delany suggested Istanbul. Disch went alone to Istanbul at the end of 1967 in the hope of writing a travel book and more of "The Pressure of Time". He made little headway with either and he returned to London, where drawing upon his experience, he wrote "The Asian Shore". It was about this time he first got the tattoos which would make for such an imposing sight in his author photos.

In the summer of 1968 he returned to the US, and upon visiting the Milford Convention, rented the house belonging to Damon Knight. He shared the house with James Sallis, a younger, admiring writer, and Sallis's wife and son (which would all contribute to the short story "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece". Disch also struck up a friendship at Milford with Marilyn Hacker, Samuel Delany's wife, whose poetic example would direct Disch's own efforts into more formal verse. At the age of 28, Disch finally learnt to drive. In spring 1969 Disch returned to New York City. There he had several brief and unsuccessful affairs which led to a term with a therapist (of the Alexander Lowen school, which is referenced in "Angouleme"). Disch spent a little time associating with the largely unsatisfactory second generation of "New York School" poets (which would fuel his later "The Joycelin Schrager Story".) During this period, Disch had been largely unable to proceed with his own work and had only been able to write two paperback novelisations. "The Prisoner" was an adaptation of the cult TV series, which coincidentally shared certain themes with Disch's work, and it was published under his own name. "Alfred the Great" was a novelisation of the historical film and appeared as by "Victor Hastings". He had a brief role as a wrestler in a film "To Smithereens". On 20 September, 1969 Disch met and fell in love with Charles (Charlie) Naylor. The two moved in together in Disch's apartment in Sheridan Square. Living and writing for Naylor gave Disch the encouragement to return to the milieu of his 1965 short story "The Problems of Creativeness" and complete the next in the series which had stalled, "Emancipation." In May 1970, he drove from New York to Los Angeles in the company of Marilyn Hacker and Charles Platt, with whom he wrote the collaborative sonnets published in "Highway Sandwiches". The final monument to Disch's youthful writerly associations of "all geniuses together" was the two hand-mimeographed magazines he self-published in 1969 and 1970, "Just Friends", where all the contributors came from his circle of acquaintances, intimates and writerly friends.

Disch continued to write the series of six interlinked novellas that would comprise 334. The individual instalments appeared in most of the significant paperback anthologies of the "New Wave" in the early 1970s. "334" was published in hardback in the UK in 1972, then in paperback in the US in 1974, on each occasion to widespread and staggering indifference. The stories concentrate on the lives of characters living in a rigorously realised near future New York City, where the well-intentioned scientist welfare-paternalism of "Brave New World" only exacerbates the intractable social problems of "Last Exit to Brooklyn". Disch steadfastly refuses to offer any easy solutions, only razor-sharp observation. "334" would also be recognised as one of the classics of science fiction. In 1978 Samuel Delany would pay it the complement of writing an entire volume of criticism, "The American Shore". around one of the stories, "Angouleme", in the manner of Roland Barthes's "S/Z".

By the early 70s Disch had found venues for his poetry outside of the science fiction magazines and fanzines, and tiny local arts magazines. As "Tom Disch", his poems were appearing in national poetry magazines, such as "Poetry". In 1972 he won the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize and published his first volume of poetry, The Right Way to Figure Plumbing (so titled for Emil Disch's The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, for many years the only book by anyone named Disch to be found in library catalogues). An article in 1971 meant that he could also say he had appeared as a fashion model in "G.Q.". During the '70s he edited five anthologies (two of which with Charlie) that addressed science fiction themes, ecology, dystopias, utopias, and the debt to Edgar Allen Poe, in which contributions from science fiction writers mingled with those of major mainstream authors and a few pseudonymous offerings by Disch and Naylor. Science fiction became a university subject in the 70s, and though Disch had no university degree he would teach courses on science fiction and its writing at the University of Minnesota (1973), Wesleyan in Connecticut (1975), numerous summer Clarion SF Writers Workshops, and he would expand his work into a multi-media teaching package for Scholat (Prentice-Hall) as "Science Fiction: Familiar, Strange and Possible" in 1977.

After many contracts with different publishers over the years, Disch signed a major contract with Knopf in the mid-70s, who were intent on making him a major author. Articles and stories would appear in "Paris Review", "Rolling Stone", "Harpers" and many other national magazines away from science fiction. "Getting Into Death" had appeared as a short story collection in the UK in 1973 (contents significantly revised for US publication in 1976), and its title story (about a writer of gothic thrillers called Cassandra Knye, to some degree based on Judith Merill) won the O. Henry Award in 1975. Disch and Naylor continued to travel between the US, the UK, and spent repeated periods in Italy where Disch attempted more work on his ambitious "The Pressure of Time", and wrote his Victorian novel "Clara Reeve". At the urging of his editors at Knopf "Clara Reeve" was published in 1975 under the pseudonym of "Leonie Hargreave". This obvious subterfuge led critics and reviewers to wonder as to the identity of "Leonie Hargreave", and Gore Vidal was authoritatively offered as one possibility. "Clara Reeve" was also published as a Book of the Month and was for many years Disch's most commercially successful book.

