Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 2/4)

(Cover by Eduardo Paolozzi. New Worlds, August 1967.)

Who Goes There?

There’s debate as to when the New Wave of science fiction started, since certain works, such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, anticipated the transgressions made during that movement. Authors who would be often affiliated with the movement, such as Kate Wilhelm, R. A. Lafferty, and Harlan Ellison, also usually got their start in the field well before the mid- to late-’60s height of the New Wave. Another author who came around just in time was Thomas M. Disch, who in the ’60s saw pbulication on both sides of the Atlantic, in both the US (ohh) and the UK (eww), and aside from having the handicap of being a filthy British magazine, New Worlds proved to be the ground where Disch could be his saltiest and most transgressive. Camp Concentration saw serialization in New Worlds in 1967, just before that magazine was to run into some real legal (on top of the already financial) problems, and thus, regardless of its flaws (I do have some quibbles), it can be seen as emblematic of New Worlds during its peak, despite being written by an American author. Disch’s novel would see book publication in the UK the following year, although weirdly American readers would have to wait until 1969 for an American edition.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the August 1969 issue of New Worlds, which is on the Archive; and just to keep my bases covered I think this will be the first time I’ve linked to Luminist. Just be aware that PDFs on Luminist tend to be BIG, including this one, but at least its collection of New Worlds is more complete than the Pulp Magazine Archive’s. As for book versions there aren’t a lot of options, but it looks like the Vintage paperback is still in print and readily available, so yeah, probably go for that.

Enhancing Image

Before we get to the plot, which there isn’t a whole lot of for this installment, let’s talk about interiors and how they can relate to the stories they’re supposed to be illustrating. Sometimes an interior, depending on where it’s placed, can be illustrating something that has already happened in the text, or it can serve as a kind of foreshadowing, alluding to something that will happen later in the text but which, upon seeing the interior, we will not have read for ourselves yet. Part 2 of Camp Concentration opens with an interior by Zoline, depicting a rabbit on its hind legs kissing a cherub, which sounds transgressive but also like a non sequitur—for now. Believe it or not this is a pretty good use of illustrative foreshadowing, as it sets up the meat of what is to come in Part 2, though we’re not able to connect those dots yet. I guess it’s NSFW, given the cherub’s dingus is hanging out, but that’s also not an uncommon sight in religious paintings and sculptures.


Last time we ended with a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus that went wrong, with the magic pixie dream boy George having fallen violently ill with what turns out to be a condition all the prisoners at Camp Archimedes have—a condition that gives them only months to live. George soon dies and there’s a funeral held for him; we didn’t get to know him very well, but he clearly serves as the sacrificial lamb for both Camp Archimedes and the novel, Disch seemingly telling us that even the most innocent of the lot are not safe. Louis, who was already an unhappy camper (lol) before this, threatens to have a breakdown.

The prisoners do things to preoccupy themselves, partly because the drug they’ve been given has heightened their intelligence and thus their need to satiate cognitive activity, and partly to keep their minds off the fact that they will all die rather soon. Louis starts writing a three-act play of his own, titled Auschwitz: A Comedy, which perhaps for the best we learn very little about. This is one of those little things about the novel that can be taken as either simply edginess for the sake of itself or a bit of very dark comedy; I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I’m reminded of a line in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors wherein a character insists that comedy is simply “tragedy plus time,” a philosophy Disch might agree with—that is to say, once enough distance in time is made from a terrible event, that terrible event can be warped and recontextualized to become funny.

Louis has another conversation with the camp doctor and local Ms. Exposition (not to mention the novel’s only female character), Dr. Busk, where we’re finally told what exactly the prisoners have been injected with, because it’s not just any drug. To make a long story short, the prisoners of Camp Archimedes have been infected with a highly advanced form of syphilis, that most horrible of vinereal diseases in a pre-AIDS world which sees the victim succumb to insanity, then death. Some famous people thoughout history were known, or at least suspected, to have contracted advanced syphilis, the most famous example probably being Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet, as Dr. Busk points out, these people who were ultimately ruined by the disease also seemed to have flashed of brilliance amidst the madness that could have been a direct result of the disease, and though he is loathe to admit it, Louis has to agree somewhat.

But it has been suggested—and by some very reputable people (though they were not usually in the medical line)—that neuro-syphilis is as often beneficent as it is at other times malign, that the geniuses I’ve mentioned (and many others that I might add) were as much its beneficiaries as its victims.

Meanwhile there’s an apparent rivalry between Haast and Busk with regards to certain activities the prisoners take up to preoccupy themselves, with Haast being on the side of the mystic and Busk being on the side of the materialist—a rivalry that involves Louis and Mordecai. Mordecai, last time we saw him, had taken a keen interest in alchemy, which by now has blossomed into an autistic fixation. It’s here that we get the most memorable scene in the installment, and the point of inspiration for that opening interior illustration. Mordecai, who by this point become perhaps a little unscrewed mentally, introduces Louis to his three “familiars,” those being rabbits who have also been infected with the disease and who subsequently only have a short time to live—though for them it’s a matter of weeks rather than months. The rabbits seem to all be male, for they also have incredibly swollen testicles because of the disease.

That’s one half of the equation for the illustration, but we’ve not quite reached the other half involving the cherub yet…

There’s an obvious parallel between the prisoners and the rabbits, with the two being treated more or less the same. Testing on animals, and rabbits especially, has historically been pretty common, to the point where the imagery of rabbits in cages in some laboratory has been shorthand for experimental (and unethical) testing. I do have to wonder if Disch was thinking of Flowers for Algernon when writing Camp Concentration, since the two have similar premises and play with the same notion of accelerated human intelligence. Of course, the premise of Flowers for Algernon is actually a bit more implausible because scientists, no matter how unethical, would not test their hypothesis on a single rodent and then greatly upscale that experiment for a human. Disch also uses his premise to comment on the US government’s gross treatment of protestors during the Vietnam war; it’s not hard to think the government at this time would see infecting a bunch of naysayers with a terminal disease in the name of “science” as a convenience, even killing two birds with one stone.

