At NYRSF Readings, a Brave Little Toast to Thomas M. Disch

Henry Wessells

By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Tuesday, February 6th, at its venue, the Brooklyn Commons Café in Brooklyn (somewhere on the Ruins of Earth), the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings Series presented a tribute to the brilliant author and poet Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008), a celebration of his life and work, guest-hosted by Henry Wessells (a past guest curator) and featuring his peers and friends, including his literary executor, readings from his works and a short film.

The evening began with Series Producer and Executive Curator Jim Freund welcoming the crowd to the final session of the Series’ 27th Season, adding that there would be a special Summer Series: .

  • July 3rd – David Mack and Seth Dickinson, guest curated by Amy Goldschlager (a former Curator)
  • August 7th – A Launch Party/Reading for Sunspot Jungle, with guest curator Bill Campbell

As usual, he cautioned us that the event was being Livestreamed (so watch where you scratch) and asked all who could donate to donate (suggested amount $7, but no one gets turned away).

Freund related that he met Tom Disch during his early days at Hour of the Wolf, and that he was among the first ever to read at the NYRSF Reading Series. Disch’s last public appearance was a reading from his new novel, The Word of God, at a NYRSF event on June 3, 2008, 10 years and two days ago. (It was at the Series’ then-venue, the South Street Seaport, and I was privileged to have attended.) In it, Disch was God (and Philip K. Dick was Satan). Sadly, Disch killed himself by gunshot on July 4, 2008 (he referred to the 4th as “the Holiday”) in his Manhattan apartment. He had been depressed since the 2005 death of his partner, Charles (“Charlie”) Naylor; the two had been together for some three decades.

Shifting tone, Freund announced that the evening had “a sponsor,” and proceeded to read (his delivery bringing to mind Johnny Carson’s pitchman character Art Fern) “Fun With Your New Head.” (“Two heads are better than one. … Only $49.95!”)

(On a personal note, the story collection Fun with Your New Head was the first Disch that I ever read; and, it seems, for Elizabeth Hand as well.)

Then Wessells, a short story writer, poet and antiquarian bookseller, assumed his role of host. As well as a writer of prose – which ranged from wildly satirical stories to dark cautionary tales to works for children – Disch was a poet, and “wanted to be remembered as the Thomas Beddoes of death in America.” (Beddoes was a minor Romantic poet. “Americans,” said Disch once, “don’t read poetry, but they love poets.”) The first part of the evening, he announced, would be a panel on his life, followed by a clip from the film Winter Journey.

Gregory Feeley, Elizabeth Hand, John Clute, Henry Wessells

He was joined on stage by John Clute, Gregory Feeley and Elizabeth Hand. Hand, a multiple-award-winning author of novels and collections of short fiction, and reviewer, read a note from John Crowley, “Remembering Tom,” followed by “Ghost Ship,” a story from Disch’s last blog.

John Clute

Clute is variously an author, reviewer, critic, and encyclopedia writer – he is best known for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (the first version of which was published in 1979 and now exists in an online version). He shared that he met Disch in 1961 when they were at NYU, and their friendship continued until Tom’s death. His writing ability was “full-fledged” at 22. He was kind and generous, but he was also quick to end friendships for the littlest reason. He also sent out signals that his death, when it came, would be at his timing and at his own hand.

Elizabeth Hand

Gregory Feeley is a writer of and about science fiction. He is Disch’s literary executor (he had two, one for prose, Feeley, and one for poetry; though sometimes overlooked, poetry was half of Disch’s professional life), and is preparing an edition of Disch’s best short fiction. He met Disch in late 1978, when the Magazine of F&SF announced that they were going to publish On Wings of Song, which they described as “his best and longest novel,” in serial form, and he wrote him a letter, which Disch answered. Wings’ protagonist, Daniel Weinreb, was loosely based on Naylor, though the latter was not “a man without talent.” Clute, armed with laptop, read a very brief reminiscence from Pamela Zoline.

Henry Wessells knew him during the last years of his life. (He was with Disch when he spread Naylor’s ashes.) Though regarded as part of the British New Wave, Camp Concentration was “very much an American book.” Disch lived in New York, London, Spain and Turkey, but he remembered his Midwestern roots (he was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota). Wessells subsequently cited his “Minnesota Quartet,” The Businessman, The M.D., The Priest, and The Sub. (Disch later said that he thought that The Priest was published 10 years too early.) During his lifetime, he won a Hugo (his only one) for a nonfiction work (Best Related Book), for The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, and a John Campbell Award, for On Wings of Song (which received nominations for the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel).

