[AUDIO] ‘Descending’ – by Thomas M. Disch: “It’s so much easier to go… down”

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Click to the right to hear the 1964 short story by Thomas M. Disch.

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“Descending” by Thomas M. Disch: An Appreciation by John Schoffstall

Gentle reader beyond the screen: if you have not read this story, do so before reading on, for here there be spoilers.“Descending” is a horror story. Superficially, it is about a man who takes the ‘Down’ escalator in a department store and finds he can’t get off. More deeply, it is about credit and debt, and the lure of jam, jam, jam today. Credit cards, second mortgages and other easy ways to leverage ourselves into trouble are common nowadays. But in the early 1960’s, when “Descending” was written, many people didn’t even have one credit card. Easy ‘revolving credit’ was a new element in the interface between the individual and the world of commerce and consumption. Like the psychological manipulation by advertising that Kornbluth and Pohl explored in the 1950’s, and the intellectual property, privacy, and bioscience issues that crop up in sf stories today, easy consumer credit was an interesting and potentially dangerous new social force in the early 1960’s. In this sense, “Descending” can be seen as social science fiction. It is significant that the protagonist reads Thackeray’s Vanity Fair through much of the story, a novel whose anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, is also an unprincipled exploiter of credit, much to the damage of those around her.But on its deepest level, the theme of “Descending” is more general than social criticism: it is tragedy, the story of a fall, of an individual who tumbles out of society for any reason, and the lies he tells himself to ease the pain of falling. The protagonist’s descent, first socially and economically, later physically, down the endless escalators, mirrors any behavior that has escaped from our control: alcohol or drug abuse, sexual or gambling addiction, pathological collecting, and so forth. Like the addicted individual who loses friends, jobs, alienates his family and ultimately may wind up homeless, the protagonist of “Descending” has exploited others to maintain a dysfunctional existence, and now finds his links with the rest of humanity broken beyond repair. His own brother won’t return his letters; he is unable to find employment: “He had been a grasshopper for years. The ants were on to his tricks.” Every contact with other human beings he has in the course of the story 
is purely economic. He is the economic man gone awry, and he meets his doom in the temple at which he has worshiped, a department store.The prose is flawless. Often it is simple and transparent, but sometimes it rises to elegance: “He whitened the sepulchre of his unwashed torso with a fresh, starched shirt and chose his somberest tie from the rack.” This sort of bold wordplay is typical of Disch, and one of the things that makes his prose, as well as his storytelling, so enjoyable. The storytelling is relentless. First strangeness, then menace, then fear, then horror, no let-up, no relief, no requiem, no cavalry at the end. Disch tramps all over the motherhood statement. The emotion of ‘hope’, as a response to crisis, is frequently lauded in popular media; Disch shoots it dead. At the end we find the protagonist, near death, still lying to himself that he might have escaped.One of the reasons for this story’s impact is that Disch always takes his protagonist seriously, and always respects him. This does not mean he likes him or admires him. Disch makes it clear the protagonist is an awful failure, who has made bad, self-indulgent life choices. But Disch never makes fun of him for it. Fate is cruel to the protagonist, but the author never is. This reduces the distance between the reader and the protagonist. We are not led to sneer at him, but to sympathize with him, and perhaps see aspects of ourselves in him, disturbing as that may be to us. “Descending” can be taken as a morality tale, a series of Hogarth paintings of the Spendthrift’s Progress, in which the true horror is that with little effort we may imagine ourselves in the Spendthrift’s place.“Descending,” published in 1964, was among Disch’s first professionally published stories. For the product of a writer in his early years, it is astonishing in the excellence of its prose and structure. Its unrelieved bleakness is typical of Disch’s early work. His later stories and novels would find at least a few rays of light in the world, but in the clarity and cleverness of this story’s prose, its lack of sentimentality, its clear-sighted, unblinking look into character, “Descending” is a fine specimen of Disch’s work, and points the way towards the future of his writing.

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Descending
by Thomas M. Disch
Catsup, mustard, pickle, relish, mayonnaise, two kinds of salad dressing,
bacon grease, and a lemon. Oh yes, two trays of ice cubes. In the cupboard it
wasn’t much better: jars and boxes of spices, flour, sugar, salt—and a box of
raisins!
An empty box of raisins.