I know I mentioned this in the previous installment, but the Tuskegee experiment, wherein dozens of African-American men were unknowingly infected with syphilis, was still in progress, unbeknownst to Disch and the rest of the American public. The lesson here is to never underestimate the potential evils of government—then or now. This is all made extra eerie since Mordecai is easily the most prominent black character among the ensemble, and it’s clear that he’s also been taking his condition not too well. We’re never sure how sincere Mordecai is being about his turn towards mysticism, but what’s not so ambiguous is that he’s dying, and he’s a man in the midst of an existential crisis. “The whole goddamned universe is a fucking concentration camp,” he says at one point, and for him that might indeed be true; for a terminally ill man, where freedom is impossible, life itself has become a prison where “escape” means death.

There Be Spoilers Here

Mordecai, with Haast’s approval, performs a religious ritual on Midsummer’s Eve, one which pushes Dr. Busk’s buttons, but while the not-so-good doctor is triggered in the short term (of course the one female character is a total stick in the mud), she feels morbidly vindicated when the “elixir” Mordecai has been working on seemingly has no effect; not only that, but Mordecai dies, pretty abruptly, before completing the ritual. Haast, who really did believe in Mordecai’s promise as an alchemist, feels betrayed by both his death and the lack of effectiveness of his studies, and he has quite the episode. Mysticism has failed, and materialism does not provide a cure for the specter of death which plagues them all.

What’s strange about the series of revelations in this installment is that Louis treats his own terminal condition like it’s supposed to be a surprise; like sure it sucks that you’ll die from syphilis in a few months, but given what we’ve known up till now I would’ve just assumed that was the case. Of course it makes sense symbolically, in a deal-with-the-devil fashion: Louis and the other prisoners were trapped in more conventional prisons, ones which had shitty living conditions but which at least showed the posibility of release, and they made a deal with Haast where they got to live in an underground facility that was more like a hotel than a prison—only, unbeknownst to them, they had all been given death sentences. Still, I can’t always make sense of Louis’s reactions to plot developments, like how I also can’t tell if he’s merely a lapsed Catholic or an apostate; he certainly sounds concerned with the theological minutia of the Church scriptures.

Speaking of which, the actual ending of Part 2 is a protracted dream sequence, which Louis is somehow able to recall in detail (writers beware that dreams, and the recollection of dreams, basically never work this way), wherein he has a rather odd conversation with a monstrously fat Thomas Aquinas, with cherubs as minions. Louis, eyeing one of the cherubs, notices something worrying about it, “the distressing inflammations that had swollen its tiny scrotum and caused the poor thing to walk with a strange, straddling gait.” Does this sound familiar? Now it all adds up… sort of. I’m still not quite sure what Disch means with the swollen testicles bit, but he’s clearly drawing a line between rabbits and people, with cherubs standing in for the latter. There’s also a subliminal homosexuality about all this, since both the rabbits and cherubs, given their genitals, are supposed to be male. (I know what you’re thinking: that sounds bioessentialist. I’m talking specifically in the context of the novel, which is so lacking in women anyway that male homosexuality is all but inevitable, even without Disch’s teasing.) What could it all mean, though? I’m not sure yet.

On a final note, we’re one again reminded of the Faustian theme of man’s hunger for knowledge at any price, with Aquinas’s obesity being symbolic of his insatiable hunger for knowledge. Obesity is typically used in fiction as shorthand for a character’s greed (a gross demonizing of obesity that even left-leaning people are guilty of using at times), but at least here I can sort of look the other way since Disch is using it less to illustrate Aquinas (who after all is just a figment of Louis’s imagination here, and thus a projection of his own insecurity) and more to illustrate Louis’s character, not to mention how it ties into the novel’s general thesis. How problematic this all could be considered is a topic for another time, perhaps.

A Step Farther Out

Sorry for the relative brevity of this one, but given how short these installments are and how pressed for time I am I don’t see why not. There’s also not a whole lot to say with this one, since it has middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome written all over it—just replace “trilogy” with “quartet.” Something I’ve come to realize about this novel is that, structurally, it has peaks and valleys: there’s a long conversation or three followed by a Very Important Event™ that changes the course of the plot. We have scenes where characters are just talking, which in some way set up what’s about to transpire, followed by a crescendo wherein Louis’s world is rocked.

Strange thing about Part 2 in particular is that we get basically two climaxes: the first one with Mordecai, and then at the end we have the dream sequence with Aquinas which, admittedly, bordered a little too much on padding for my liking. I think I get where Disch is going with the latter, symbolically, but given how short this novel already is I have to wonder if he drew out the dream sequence as long as he did because he realized oh shit, one of the novel’s major characters is dead and we’re only about halfway through. Still, it says something about the evocativeness of that symbolism that I’m still thinking about it a couple days after having read it.

See you next time.


One response to “Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 2/4)”

  1. I think the rabbits with infected genitals is Disch offering a variant on the then current Rabbit Test for pregnancy, which I suspect, given the prevalence of at-home/stick pregnancy kits for about the last four decades, is now wholly unknown to almost everyone under the age of 50. Why not survey your friends and neighbours. See how many scream in horror, “They did WHAT to a rabbit?!”


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