Eric Solstein and Henry Wessells

Filmmaker Eric Solstein, joining Wessells on stage, related that he met Disch at the Sullivan County (aka the Catskills) home that he shared with Naylor, and, after Naylor’s death, Disch asked him to videotape what he called his “suicide note.” The “note,” such as it was, took the form of “a suite of 31 poems,” “a cycle of mourning verse” about Naylor, called Winter Journey, the title of the film as well. Shot with a handheld camera (as was evident), it took, said Solstein, three years to edit it, during which Disch went on with his life. We watched an excerpt, the first three poems. (It may be viewed on Solstein’s YouTube channel.)

Thomas M. Disch on video

During the intermission, a raffle was held for donors, with the prizes being a copy of Samuel R. Delany’s The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch – “Angouleme” (“Angouleme” was a story in 334), and a copy of a video featuring Disch’s NYRSF readings from 1993 and June 3, 2008.

The second half of the evening focused on Disch’s work. Wessells read a note from Delany, an excerpt from The American Shore, praising him as a “raconteur.”

Brendan C. Byrne

Brendan C. Byrne (neither the late Governor of New Jersey nor the since-renamed arena) has written criticism and short fiction. He never knew Disch, except as a reader. He offered an essay on 334. Written in and reflecting 1972 New York, his future Manhattan is a city of shortages and xenophobia (seen in its sterilization policy), and without privacy. Clute added that 334 has to be read against the background of the British New Wave. People aren’t starving, as in typical sf dystopias; it’s an impersonal welfare state, but not malignant. “It’s a complex vision.”

Terence Taylor

On Wings of Song (1979), said Wessells, “is set in an America not unlike our own, but suffering more shortages;” many cities have collapsed. Flying is achieved through rapture in song, but Daniel Weinreb, the protagonist, is not a good enough singer. (Disch, Clute observed, was obsessed with music.) With that, he introduced Terence Taylor, horror writer and the Series’ Tech Director, who took the stage to read an excerpt from the novel.

Wessells then brought his panel (Clute, Feeley and Hand) back on stage, with Byrne joining them, and asked them to cite or recommend Disch works. Byrne said that he was next going to read The Sub. Hand said that “The Roaches” and “The Descending” (in Fun with Your New Head) were the first Disch stories that she read (at 9), adding that we shouldn’t overlook The Brave Little Toaster. (Disch was, we were told, “mad about Paddington Bear;” he and Naylor had stuffed animals. “He was a depressive, but he wanted to be happy.”) She added Neighboring Lives (which he wrote with Charles Naylor). Clute recommended The Word of God, “a minor book, but in its way hilarious,” and Feeley Clara Reeve (written as Leonie Hargrave), which was set in the Victorian Era.

Gregory Feeley, Elizabeth Hand, John Clute, Brendan C. Byrne, Henry Wessells

On a final note, Wessells said that Disch had written a treatment for Disney that generated the original idea for The Lion King. (Well, Hamlet and Kimba the White Lion inspired it too.)

Regrettably, and doubtless embarrassingly, in a bit of strangeness, there were some technical difficulties during the evening, from sudden reverb to lights going on full force.

As traditional, the Jenna Felice Freebie Table offered a slew of books. The audience of perhaps 60 included Melissa C. Beckman (the Readings’ photographer), Moshe Feder, Amy Goldschlager, (House Manager) Barbara Krasnoff, Lissanne Lake and Marco Palmieri. Over the course of the evening, audience members availed themselves of the Café’s food, coffee bar, beer and wine.

That’s about the size of it.

— June 6, 2018

Ed Bryant (1945-2017)

Ed Bryant. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Science Fiction author Ed Bryant, who died in his sleep after a long illness, was found February 10 reports Locus Online.

Bryant discovered science fiction at the golden age of 12 when he purchased the August 1957 issue of Amazing Stories. A decade later, he made his way to the very first Clarion Workshop in 1968, where he sold a story to Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions that became his first professional publication.

John Clute’s entry about Bryant in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia captures one of the reasons for the author’s meteoric ascent in Seventies sf.

His conversational, apparently casual style sometimes conceals the tight construction and density of his best work, like “Shark” (in Orbit 12, anth 1973, ed Damon Knight), a complexly told love story whose darker implications are brought to focus in the girl’s decision to have her brain transplanted into a shark’s body, ostensibly as part of a research project; in the story, symbol and surface reality mesh impeccably. The setting for many of the stories in this collection is a California transmuted by sf devices and milieux into an image, sometimes scarifying, sometimes joyful, of the culmination of the American Dream…

Registering an exception to the overall regard for Bryant’s work was Thomas M. Disch, who named him as part of “The Labor Day Group” (1981), a set of young writers whose work stroked fannish sensibilities, and as a result often won Hugo and Nebula awards. This provoked a response from another Disch target, George R.R. Martin, “Literature, Bowling, and the Labor Day Group”, which gave Bryant a deceptively lighthearted defense.

The Colorado resident was a 7-time nominee for SFWA’s Nebula Award, winning twice – “Stone” (1979) and  “giANTS” (1980) – as well as a 3-time nominee for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. The International Horror Guild Awards named Bryant a Living Legend in 1997.