Not even any coffee. Not even tea, which he hated. Nothing in the mailbox but
a bill from Underwood’s: Unless we receive the arrears on your account.…
$4.75 in change jingled in his coat pocket—the plunder of the Chianti bottle
he had promised himself never to break open. He was spared the unpleasantness
of having to sell his books. They had all been sold. The letter to Graham had
gone out a week ago. If his brother intended to send something this time, it
would have come by now.
—I should be desperate, he thought. —Perhaps I am.
He might have looked in the Times. But, no, that was too depressing—applying
for jobs at $50 a week and being turned down. Not that he blamed them; he
wouldn’t have hired himself himself. He had been a grasshopper for years. The
ants were on to his tricks.
He shaved without soap and brushed his shoes to a high polish. He whitened the
sepulchre of his unwashed torso with a fresh, starched shirt and chose his
somberest tie from the rack. He began to feel excited and expressed it,
characteristically, by appearing statuesquely, icily calm.
Descending the stairway to the first floor, he encountered Mrs. Beale, who was
pretending to sweep the well-swept floor of the entrance.
“Good afternoon—or I s’pose it’s good morning for you, eh?”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Beale.”
“Your letter come?”
“Not yet.”
“The first of the month isn’t far off.”
“Yes indeed, Mrs. Beale.”
At the subway station he considered a moment before answering the attendant:
one token or two? Two, he decided. After all, he had no choice but to return
to his apartment. The first of the month was still a long way off.
—If Jean Valjean had had a charge account, he would have never gone to
prison.
Having thus cheered himself, he settled down to enjoy the ads in the subway
car. Smoke. Try. Eat. Give. See. Drink. Use. Buy. He thought of Alice with her
mushrooms: Eat me.
At 34th Street he got off and entered Underwood’s Department Store directly
from the train platform. On the main floor he stopped at the cigar stand andbought a carton of cigarettes.
“Cash or charge?”
“Charge.” He handed the clerk the laminated plastic card. The charge was rung
up.
· · · · ·
Fancy groceries was on 5. He made his selection judiciously. A jar of instant
and a 2-pound can of drip-ground coffee, a large tin of corned beef, packaged
soups and boxes of pancake mix and condensed milk. Jam, peanut butter, and
honey. Six cans of tuna fish. Then, he indulged himself in perishables:
English cookies, and Edam cheese, a small frozen pheasant—even fruitcake. He
never ate so well as when he was broke. He couldn’t afford to.
“$14.87.”
This time, after ringing up his charge, the clerk checked the number on his
card against her list of closed or doubtful accounts. She smiled
apologetically and handed the card back.
“Sorry, but we have to check.”
“I understand.”
The bag of groceries weighed a good twenty pounds. Carrying it with the
exquisite casualness of a burglar passing before a policeman with his loot, he
took the escalator to the bookshop on 8. His choice of books was determined by
the same principle as his choice of groceries. First, the staples: two
Victorian novels he had never read, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch; the Sayers
translation of Dante, and a two-volume anthology of German plays, none of
which he had read and few he had even heard of. Then the perishables: a
sensational novel that had reached the best seller list via the Supreme Court,
and two mysteries.
He had begun to feel giddy with self-indulgence. He reached into his jacket
pocket for a coin.
—Heads a new suit; tails the Sky Room.
Tails.
The Sky Room on 15 was empty of all but a few women chatting over coffee and
cakes. He was able to get a seat by a window. He ordered from the à la carte
side of the menu and finished his meal with espresso and baklava. He handed
the waitress his credit card and tipped her fifty cents.
Dawdling over his second cup of coffee, he began Vanity Fair. Rather to his
surprise, he found himself enjoying it. The waitress returned with his card
and a receipt for the meal.
Since the Sky Room was on the top floor of Underwood’s there was only one
escalator to take now—Descending. Riding down, he continued to read Vanity
Fair. He could read anywhere—in restaurants, on subways, even walking down the
street. At each landing he made his way from the foot of one escalator to the
head of the next without lifting his eyes from the book. When he came to theBargain Basement, he would be only a few steps from the subway turnstile.
He was halfway through Chapter VI (on page 55, to be exact) when he began to
feel something amiss.
—How long does this damn thing take to reach the basement?
