Just Like Heaven


Getting into Death and other stories by Thomas Disch: Tom Disch’s range as a writer was fairly breathtaking. He wrote in pretty much every genre imaginable, producing fine work in every case, including children’s books (The Brave Little Toaster). Part of the American ‘New Wave’ of science-fiction writers in the 1960’s, he never stopped branching out — and he started branching out pretty early. This collection of Disch short stories from the 1970’s shows off the writer at his wide-ranging best. The title story and several others have no fantastic elements at all, while other stories range from the darkly humorous rewriting of myth (“Apollo”) to sad but weirdly funny ecodisaster (“The Birds”).

All the stories are standouts, though some stories stand out more than others (ha ha). The title story gives one a dying novelist who can’t really be said to have connected with anyone in her life, though her friends and children continue to attempt to connect with her (or believe they already have). “Getting into Death” ends in a thoroughly humane and human manner, though not in any way that one will see coming. “The Planet Arcadia” reads like a demolition of any number of standard science-fiction tropes (First Contact chief among them), its poisonous satire accentuated by the distancing effect of the elevated diction. “Slaves” reads like J.D. Salinger transplanted to the late 1960’s college scene; “Yes” reminds one of the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick.

At least two of the stories could be seen as horror fiction. “Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory” uses a basic situation we see in another Disch short story — “Descending”, not collected here. Quite simply, what happens when one can’t find one’s way out of what is supposed to be a finite space, in this case the graveyard where a brother and sister have gone to lay flowers at their parents’ grave. It’s a dandy and deceptively tricky story. Frankly, I have no idea what’s really going on. “The Alien Shore”, a novella of perhaps 15,000 words, is the masterpiece of the collection, a subtle and ultimately really disturbing tale of alienation, failure and the nature of reality. It’s also a Grade-A mindfuck. This is pretty much as good as a collection of short stories gets. Highly recommended.

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror by Thomas Disch (1984): Disch produced a quartet of novels in the 1980’s and eary 1990’s that were marketed as horror (they’ll return to print in August 2010, so mark your calendar). The Businessman was first, set at the dawn of the Reagan era. In it, the businessman of the title murders his wife Gisele and gets away with it until her ghost finally frees itself from its grave and begins trying to torment him.

Is it horror? Well, sort of. Horror elements abound (ghosts, a murderous husband, seances, ouija boards, psychic readings and a demonic possessing entity chief among them), as do horrific moments. However, so too do lyric moments, meditations on life and death, domestic comedy, farce, and the tragicomic presence of the ghost of the (real) poet John Berryman, who wanders the Earth as a ghost still bearing the injuries of his successful suicide, dying for a stiff drink or three.

Disch’s book review columns for Twilight Zone magazine in the early 1980’s repeatedly demonstrated that Disch had no time for certain horror-genre tropes (or most writers, for that matter — Disch was an entertaining reviewer, but he was also a quintessential Mr. Grumpypants). The novel certainly takes the piss out of a lot of things — ghosts and seances chief among them — while managing to horrify at points even as it satirizes. For instance, stupid people make the best conduits for spiritual communication, we discover, while the purgatorial dyslexia inflicted upon Berryman’s ghost makes his communications as seances pretty much completely nonsensical.

The most striking creation here is the afterlife, or at least the small portion of it that we see. See, there’s what amounts to a greeting area, complete with recovery rooms where newly dead souls get used to their material deadness. The whole thing depends pretty much on the expectations of the dead person and the other souls he or she is dealing with, so that when Gisele’s staunchly middle-American, middle-class Catholic mother arrives in first stage of the afterlife, she pretty much sees it as a cross between a hospital and a hotel. Some souls move rapidly on to the less corporeally oriented levels of heaven; some stick around in the waiting area for awhile; some are doomed to roam the Earth for one reason or another. Jesus makes a cameo, wearing a Salvation Army officer’s uniform, flying in a dirigible. The gateway to heaven rests inside a potholder. It is, all in all, a wild and genre-busting ride. Highly recommended.

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