While living in London in the later 1970s, Disch began to review science fiction, novels and poetry for the New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement; a practice which he always claimed helped him to maintain a moral, literary, and personal purity against the self-servings of cliques. His short story "Xmas" won the 1977 O. Henry Prize. In 1976 Disch was working on his science fiction novel "On Wings of Song", when he and Naylor had a lunch with Laurie Graham, an editor at Scribners. Disch and Naylor come up with the idea of a novel exploring the intricate social relations between the many authors and artists who lived in Chelsea in the mid-19th century, and which would also explore the responsibilities of artists to their spouses. Graham contracted the book, "Neighbors", but when Disch told Knopf that he felt honour-bound to complete this one book for Scribners, Knopf's response was devastating. Knopf dropped Disch, with some not very veiled threats that the work he had done for "The Pressure of Time" and "On Wings of Song" effectively belonged to them and that Disch's reputation would assuredly be damaged. Disch completed "On Wings of Song", and the pair relayed writing duties on "Neighbors". Much of the work done on "The Pressure of Time" was published as novella-sized segments in various late 70s science fiction anthologies. Disch's novel, "On Wings of Song" is a quasi-autobiographical science fiction bildungsroman – its ironic exploration of the dreams of art in a repressive fundamentalist future America, and its frank portrayal of homosexuality make it unique. Numerous publishers rejected it as too literary, demanding or "faggotty". Eventually Disch would turn to the science fiction magazines, and it was published in instalments in the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in 1978. "On Wings of Song" was finally published as a book in 1979, just a little too late to be recognised with the "Violet Quill" group of emergent gay authors including Edmund White. "On Wings of Song" though would be nominated for a National Book Award and won the 1980 John W. Campbell, Jr. Memorial Award (fortunately only decided by a small committee of academic critics and sf writers.) It was in 1979 that John Clute wrote his lasting assessment of Disch in the "Science Fiction Encyclopaedia": He is perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern sf writers of the first rank: his reputation can only grow. He has won no awards." Disch had also written a whimsical children's story, "The Brave Little Toaster" in early 1978, and after it was rejected by every publisher, Disch finally published it in the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction". Its cheery whimsical can-do ethos won the 1981 British Science Fiction Award. The story was optioned by Disney, meaning it would not be published in book format until the feature film was released. Toward the end of 1978, Disch and Naylor returned to New York City, and settled into the apartment in Union Square where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Having finally finished "Neighboring Lives" (the title changed since Thomas Berger had published his own novel "Neighbors" in 1980), in late 1979 Disch effectively retired from writing for a year, doing little else but learning to paint. 1980 saw the publication of "Fundamental Disch", a retrospective of much of his best short fiction edited by his colleague, the writer and critic, Samuel Delany. His poem "On Science Fiction" won the 1981 Rhysling Award for Excellence in Science Fiction / Fantasy Poetry. Building upon an earlier collaboration ("The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1975), Disch wrote the libretto for "Frankenstein", an opera by Greg Sandow, finally performed in 1982. In early 1982, Disch wrote "A Troll of Surewould Forest: A Post-Modern Pantomime for the Reading Impaired" in a five month burst of energy. Its deliberately woozy didacticism and reconfiguring of crass genre science fiction stereotypes reads like "The Phantom Tollbooth" written for "National Lampoon" magazine. Disch would often claim it as his favourite novel, for the sheer pleasure its writing brought him, but the book was to remain a hostage to assorted publisher's contracts and would only see print when published in instalments in "Amazing" magazine in 1992 to celebrate his thirtieth anniversary as writer. From May 1982 to February 1985 he was book reviewer for "Twilight Zone Magazine", surveying much of the contemporary horror, fantasy and science fiction scene. When Philip K. Dick, an author whom Disch had championed repeatedly, died in 1982 Disch worked to institute the annual Philip K. Dick Award for best original science fiction paperback to commemorate his passing. Disch would be on the first judging panel, but would claim the next year that the ghost of Dick came to him in dream, saying it was time for another judge to take Disch's place. In 1983 Disch also edited the Singularities series of short stories published by Toothpaste Press: "Ringtime" by himself, and "Straka Prospekt" by Richard A. Lupoff.

