“Descending,” by Thomas M. Disch (1964) E

Date read: 2.17.10
Read from: The now-defunct scifi.com, or listen online at MindWebs
Reviewer: Emera

I originally found “Descending” through Ellen Datlow’s wonderful online selection of classic sci-fi short fiction, and was aggrieved to discover that with the passing of the original scifi.com, it’s now only available online with the help of the Wayback Machine. But to get on with the real thing –

I’ve always been vaguely leery of escalators (where are those steps really going, when they sink into one another at the bottom? – I had a childhood fear that my feet would get sucked in with them if I didn’t step off quickly enough); Thomas M. Disch’s “Descending” has ensured that I’ll never trust one again. “Descent” begins with an unrepentant debtor’s delinquent spree in a department store, and ends in a state of perfect horror. It’s pleasingly precise and surprisingly rich in its details both of setting and character, packing a huge amount of atmosphere and subtlety into just about 4000 words, and the humor is wicked and ominous. Great stuff – I’ll have to look up more of Disch’s work.

John Schoffstall provides a wonderful reading and historical contextualization of the story here – also brief and rich – and Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus follows up with a quick consideration of how the story works as a piece of short fiction here.

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Thomas M. Disch

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  1. Todd Mason’s avatar

    Well, the story is collected in several of Disch’s books, and was anthologized a number of times after its first appearance in Cele Lalli’s FANTASTIC: STORIES OF IMAGINATION (Ms. Lalli was also the editor to first publish the fantastic-fiction of Ursula Le Guin, Sonya Dorman, Roger Zelazny, Keith Laumer and others, along with Disch). You’ll find it non-virtually without too much trouble.

    I was very happy to be able to correspond briefly with Disch, and terribly sorry for the turn of events which together depressed him enough to make suicide seem a worthwhile option.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    Thanks for the tips, Todd – I’ve definitely been planning on getting a bunch of Disch’s collections at some point. I just addressed the question of Internet accessibility here because when I do stand-alone short story reviews, I usually select works that are available online legally, so that readers can access them easily. If you have any recommendations as to where to start with his collections and novels, they are most welcome!

    That’s wonderful that you were able to write to him – I always feel enormously privileged when I’m able to correspond with my favorite writers. And yes, I was very shocked and saddened to read of his suicide.

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  3. Nelson’s avatar

    You can hear an audio version of Descending among the MindWebs radio show collection at:
    http://otrarchive.blogspot.com/2009/05/mindwebs.html
    There are links for the audio files.

    Reply

  4. Kevin Fleming’s avatar

    The Mindwebs audio version is absolutely fantastic. I have listened to it more times than I can count. LIsten to it while in bed and as you descend into sleep, the story becomes even more ominous!

    Reply

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