Thomas M. Disch was born in Iowa, but both sides of his family were originally from Minnesota, and he moved back there when he was an adolescent. Although he only lived in the Twin Cities area for a few years, the state left an impression on him, and between 1984 and 1999 he veered away from the science fiction for which he had become best known to write four dark fantasy novels which have become collectively known as the “Supernatural Minnesota” sequence. The University of Minnesota Press recently republished the entire quartet, and Beatrice.com’s Ron Hogan has set out to revisit each novel in turn, starting with The Businessman, The M.D., and The Priest.
Just as The Businessman and The Priest both begin with a woman in a cemetery, the opening chapter of The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft (1999) echoes The M.D. Both scenes take place in a classroom in the Twin Cities suburb of Willowville as a teacher shatters the illusions of her students. This time, instead of a nun breaking the truth to kindergartners about Santa Claus, a substitute teacher named Diana Turney is using “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to explain the stark reality behind where hamburgers come from.
Diana is one of the most unlikeable characters in Disch’s four Minnesota novels, which takes some doing, but then he has stacked the deck against her heavily, especially in the smugness and arrogance departments. Even the one aspect that might elicit some sympathy turns out to be a lie: She isn’t afraid of the smokehouse behind the family farm, 200 miles north of the Twin Cities in Leech Lake, because that’s where her father sexually abused her when she was twelve, as she first claims—it’s because that’s where she left him to die because he wouldn’t take her to a friend’s birthday party. So when she discovers that a dose of mandrake has escalated her Wiccan dabblings into the ability to turn people into animals, she applies her newfound powers with even quicker selfishness than young Billy Michaels in The M.D.
The Sub also marks the occasional return of the omniscient narrator from The Businessman, the voice who temporarily suspends events to explain the rules of his fictional universe. “Wherever sheer intimidation is at a premium, witches flourish,” Disch tells us. “They have always been the best sales personnel and trial lawyers and the most effective nursery school teachers. This is doubly true of those who have become conscious of their gifts and know themselves to be witches—as Diana now did.” But her apparent domination of the men she always considered pigs and now keeps castrated in a pen, along with a young man named Alan she keeps in thrall but is unable to transform, is as the plot progresses a masterful bit of misdirection on Disch’s part. Let’s just say that the title isn’t only referring to her teaching job.
Ghosts are another point of commonality with The Businessman, but there is no fanciful afterlife with dead poets to guide us to heaven as in that novel. Now, the dead remain behind because they are hungry for more death. “There were certain people he still wanted to hurt,” Disch says of one such spirit kicking around Diana’s farm. And just as Glandier’s demon spawn could force his consciousness into animals and small children, there are shamans in the Native American community around Leech Lake who are uniquely bonded to the crow… and who are much more familiar with their powers than the impulsive Diana.
Back when we were discussing The Businessman, I cited John Berryman’s role in the novel in the context of Thomas Disch’s own suicide in 2008, and suggested that the theme would have continued relevance as the supernatural Minnesota sequence progressed. Indeed, late in The M.D., Billy’s mother kills herself with sleeping pills (washed down with brandy diluted in holy water, but you’ll have to read for yourself to find out why), while The Priest spotlights a pregnant teenage girl named Alison who turns to pills after her fiancé “tried to make her choose between the Church and marrying him.” After waking up, however, “she knew with absolute certainty that she would never, ever do such a dumb thing again.” Alison had always wanted to go dogsledding, you see:
If she killed herself, she would never have been able to realize that dream. Or anything else she’d ever wanted to do. She would never know how things worked out on General Hospital. She would never know what she might look like as a redhead, supposing she could ever get up the nerve to dye her hair. There were hundreds of things she’d never do or know about, and all because she’d had the imbecile idea of killing herself with her mom’s sleeping pills.
(There’s also a quick reference to a priest having attempted to kill himself after realizing he was gay, almost certainly an oblique reference to a similar attempt Disch made as a teenager.)
Diana also contemplates suicide, and Disch presents a vivid depiction of the depression that would drive such thoughts:
Now the blackness had returned like an unwelcome lover, someone you hated but at the same time could not resist… It was there like the moon, noticed only at intervals, but always present, even when you couldn’t see it, pulling at her. Telling her, you’re mine, you’ve always been mine.
During the bleakest part of the winter, she gets to thinking:
What if nothing mattered, really? What if the best idea was to just walk out the exit? What if death was what it seemed to be when you were drunk and listening to the right music? Beautiful all by itself.
She is able to resist, but when scandal threatens to catch up with another character, he decides that death is “the logical answer to an otherwise insoluble problem,” and turns to sleeping pills and brandy—no holy water this time, but he does pour the brandy into a ceramic chalice.
It seems reductive, though, to simply catalog these suicidal tendencies and imply a neat biographical concurrence. I’m drawn back to the idea of Disch’s Minnesota not as a shared universe (although Father Pat from The Priest does have a supporting role here) but as a starting point from which he could explore several themes—in addition to suicide, we might mention Catholicism, or the corrosive nature of power—in different ways. And this could be reaching, but maybe that’s why The Sub is the third of the four novels in which the climax involves a house full of people being set on fire. I still don’t know why that was such a significant image for Disch; if anybody can explain it, I welcome your comments.
For now, my guided tour of supernatural Minnesota has come to an end—but I’ve left plenty of corners unexplored, and I encourage you to make your own expedition.
Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the earliest websites dedicated to discussing books and writers. He is the author of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane! and Getting Right with Tao, a modern rendition of the Tao Te Ching. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness.