BLACK ALICE (1968) by Thomas M. Disch and John T. Sladek

Disch-Sladek_Black-Alice-C&GWhen Todd Mason wrote on his Sweet Freedom blog about the neglect of SF writer Thomas M. Disch, this immediately struck a chord. I realised that not only did I know very little of the man’s work but that what little I had read of his was from a very long time ago. So it is a great pleasure to be able to include one of his books at Fedora, a collaboration with John Sladek, another overlooked SF author who strayed into the mystery genre. It was originally published as by ‘Thom Demijohn’ and begins on the last day of school …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“When grown-ups could be so stupid, sometimes it seemed the course of wisdom to remain a child”

Both a clever thriller and a wicked social satire, Black Alice ingeniously fuses Lewis Carroll with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the mid 1960s to produce what is certainly one of the best – and best-written – thrillers I’ve read this year. The novel – subtitled ‘an evil fairytale’ – tells the story of Alice, the eleven-year-old heir to a vast fortune. Her grandfather decided to skip a generation, disappointed by the marriage of his hypochondriac daughter Delphinia to feckless student Roderick (a name Sladek would of course use again …), and put all the money in trust for Alice, governed by her Uncle Jason. Her parents have little interest in the girl other than her money, having to ‘make do’ with $10,000 a year as well as free place to live. Delphinia spends all her life in bed, dreaming of the life of comfort she could have had were it not for the terms of the will, uncaring that her daughter has been behaving very strangely …

“My life has been nothing but one long sickness. So don’t talk to me about Alice! Schizophrenia – my ass! What’s schizophrenia compared with arthritis?”

Disch-Sladek_Black-Alice-pantherBlonde and blue-eyed Alice has in fact created an alter-ego, a black version of herself named Dinah, who can speak directly of the things troubling the girl. More than just an invisible friend, this has threatened to top her over into full-blown psychosis, something only avoided through the ministrations of her kindly Uncle and a loving governess. Alice starts to improve and Dinah recedes further into her unconscious – this until one day when Alice is kidnapped for a $1 million ransom and spirited away from her home in Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia. She is deposited in an old funeral parlour that is now a small-scale brothel. In a nice riff on the character’s equivalent identity crisis in Lewis Carroll’s original Wonderland, to keep Alice hidden she is given a pill that turns her skin black, her hair is cut, curled and dyed. The madam and girls of the brothel insist she now be known as Dinah and her initial excitement turns to fear – until Dinah once again emerges to help survive, a moment triggered by the revelation of who has in fact organised her kidnapping.

“Am I kidnapped?” she asked, just to make sure.
“Uh-huh. Relax, kid. It ‘aint going to be as bad as all that.”

As we learn who is behind Alice’s predicament and the bodies start to pile up, Alice and her new companions go on the run and ultimately get mixed up in a riot instigated by the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, who are trying to stop a visit from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). As divisions within the ranks of the KKK appear (one of them turns out to be an undercover FBI agent) and a full-scale riot is averted, Alice – or rather, Dinah – gets Disch-Sladek_Black-Alice-doubleday-2dinterviewed on local TV and asked if she thinks she should be treated the same as white children … In the meantime, the one behind the kidnapping wants her dead, as do the members of the Klan who managed to avoid getting arrested. Well plotted and full of literary cleverness and fun, with an arresting turn of phrase to be found on almost any page, this is a superbly engaging satire, valuable for its wry commentary and clever tinkering with the thriller structure. Miss it at your peril.

As John Clute in the invaluable and frankly awe-inspiring Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (www.sf-encyclopedia.com/) has said of these two authors:

“Disch was perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern sf writers of the first rank” (see more here)

“Sladek always addressed the heart of the genre, but never gained due renown. We needed his attention, which we got: he deserved ours, which he did not receive” (see more here)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Colour in the title’ category:

vintage-silver-colour

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Friday's Forgotten Book, John Sladek, Thomas M. Disch. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to BLACK ALICE (1968) by Thomas M. Disch and John T. Sladek

  1. This does sound like a wicked thriller, Sergio! And an author whose work I really ought to know better. I admit to not being as aware of scifi as perhaps I should be, so this is a good reminder to me to get on with it.

    • Thanks Margot – Disch and Sladek have certainly been overlooked and it would be great to see their works, jointly and appart, get a bit more love!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Disch was never solely a “sci-fi” writer…his sf and fantasy was always part of a range of work. Sladek similarly, even if most of his work (including his absurdist humor work) was more likely to be speculative-fiction adjacent…
        Glad you liked it.

        • Thanks chum – really enjoyed it. Far too long since I read anything by either author – suddenly realised that my paperback of Dick’s Lies, Inc has bridging material by Sladek after the MS for the longer edition lost a few chunks in transit!

  2. realthog says:

    A great and very useful review of a book that I too enjoyed . . . albeit a looooong time ago!

    I’ve never really thought of either Disch or Sladek as especially neglected, but I suppose you’re right in that. Where I might wish to correct you is in ascribing the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction solely to John Clute. He has a bunch of other editors working with him, most notably David Langford and Mike Ashley. Although John is the mainspring of the enterprise (as he was for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which I did with him), the participation of those others (and I’m sure I’m missing some names) is what makes the whole enterprise possible; to overlook their massive contributions is to misrepresent.

    • Hi John, thanks for that – Clute wrote the two entries I was citing from of course and because he was the main name on my volume at home (I have the first two paper editions) I allowed myself a bit of shorthand there. Happy to be corrected.

  3. Excellent review – thanks for sharing! Being a fan of Disch’s and Sladek’s SF (who, I agree, are pretty neglected authors these days), this immediately jumps on my buy list.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    i have just obtained the book. I will comment further after reading it.

  5. Colin says:

    Never heard of the book and I’m not really familiar with the authors, hardly surprising as I’m not a big SF fan. It certainly sounds intriguing though.

    • The depiction of Virginia circa 1966 is very nicely done, with a strong satirical edge that neither Vonnegut or Pynchon would have been ashamed of (IMHO)

      • Colin says:

        It’s one I’ve noted down to keep an eye out for now anyway.

        • Not too hard to get I’m glad to say – and just the right length, too …

          • Colin says:

            All good. The problem is, while we’re on the subject of length, my want/wish list isn’t getting any shorter! 😀

          • I know, I know – good though, right? Just go the DVD of River’s Edge so that’s an afternoon with my Dad sorted! Hoping the De Toth arrives in time – should be between today and Monday is evil Amazon is to be trusted …

          • Colin says:

            Hmm, the “to be watched//read” list then poses another (not altogether unwelcome) challenge. Clearly, I’ve added to yours recently. 🙂
            I also have a bunch of books & movies due any time now.

          • Yeah, I really like to stock up for Christmas – I ended up ordering the Rutherford Miss Marple films from Italy, even though I had the very good region 1 set, just to watch them in with the folks! I see a lot of dubbed Christie and Westerns in my festive future!

          • Colin says:

            Channeling Barry Norman briefly, and why not!

          • Blimey – that does take me back! I would kill to be able to have all his Hollywood Greats series to view.

          • Colin says:

            Quite, If the Beeb ever released those, I’d snap ’em up in a heartbeat.

          • I do find myself going back to the prose versions actually – Norman was very good, despite having no time for horror which was a prticular blind spot as I recall.

          • Colin says:

            I think all critics will have a blind spot. I don’t mind that; what matters to me is that said critic is passionate about his/her types of film.
            I’ve seen some negative stuff written about Norman in the last few years and I feel it’s a bit unfair – he was a good writer and broadcaster in my opinion, and one who helped my appreciation of cinema along.

          • I’m with you – I think he was a very good historian of classical cinema actually and was always witty too.

  6. Disch and Sladek were quirky writers who deserve a wider audience. Disch wrote THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (and a couple sequels) which reveal a lot about the writer. Disch’s last days were tragic.

  7. Deb says:

    I’m glad George noted Disch’s very sad ending: His long-time partner died and Disch’s rent-controlled apartment was in his lover’s name. The upstate home the two owned was uninhabitable due to storm damage. Finding himself ill and with no place to live, Disch committed suicide. A very tragic end for a great talent.

  8. John says:

    I have this and keep picking it up to read but then it always gets buried in one of the numerous TBR piles in this obstacle course I call my home. Wish I hadn’t read the entire review. Though I knew about the attempt to disguise Alice as a black girl I didn’t know about the alter ego business. A nod to Bloch or Millar? I may just stop reading the Kate Ellis book I started this morning and read BLACK ALICE instead. Thanks for another scintillating and tempting review.

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished the book.
    There is no science fiction here (except for the pills converting from white to black). It is basically a thriller, a satirical thriller. There is also a mystery regarding the identity of the kidnapper, but it is revealed less than half-way and after that it is only a thriller.
    The issues of race and prejudice are dealt with very deftly. I found the book quite interesting and thought-provoking. Often witty.
    I agree with your rating.
    An extract from the book:
    “He said, ‘I’m glad of one thing at least.’
    ‘What?’ Gann asked.
    ‘That the kid I killed was only a nigger, after all. I won’t be convicted by any jury in this state on a charge of killing a nigger.’ ”

    • Thanks Santosh, glad you liked this one too. Mus admit, I steered away from quoting from the most linguistically inflammatory passages, but in fairness I think the use of stinging racial epithets is handled well in that is comes across as very purposeful in making people of the era speak plausibly and always makes their prejudices even more hateful. It is reassuring to know that Alice survives her ordeal and that the murderer punished – this may have been a radicalised sort of book but structurally it is, as you say, a fairly conventional thriller, but an inventive one nonetheless.

    • Matthew Davis says:

      Well, not quite so science-fictional. Disch and Sladek were referring to the practicals of John Howard Griffin’s expose of racism in America “Black Like Me”, in which Griffin took a course of pills which changed the colour of his skin.

  10. I like the title and sound of this well-crafted sf satire, Sergio, not to mention shades of the theme from “Wonderland.” I wasn’t familiar with Thomas M. Disch and John T. Sladek until your review of “Black Alice.”

  11. TomCat says:

    You sold me on this book, Sergio! I loved Sladek’s short excursion in the detective genre, especially the locked rooms, and the short story collection Maps has a selection of inverted mysteries, but they weren’t as good as the ones featuring Thackerey Phin. It also has some fun SF stories and other quirky, screwball writing.

    I’ll be on the look out for Black Alice now.

  12. tracybham says:

    Sounds very interesting, Sergio. If I find a copy I will give it a try.

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