He stopped at the next landing, but there was no sign to indicate on what
floor he was, nor any door by which he might re-enter the store. Deducing from
this that he was between floors, he took the escalator down one more flight,
only to find the same perplexing absence of landmarks.
There was, however, a water fountain, and he stooped to take a drink.
—I must have gone to a sub-basement. But this was not too likely after all.
Escalators were seldom provided for janitors and stockboys.
He waited on the landing watching the steps of the escalators slowly descend
toward him and, at the end of their journey, telescope in upon themselves and
disappear. He waited a long while, and no one else came down the moving
steps.
—Perhaps the store had closed. Having no wristwatch and having rather lost
track of the time, he had no way of knowing. At last, he reasoned that he had
become so engrossed in the Thackeray novel that he had simply stopped on one
of the upper landings—say, on 8—to finish a chapter and had read on to page 55
without realizing that he was making no progress on the escalators.
When he read, he could forget everything else.
He must, therefore, still be somewhere above the main floor. The absence of
exits, though disconcerting, could be explained by some quirk in the floor
plan. The absence of signs was merely a carelessness on the part of the
management.
· · · · ·
He tucked Vanity Fair into his shopping bag and stepped onto the grilled lip
of the down-going escalator—not, it must be admitted, without a certain degree
of reluctance. At each landing, he marked his progress by a number spoken
aloud. By eight he was uneasy; by fifteen he was desperate.
It was, of course, possible that he had to descend two flights of stairs for
every floor of the department store. With this possibility in mind, he counted
off fifteen more landings.
—No.
Dazedly, and as though to deny the reality of this seemingly interminable
stairwell, he continued his descent. When he stopped again at the forty-fifth
landing, he was trembling. He was afraid.
He rested the shopping bag on the bare concrete floor of the landing,
realizing that his arm had gone quite sore from supporting the twenty pounds
and more of groceries and books. He discounted the enticing possibility that
“it was all a dream,” for the dream-world is the reality of the dreamer, to
which he could not weakly surrender, no more than one could surrender to therealities of life. Besides, he was not dreaming; of that he was quite sure.
He checked his pulse. It was fast—say, eighty a minute. He rode down two more
flights, counting his pulse. Eighty almost exactly. Two flights took only one
minute.
He could read approximately one page a minute, a little less on an escalator.
Suppose he had spent one hour on the escalators while he had read: sixty
minutes—one hundred and twenty floors. Plus forty-seven that he had counted.
One hundred sixty-seven. The Sky Room was on 15.
167-15=152.
He was in the one-hundred-fifty-second sub-basement. That was impossible.
The appropriate response to an impossible situation was to deal with it as
though it were commonplace—like Alice in Wonderland. Ergo, he would return to
Underwood’s the same way he had (apparently) left it. He would walk up one
hundred fifty-two flights of down-going escalators. Taking the steps three at
a time and running, it was almost like going up a regular staircase. But after
ascending the second escalator in this manner, he found himself already out of
breath.
There was no hurry. He would not allow himself to be overtaken by panic.
No.
He picked up the bag of groceries and books he had left on that landing,
waited for his breath to return, and darted up a third and fourth flight.
While he rested on the landing, he tried to count the steps between floors,
but this count differed depending on whether he counted with the current or
against it, down or up. The average was roughly eighteen steps, and the steps
appeared to be eight or nine inches deep. Each flight was, therefore, about
twelve feet.
It was one-third of a mile, as the plumb drops, to Underwood’s main floor.
Dashing up the ninth escalator, the bag of groceries broke open at the bottom,
where the thawing pheasant had dampened the paper. Groceries and books tumbled
onto the steps, some rolling of their own accord to the landing below, others
being transported there by the moving stairs and forming a neat little pile.
Only the jam jar had been broken.
He stacked the groceries in the corner of the landing, except for the
half-thawed pheasant, which he stuffed into his coat pocket, anticipating that
his ascent would take him well past his dinner hour.
Physical exertion had dulled his finer feelings—to be precise, his capacity
for fear. Like a cross-country runner in his last laps, he thought
single-mindedly of the task at hand and made no effort to understand what he
had in any case already decided was not to be understood. He mounted one
flight, rested, mounted and rested again. Each mount was wearier; each rest
longer. He stopped counting the landings after the twenty-eighth, and some
time after that—how long he had no idea—his legs gave out and he collapsed to
the concrete floor of the landing. His calves were hard aching knots of
muscle; his thighs quivered erratically. He tried to do knee-bends and fell
backward.
Despite his recent dinner (assuming that it had been recent), he was hungry
and he devoured the entire pheasant, completely thawed now, without being ableto tell if it were raw or had been pre-cooked.
—This is what it’s like to be a cannibal, he thought as he fell asleep.
· · · · ·
Sleeping, he dreamed he was falling down a bottomless pit. Waking, he
discovered nothing had changed, except the dull ache in his legs, which had
become a sharp pain.
Overhead, a single strip of fluorescent lighting snaked down the stairwell.
The mechanical purr of the escalators seemed to have heightened to the roar of
a Niagara, and their rate of descent seemed to have increased
proportionately.
Fever, he decided. He stood up stiffly and flexed some of the soreness from
his muscles.
Halfway up the third escalator, his legs gave way under him. He attempted the
climb again and succeeded. He collapsed again on the next flight. Lying on the
landing where the escalator had deposited him, he realized that his hunger had
returned. He also needed to have water—and to let it.
The latter necessity he could easily—and without false modesty—satisfy. Also
he remembered the water fountain he had drunk from yesterday and he found
another three floors below.
—It’s so much easier going down.
His groceries were down there. To go after them now, he would erase whatever
progress he had made in his ascent. Perhaps Underwood’s main floor was only a
few more flights up. Or a hundred. There was no way to know.
Because he was hungry and because he was tired and because the futility of
mounting endless flights of descending escalators was, as he now considered
it, a labor of Sisyphus, he returned, descended, gave in.
At first, he allowed the escalator to take him along at its own mild pace, but
he soon grew impatient of this. He found that the exercise of running down the
steps three at a time was not so exhausting as running up. It was refreshing,
almost. And, by swimming with the current instead of against it, his progress,
if such it can be called, was appreciable. In only minutes he was back at his
cache of groceries.
After eating half the fruitcake and a little cheese, he fashioned his coat
into a sort of sling for the groceries, knotting the sleeves together and
buttoning it closed. With one hand at the collar and the other about the hem,
he could carry all his food with him.
He looked up the descending staircase with a scornful smile, for he had
decided with the wisdom of failure to abandon that venture. If the stairs
wished to take him down, then down, giddily, he would go.
Then, down he did go, down dizzily, down, down and always, it seemed, faster,
spinning about lightly on his heels at each landing so that there was hardly
any break in the wild speed of his descent. He whooped and halooed and laughed
to hear his whoopings echo in the narrow, low-vaulted corridors, following himas though they could not keep up his pace.
Down, ever deeper down.
Twice he slipped at the landings and once he missed his footing in mid-leap on
the escalator, hurtled forward, letting go of the sling of groceries and
falling, hands stretched out to cushion him, onto the steps, which,
imperturbably, continued their descent.
He must have been unconscious then, for he woke up in a pile of groceries with
a split cheek and a splitting headache. The telescoping steps of the escalator
gently grazed his heels.
He knew then his first moment of terror—a premonition that there was no end to
his descent, but this feeling gave way quickly to a laughing fit.
“I’m going to hell!” he shouted, though he could not drown with his voice the
steady purr of the escalators. “This is the way to hell. Abandon hope all ye
who enter here.”
—If only I were, he reflected. —If that were the case, it would make sense.
Not quite orthodox sense, but some sense, a little.
Sanity, however, was so integral to his character that neither hysteria nor
horror could long have their way with him. He gathered up his groceries again,
relieved to find that only the jar of instant coffee had been broken this
time. After reflection he also discarded the can of drip-ground coffee, for
which he could conceive no use—under the present circumstances. And he would
allow himself, for the sake of sanity, to conceive of no other circumstances
than those.
· · · · ·
He began a more deliberate descent. He returned to Vanity Fair, reading it as
he paced down the down-going steps. He did not let himself consider the extent
of the abyss into which he was plunging, and the vicarious excitement of the
novel helped him keep his thoughts from his own situation. At page 235, he
lunched (that is, he took his second meal of the day) on the remainder of the
cheese and fruitcake; at 523 he rested and dined on the English cookies dipped
in peanut butter.