In autumn 1983 he was contracted by Harper & Row to write an interactive computer novel, "Amnesia". "The Businessman: A Tale of Terror", an idea about a ghost child which had gone through assorted variations since 1969, was published as a novel in 1984. "The Businessman" was set in modern-day Minnesota, where a slovenly husband's murder of his wife conjures up an array of ghosts, including that of the poet John Berryman, while the novel's incessant wild invention and narrative twists are balanced by an afterlife as satirically arbitrary and banal as the American mid-West. Disch's production of poetry was still prolific but it was only in the UK that his collections of poetry were published. His fourth in three years, "Here I Am, There You Are, Where Are We" in 1984 was a UK Poetry Book Society Choice. Collections of his poetry by Harper & Row, Doubleday and Dial would all fail to materialise. The collapse of his contract at Harper & Row would also include "Amnesia" when Harper also closed their electronics division, but "Amnesia" was bought up by Electronic Arts and released in 1986. 1986 would also see the publication of two other long delayed projects, both children's books: "The Brave Little Toaster", to coincide with the film, and the narrative poem "The Tale of Dan De Lion".

In 1987 he came to the public's attention because of his essay "The Village Alien" in "The Nation" which deflated and satirised Whitley Streiber's popular account of alien abduction. Disch was to feature regularly in "The Nation" from April '87 to February '93 in the post of theatre critic, and would also write occasional scrutinies of the social and political aspects of contemporary science fiction. Disch further continued his sallies against UFOlogy in a screenplay, "Missing Hours" for the television series "Miami Vice" later that same year. From September 1987 to November 1988 he served in the book review column of "Playboy". He was a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle from 1988 to 1991 and served as its Secretary from 1989-1991. 1988 also saw the publication of "The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars" by Doubleday, which would also be turned into an animated feature. Disney asked for other projects, and Disch devised a treatment of Hamlet transferred to lions in Africa. Unfortunately, his "King of the Kalahari" was only written as work-for-hire and so Disch would never see more than the original $5000 for what would eventually become "The Lion King". In March 1989 Disch was an American Participant for the United States Information Service, visiting India, Pakistan, and Israel, during which he wrote the short sequence of shapshot poems collected in "Haikus of an AmPart" (1991). Having reviewed theatre, Disch wanted to try to write plays. He wrote a small grand-guignol effort, "The Audition", and his first major play was an adaptation of Ben Hur, performed by RAPP in 1989. However, it was a monologue by an alcoholic priest excoriating Catholic policy, "The Cardinal Detoxes", which was to bring him sudden notoriety. The monologue was performed by RAPP Theater in NYC in spring 1990, but when it was reprised in the autumn, headlines were made. The Catholic Church, as landlord of the theatre where it was being performed, evicted the company and locked them out of the building. The story made headlines and Disch would appear in newspapers and on the radio, and the monologue be reprinted in "Best New American Poetry". Disch finally found an American publisher for his poetry at John Hopkins University Press. Johns Hopkins would publish a retrospective of his poetry career to date, "Yes Lets" in 1989, and "Light Verses and Dark" in 1991. They went on to reprint "Neighboring Lives". An attempt to print a collection of his science fiction criticism came to nothing when the manuscript was sent to Samuel Delany for evaluation who promptly sat on it for over two years.

"The M.D.: A Horror Story", a return to the Supernatural Minnesota of "The Businessman", was delayed for two years as Disch switched from Doubleday to finally return to Knopf, and the book was published in 1991. It blurred science fiction and horror motifs, and picked details from much of Disch's childhood, to examine the manner in which individuals and society are ripe for corruption. With a substantial blurb from Stephen King, it found Disch a mass audience. In 1992, after a lifetime of renting or travelling, Disch bought a house, evocative of those from his childhood, in Barryville in upstate New York. The poems written in or about his new residence were collected in "The Dark Old House" (1996). "Big Ideas and Dead End Thrills", an essay printed in "The Atlantic" in 1992 elicited much debate in the science fiction community with arguments that were to flower into "The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of". "The Priest: A Gothic Romance", the third in his Supernatural Minnesota series, published in 1994, invited further controversy. Disch brought the grand guignol anticlericism of the gothic novel up-to-date with a prescient examination of paedophilia in the Catholic church, while also finding space to mock UFO cultists and Scientology. "The Castle of Indolence: On Poets, Poetry and Poetasters" was published in 1995,a collection of his criticisms of poetry and the poetry establishment, acutely indicating sensitive spots in the former and sickness in the latter, and was nominated for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Disch was the "Class of 1939" Artist in Residence at the College of William and Mary, Virginia for the academic year of 1995-96. 1997 finally saw the publication of "A Child's Garden of Grammar", a series of poems first printed in the early '90s in "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine". The poems were Disch's witty instructions about the different forms of grammar and the book was vivaciously illustrated by David Morice (an artist much commended during Disch's stint as reviewer at "Twilight Zone Magazine"). "A Child's Garden of Grammar" was instrumental in Disch winning the 1999 biennial Michael Braude Award for Light Poetry.