Bryant has been a prolific short fiction writer whose career has been regularly punctuated by new collections of stories — Among the Dead and Other Events Leading up to the Apocalypse (1973), Cinnabar (1976), Wyoming Sun (1980), Particle Theory (1981), Neon Twilight (1990), Darker Passions (1991), The Baku: Tales of the Nuclear Age (2001), Trilobyte (2014), and Predators and Other Stories (2014).

He regularly contributed to George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, appearing in five different volumes.

His other professional gigs included writing an annual media coverage essay in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology, which he did for over 20 years. He also edited an anthology of original stories and some poems, 2076: The American Tricentennial (1977).

Bryant’s fame did not rest entirely on his writing. He was in great demand as a convention toastmaster, gaining the pinnacle of notoriety by conducting the Denvention Two (1981) Hugo Awards ceremony on roller skates.

[Thanks to  Andrew Porter for the story.]

Conflicted Memories

Sam J. Miller’s “Who Killed Thomas Disch” (at Strange Horizons) is organized around a silly title at the expense of questions Miller himself says have genuine value: “What was really going on? Where do we put the blame? What do we do with our grief? With our guilt?” For it’s the time he spends on those questions that makes the reading worthwhile.

When some of the sf field’s talents die their passing elicits a certain amount of survivor’s guilt, though not in the case of Arthur C. Clarke, or others who achieve literary fame and fortune. But I remember a friend of the late Roger Zelazny speaking with bitterness and guilt about the last days of this great writer of sf short stories, as if they personally and society at large hadn’t done enough.

Some of that emotion permeates Miller’s piece about Disch, a richly-detailed, but ultimately question-begging exploration of the late sf writer’s last days. After all, most people enduring the same conditions do not kill themselves, so while much can be suggested nothing can be proved. I found Miller’s essay challenging and interesting (I wouldn’t write about it if I thought it wasn’t worth your time), though it would have been more satisfying (to me, anyway) if Miller had been governed by his own conclusion:

While I’d love to turn Disch’s death into one more argument in favor of expanded rent-control laws, or better tenant protections, or gay marriage (the surviving half of a married straight couple, in Disch’s situation, would be far better situated to fend off eviction attempts), there’s something creepy about reducing a human being to a weapon in the service of a political agenda. My need to find a scapegoat for his death does Disch a disservice. Disch’s life, like his work, was defiantly resistant to outside influence. From the very start of his writing career we see someone willing to slaughter sacred cows and name names and subvert all expectations, and it’s selfish to wish he’d given us a happy ending.

Disch Appreciation by Moshe Feder

Moshe Feder wrote about Thomas Disch’s death in a post on his LiveJournal, “Grains” (and in a comment on Disch’s last post to his own LJ, “Endzone.”) I asked permission to quote him here in full, and Moshe not only said yes, he generously worked up a slightly revised and expanded version:

Moshe Feder: I was saddened on Monday night, July 7th, to learn that Tom Disch had left us, dying by his own hand the previous Friday. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time and had no idea what a difficult time he’d been having. Here’s a link to the New York Times obituary:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/books/08disch.html

Tom was, in my estimation, a genius. There were few writers I was more in awe of, and more nervous about meeting. Could I say anything that would possibly be of interest to him? But Tom was as gracious and sweet to me as he was brilliant and acerbic to the world, and always treated me like an equal, which I definitely am not.

Talking to him anywhere was a delight, as was sharing a lively convention panel, and I’ll always treasure the memory of the time he invited me up to his hotel room for drinks and a couple of hours of serious literary conversation. I’m not much of a drinker, so I sipped as slowly as I could, and tried to get him to do as much of the talking as possible.

It was particularly a privilege to review his books, and thereby be among the first to read them. In my opinion, his masterpiece was On Wings Of Song, a great novel of the 20th century — period, full stop. It was also, incidentally, one of the greatest SF novels ever written; and surely one of the most affecting. It should have won all our awards. With all due respect to Arthur, it’s a travesty that it lost the both the Nebula and the Hugo to Clarke’s The Fountains Of Paradise.

It’s ironic that Tom’s only Hugo win was for a work of nonfiction, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a typically brilliant book that I couldn’t quite agree with. His was the tragedy of many of our field’s best writers. Only the literary crowd was capable of appreciating what they are achieving, only the sf/fantasy audience would want to.

Nevertheless, it’s the novels and the stories he’ll be remembered for. I’m confident they’ll stand the test of time.

I’ve been wondering if he chose Independence Day deliberately. It would be well within the compass of his oh-so-sardonic wit to have a final joke by choosing that day to ‘go off with a bang.’ In any case, from now on, the Fourth of July will always have a Tom-shaped shadow lurking in it.

His friends and his readers will miss him, and the work he might yet have done.