—Perhaps I had better ration my food.
If he could regard this absurd dilemma merely as a struggle for survival,
another chapter in his own Robinson Crusoe story, he might get to the bottom
of this mechanized vortex alive and sane. He thought proudly that many people
in his position could not have adjusted, would have gone mad.
Of course, he was descending.…
But he was still sane. He had chosen his course and now he was following it.
There was no night in the stairwell, and scarcely any shadows. He slept when
his legs could no longer bear his weight and his eyes were tearful from
reading. Sleeping, he dreamed that he was continuing his descent on the
escalators. Waking, his hand resting on the rubber railing that moved along at
the same rate as the steps, he discovered this to be the case. Somnambulistically, he had ridden the escalators further down into this mild,
interminable hell, leaving behind his bundle of food and even the
still-unfinished Thackeray novel.
Stumbling up the escalators, he began, for the first time, to cry. Without the
novel, there was nothing to think of but this, this.…
—How far? How long did I sleep?
His legs, which had only been slightly wearied by his descent, gave out twenty
flights up. His spirit gave out soon after. Again he turned around, allowed
himself to be swept up by the current—or, more exactly, swept down.
The escalator seemed to be traveling more rapidly, the pitch of the steps to
be more pronounced. But he no longer trusted the evidence of his senses.
—I am, perhaps, insane—or sick from hunger. Yet, I would have run out of food
eventually. This will bring the crisis to a head. Optimism, that’s the
spirit!
Continuing his descent, he occupied himself with a closer analysis of his
environment, not undertaken with any hope of bettering his condition but only
for lack of other diversions. The walls and ceilings were hard, smooth, and
off-white. The escalator steps were a dull nickel color, the treads being
somewhat shinier, the crevices darker. Did that mean that the treads were
polished from use? Or were they designed in that fashion? The treads were half
an inch wide and spaced apart from each other by the same width. They
projected slightly over the edge of each step, resembling somewhat the head of
a barber’s shears. Whenever he stopped at a landing, his attention would
become fixed on the illusory “disappearance” of the steps, as they sank flush
to the floor and slid, tread in groove, into the grilled baseplate.
Less and less would he run, or even walk, down the stairs, content merely to
ride his chosen step from top to bottom of each flight and, at the landing,
step (left foot, right, and left again) onto the escalator that would
transport him to the floor below. The stairwell now had tunneled, by his
calculations, miles beneath the department store—so many miles that he began
to congratulate himself upon his unsought adventure, wondering if he had
established some sort of record. Just so, a criminal will stand in awe of his
own baseness and be most proud of his vilest crime, which he believes
unparalleled.
In the days that followed, when his only nourishment was the water from the
fountains provided at every tenth landing, he thought frequently of food,
preparing imaginary meals from the store of groceries he had left behind,
savoring the ideal sweetness of the honey, the richness of the soup which he
would prepare by soaking the powder in the emptied cookie tin, licking the
film of gelatin lining the opened can of corned beef. When he thought of the
six cans of tuna fish, his anxiety became intolerable, for he had (would have
had) no way to open them. Merely to stamp on them would not be enough. What,
then? He turned the question over and over in his head, like a squirrel
spinning the wheel in its cage, to no avail.
Then a curious thing happened. He quickened again the speed of his descent,
faster now than when first he had done this, eagerly, headlong, absolutely
heedless. The several landings seemed to flash by like a montage of Flight,
each scarcely perceived before the next was before him. A demonic, pointless
race—and why? He was running, so he thought, toward his store of groceries,
either believing that they had been left below or thinking that he was runningup. Clearly, he was delirious.
It did not last. His weakened body could not maintain the frantic pace, and he
awoke from his delirium confused and utterly spent. Now began another, more
rational delirium, a madness fired by logic. Lying on the landing, rubbing a
torn muscle in his ankle, he speculated on the nature, origin and purpose of
the escalators. Reasoned thought was of no more use to him, however, than
unreasoning action. Ingenuity was helpless to solve a riddle that had no
answer, which was its own reason, self-contained and whole. He—not the
escalators—needed an answer.