Disch returned to prominence in the science fiction world in 1998 with "The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World", an expansion, much in the vein of Martin Gardner's sceptical books, on ideas and criticisms first advanced in the liberal The Nation. "The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World" won him the Locus and Hugo Awards for 1999. It also impressed WNYC radio producer David Garland who gave Disch a regular slot for radio commentaries in 1999, in which he spoke about everything from books he read, operas, and personal reminiscences to current politics and social trends. David Garland would also produce a spoken word CD, ""Can You Hear Me, Think Tank Two?" (2001). His short story "The First Annual Performance Art Festival at Slaughter Rock Battlefield" won the 1999 Puschcart Prize. His Union Square apartment was gutted by a fire in 1999, accidentally started by the actress Elizabeth Ashley who lived beneath Naylor and Disch, but insurance would allow them to move back. 1999 also saw the publication of "The Sub: A Tale of Witchcraft", the fourth supernatural Minnesota novel, revolving around child abuse and assorted New Age and feminist shibboleths. It was his last novel for Knopf, and the last novel to be published before his death.

Over the next few years Disch would submit numerous novel proposals but none were accepted. He was able to publish another collection of his poetry criticism, "The Castle of Perseverance: Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry," in 20002, and "On SF", his collected science fiction criticism in 2005. Disch's health suffered setbacks, first worsening arthritis and then diabetes. For about a year and half from 2002- 2004 Disch enjoyed a period as art critic for both the New York journal, "The Weekly Standard" and the newspaper "The NY Sun". Then Charlie was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and died on 6 September, 2005. The Union Square apartment was registered in Naylor's name and so the landlord started procedures to evict Disch, which would go through various appeals until Disch's death. During this period, a water pipe burst at his home in Barryville, rot soon set in and it was rendered uninhabitable by mould. In April 2006, several days after his friend John Crowley started a blog, Disch also started his own blog, "Endzone" to which he contributed almost daily as he became more housebound. Summer 2007 saw the publication of "About the Size of It", the first collection of poetry in over a decade. Disch turned to the smaller science fiction presses and contracts were worked out for several small books. An excerpt from a rejected novel about Islamic fundamentalism written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was published as "Mecca/Mettle, with an accompanying CD by thrash metal/sf band BlöödHag (2005). A novella "The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World" was published in 2007 by Subterranean Press. In the summer of 2008 Disch had been doing promotional interviews for his next novel, "The Word of God". Having been unable to contact Disch, for several days, his friend, the poet and editor Ben Downing, let himself into Disch's apartment on July 5th 2008 to discover Disch dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. It is judged that Disch shot himself on July 4th. Obituaries appeared in almost all national newspapers in the US and UK over the next fortnight and there was much discussion on the internet. "The Word of God" was therefore published posthumously. Disch's last collection of short stories, "The Wall Of America" was published in autumn 2008. Another novella, "The Proteus Sails Again: Further Adventures at the End of the World" was published by the end of 2008. His last collection of poetry, "Winter Journey", a cycle of poems written in the wake of Charlie Naylor's death, will be published with accompanying DVD of Disch reading.

[** - this is the only point in all this on which I am a little vague, and it may well be that someone could point out that this wasn't actually in Disch's discretion.]


An easy to follow list of novels and awards.

Secondary Sources

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George W. Barlow, "La Cage de Thomas L'Incredule". Fiction #247, Juillet 1974.

George W. Barlow, "Thomas M. Disch", Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, 2nd. Edition. Curtis C. Smith, ed. St. James Press, 1981. Revised: 1986.

Michael Blaine, "Thomas M. Disch". The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural Jack Sullivan, ed. Viking Press, 1986.

Joseph Bottum , "Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008", Weekly Standard, 21 July 2008

Peter Brigg, "'Redemption's Song': Society and the Creative Elite in Thomas Disch's On Wings of Song". Extrapolation v. 31, # 2 (Summer 1990).

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John Brunner, "One Sense of Wonder, Slightly Tarnished". Books and Bookmen July 1967.

Cy Chauvin, "Thomas M. Disch and Ecology".Gorbett (formerly SF Wave) #6, March 1973.

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Thomas M. Disch's papers are held at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Knopf's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas at Austin
Scribner's papers, and those relating to Disch's treatment by Knopf, are held at Princeton University


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