Strange Memories of Death

Story Background
“Strange Memories of Death” was originally published in Interzone in Summer 1984, over four years after it was received by Dick’s agent. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 353–358.

Plot Summary
The narrator has some “vain thoughts” about a woman who tossed him out, but he is distracted by other concerns. Today is the day that the “Lysol Lady” will be evicted. She is insane. She avoids any contact with people and always smells of Lysol she sues to expel some unknown horrors from her apartment. The new owners of the building wanted to get rid of her. Strangely, the Lysol Lady had enough common sense to contact Legal Aid. This would show her as mentally stable enough to get special treatment. In fact, everyone was forced to either purchase their apartment or leave, as they are being transformed into condominiums. The narrator goes to get a newspaper and admits to himself that he is no difference from the Lysol Lady. People may call him “Cat Man.” The only difference is that he has money to buy the condo. He thinks about helping her. There was an example of renters winning a similar fight in another building. He thinks about writing the Lysol Lady a note pledging his aid. He also thinks at the same time about writing a note to his former lover, confessing how much she meant to him. He thinks about the case in the news about a woman, Brenda Spenser, who shot eleven people. Maybe the Lysol Lady is as mentally unbalanced—and as armed—as Spenser. He begins to understand the Lysol Lady. She has prepared her apartment as her place to die, but by being pushed out her plans are disturbed. Like all psychotics she will take the more difficult route and challenge the powerful. In a way she was too adult and no longer willing to play games.

The next day, the narrator sees Al Newcum, the sales representative for the condo company. He explains that the Housing Authority found a new place for the Lysol Lady (named Mrs. Archer). They are paying her rent. The narrator wishes someone would pay his rent but Newcum reminds him that he bought his apartment.

There are a handful of interesting things going on in “Strange Memories of Death,” one of Philip K. Dick’s last stories. It appeared after his death, but unlike some other previously unpublished tales it made its first appearance before The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. This is clearly a mainstream story, lacking any science fiction elements. It also reads to be quite autobiographical. In which case, Dick’s anxiety over being only a few steps away from the “Lysol Lady” (maybe only more respected in the community because of his money) comes off quite clearly. When writing this story, Dick was reflecting on how his strange ideas and strange behavior may have looked on others.

Although largely an internal monologue about the thoughts and actions of people on the borderland of sanity, there are some interesting social issues in the background. The most prominent of these is the war against the underclass due to urban development. In this case, the apartments of many poor or middle-income people were transformed into condominiums. This forced most of the people out. A few remained by buying their unit. Only the Lysol Lady decided to resist the developers. This strikes the narrator as a possible sign of her maturity. While the rest accept the logic of the game, she seems to be playing a more adult game by creating her own rules. Still, in the end, the developers win and she is thrown off onto the state. The government puts the Lysol Lady in subsidized housing.

Another issue in this story is the apparent consequences of de-institutionalization of mental health care. In a short five page story we are given three examples of clearly mentally unbalanced people: the narrator, the Lysol Lady, and a perpetrator of a mass shooting Brenda Spenser. None of these people seem to have anywhere to go for aid, except an apparently ineffective time in therapy. The consequences of ignoring the mentally ill in society are sometimes horrific, as with Spenser, but often more mundane issues of social isolation. The Lysol Lady’s social isolation is a form of institutional violence made possible by disinvestment in mental health care, and—of course—a society becoming more mentally ill itself.

Lots of good background at Philip K. Dick Fan Site.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Urban Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Strange Memories of Death

  1. essexric says:

    California was the heartland of spiritual decadence in his novels and to a lesser extent his short stories.TLL seems to be the golden but seedy state he wrote of in his sf.Devolution has settled in.

  2. Mats Svensson says:

    Madam, you are totally nuts.
    Everyone within miles is aware of it.
    Your problem is of your own making.
    Ship up, shape out, get your act together, borrow some money, hire a better lawyer, buy a gun, shoot up a schoolyard.

    If I can assist you, I live in apartment C-1.

    Man, that’s some good notes-writing!

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