Thomas M. Disch’s The M.D.: A Horror Story

My post-doc advisor once suggested that the ultimate sign of a good movie is whether or not it ‘stays’ with you after it’s over.  The same can also be said about good fiction, which will end up haunting the reader long after the last page is turned.

Since I’ve started blogging about horror fiction, I’ve been going back to some of the novels I read when I was much younger, some of which have stayed with me for quite some time.  Recently, I went back to read Thomas M. Disch’s The M.D.: A Horror Story (1991):

The M.D. is one of several novels Disch set in Minneapolis, including The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, The Priest: A Gothic Romance, and The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft. The story itself is one of the oddest you’ll find in horror fiction, containing dark humor, plenty of biting social commentary and, of course, scenes of incredibly nasty horror.  I give a description and some impressions of the novel below.

It is difficult to give a pithy description of The M.D.; the best I can do is to describe it as the love-child of Macbeth and Faust, high on crack — and waving around a monkey’s paw.

The story begins in Sister Mary Symphorosa’s kindergarten class on the last day before Christmas vacation.  Billy Michaels is thrown into a tantrum by the teacher’s rather callous announcement that there is no Santa Claus — the students should believe in God, and not any ‘false idols’.  (Once again proving that truth is stranger, and meaner, than fiction, this scene was acted out in reality recently, as reported on Pharyngula.)

Billy is not upset because his dreams have been shattered, though; he is upset because he has seen Santa Claus, and talks to him on a regular basis.  As he gets a little older, though, Santa reveals himself to in fact be the Roman god Mercury, deity of roads and messengers — and of rogues and thieves.  The symbol of Mercury is the caduceus, which was later incorporated as the symbol of medical science.  In exchange for Billy’s worship, Mercury gives Billy access to his caduceus, in this case a pair of twined sticks with a dessicated sparrow tied to the top, and with it the power to heal — and harm.

The novel follows Billy as he grows up and experiments with this power.  To use the power, the curse invoking it must rhyme (which would make Digital Cuttlefish a formidable foe, if he had a caduceus).  It cannot be used to undo a formerly spoken curse.  It cannot kill… directly, though it may cause disease which leads to death.  Billy’s experiments, for good and ill, lead often to unexpected consequences, even hurting the very people he wanted to help.  Gradually, his use of the powers becomes more and more self-centered, until he has done truly monstrous things in the name of his own personal ambition.  Like many villains, however, he unknowingly sows the seeds of his own destruction in the process.

It is nearly impossible to predict, while reading, where this novel will lead.  As I noted above, it is filled with moments of truly dark humor, sharp social commentary, and unexpected moments of really shocking and nasty horror.

For me, one of the most disturbing parts, which has stayed with me for years, is the childish nature of the rhyming curses.  Billy invokes a curse with globally devastating consequences in the latter part of the novel, and when the original wording of the curse is revealed, it is quite unsettling (and reminiscent of the false urban legend surrounding ‘ring around the rosie‘).

Another effective aspect of the book is its social commentary.  The later chapters concern a future America which is much changed, but still depressingly reasonable.  Descriptions of later schisms in the Catholic church, and the introduction of a new religious cult based on a computer-generated leader, seem quite plausible.

I was saddened to learn, when I started researching this post, that Thomas M. Disch committed suicide this year.  Disch was openly gay since the late 1960s (an impressive and courageous stance), and his longtime partner died in 2005.  After that, Disch himself became increasingly depressed, and apparently killed himself on July 4th or 5th.

It’s a shame we won’t get any more excellent books from this dark and witty author.  I’ll be going back and reading some of his other works over the next few months.  Right now, though, I can say that The M.D. is definitely worth reading.

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6 Responses to Thomas M. Disch’s The M.D.: A Horror Story

  1. Markk says:

    No more Disch? I a saddened. I remember reading Camp Concentration so many years ago. The Brave Little Toaster also comes to mind. He was a great writer to me, with wildly different stories. They all had some kind of subtle humor.

  2. Markk: It is a shame; I feel like I’ve rediscovered Disch’s work just a little too late. I’ll have to check out Camp Concentration, which looks fascinating.

  3. rilaly says:

    I was also impressed with Disch’s M.D. It is one of those novels that will be forgotten over time, perhaps due to the fact that there was never a movie, but it reached me all those years ago when I was reading it…and largely unreachable.

  4. Pingback: Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner | Skulls in the Stars

  5. jonathan montgomery says:

    this novel was fucking evil…A.R.V.I.D.S. IS MY GOD!

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