· · · · ·
Perhaps his most interesting theory was the notion that these escalators were
a kind of exercise wheel, like those found in a squirrel cage, from which,
because it was a closed system, there could be no escape. This theory required
some minor alterations in his conception of the physical universe, which had
always appeared highly Euclidean to him before, a universe in which his
descent seemingly along a plumb-line was, in fact, describing a loop. This
theory cheered him, for he might hope, coming full circle, to return to his
store of groceries again, if not to Underwood’s. Perhaps in his abstracted
state he had passed one or the other already several times without observing.
There was another, and related, theory concerning the measures taken by
Underwood’s Credit Department against delinquent accounts. This was merely
paranoia.
—Theories! I don’t need theories. I must get on with it.
So, favoring his good leg, he continued his descent, although his speculations
did not immediately cease. They became, if anything, more metaphysical. They
became vague. Eventually, he could regard the escalators as being entirely
matter-of-fact, requiring no more explanation than, by their sheer existence,
they offered him.
He discovered that he was losing weight. Being so long without food (by the
evidence of his beard, he estimated that more than a week had gone by), this
was only to be expected. Yet, there was another possibility that he could not
exclude: that he was approaching the center of the earth where, as he
understood, all things were weightless.
—Now that, he thought, is something worth striving for.
He had discovered a goal. On the other hand, he was dying, a process he did
not give all the attention it deserved. Unwilling to admit this eventually and
yet not so foolish as to admit any other, he side-stepped the issue by
pretending to hope.
—Maybe someone will rescue me, he hoped.
But his hope was as mechanical as the escalators he rode—and tended, in much
the same way, to sink.
Waking and sleeping were no longer distinct states of which he could say: “Now
I am sleeping,” or “Now I am awake.” Sometimes he would discover himself
descending and be unable to tell whether he had been waked from sleep or
roused from inattention. He hallucinated.
A woman, loaded with packages from Underwood’s and wearing a trim,
pillbox-style hat, came down the escalator toward him, turned around on the
landing, high heels clicking smartly, and rode away without even nodding to
him.
More and more, when he awoke or was roused from his stupor, he found himself,
instead of hurrying to his goal, lying on a landing, weak, dazed, and beyond
hunger. Then he would crawl to the down-going escalator and pull himself onto
one of the steps, which he would ride to the bottom, sprawled head foremost,
hands and shoulders braced against the treads to keep from skittering bumpily
down.
—At the bottom, he thought—at the bottom … I will … when I get there.…
· · · · ·
From the bottom, which he conceived of as the center of the earth, there would
be literally nowhere to go but up. Probably another chain of escalators,
ascending escalators, but preferably an elevator. It was important to believe
in a bottom.
Thought was becoming as difficult, as demanding and painful, as once his
struggle to ascend had been. His perceptions were fuzzy. He did not know what
was real and what imaginary. He thought he was eating and discovered he was
gnawing at his hands.
He thought he had come to the bottom. It was a large, high-ceilinged room.
Signs pointed to another escalator: Ascending. But there was a chain across it
and a small typed announcement.
“Out of order. Please bear with us while the escalators are being repaired.
Thank you. The Management.”
He laughed weakly.
He devised a way to open the tuna fish cans. He would slip the can sideways
beneath the projecting treads of the escalator, just at the point where the
steps were sinking flush to the floor. Either the escalator would split the
can open or the can would jam the escalator. Perhaps if one escalator were
jammed the whole chain of them would stop. He should have thought of that
before, but he was, nevertheless, quite pleased to have thought of it at all.
—I might have escaped.
His body seemed to weigh so little now. He must have come hundreds of miles.
Thousands.
Again, he descended.
Then, he was lying at the foot of the escalator. His head rested on the cold
metal of the baseplate and he was looking at his hand, the fingers of which
were pressed into the creviced grille. One after another, in perfect order,
the steps of the escalator slipped into these crevices, tread in groove,
rasping at his fingertips, occasionally tearing away a sliver of his flesh. That was the last thing he remembered.
The End

______________________________

“Religious faith often finds itself at odds with story-telling. Puritans ban acting companies. Islam is uneasy about all forms of representation. And why? Because the experience of walking out of the theater after a performance is a paradigm of disillusionment, and religious people are officially supposed to believe, first and foremost, in their own literal faith, from which there are no exits. They’ve taken the big leap, and live, ever after, in free fall.”
Thomas Michael Disch in “The Black Cat”

225px-Thomas_Disch

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