Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Brains of Rats by Michael Blumlein (1990): Just Agony. Not Death.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," H.P. Lovecraft famously wrote in the introduction to his own Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). To that, might I be so bold as to add that the emotion of fear is also one of the most subjective? While it's true that most humans are afraid of most of the same things - spiders, snakes, disfigurement, public speaking, etc., etc., - when presented with fictional/artistic accounts renderings of things which are meant to scare us, our reactions will often be vastly different, based on the tenor of our private imaginations. Horror fans still argue over, say, whether The Blair Witch Project or The Shining were scary; naive readers want to know "the scariest books to read" for Halloween; fans of Lovecraft games and films find his stories "corny"; lists are compiled of the scariest this, that, or the other in horror entertainment and arguments rage in the comments section. 

I don't participate in that discussion anymore: I don't read horror (or watch horror) to be scared. It's purely aesthetics for me; I simply love horror's palette, its recurrent images and themes and motifs, or new twists on said images and themes and motifs. Darkness and doom and death and despair, I love that shit. But it doesn't have to affect me directly, I don't have to be made to feel like someone or something is standing behind me or outside the window, that there is immediate and unavoidable danger lurking out there. If you're like me, if you get what I'm saying... read on.

This brings me to The Brains of Rats. With its intrinsic intelligence, its peerless caliber of prose, and over all, the stinging whiff of antiseptic which masks the stink of deceit and decay, the collection by Michael Blumlein (a practicing physician) is one of the landmarks of '80s/'90s horror fiction, a challenging yet rewarding work that offers the grimmest of delights for the reader looking not for another gorefest or spook story but for tales that disturb, bewilder, perplex, amaze, that unseat everyday perceptions so that the familiar seems strange and horrific but also... fresh, ready for new appraisal even.

Blumlein's visions emerge whole and complete, his mind's eye surgically sharpened to shock us from our stupor, to provoke us to question, to answer perhaps as well. His calm, unemotional prose reveals a desire to be absolutely clear and precise about difficult, uncomfortable subjects and ideas that often resist resolution - yet beneath that calm surface rages an emotional tumult. Although you won't see it in demonic contortions or blood-spattered climaxes; you will instead feel a quiet subtle whispering that touches your subconscious but leaves your brain tingling and your butt clenching. I just wouldn't describe the stories in Brains of Rats as scary - but they are still unsettling in a very great way.

I first read this collection in early 1991, spending about $30 on the original Scream/Press hardcover (below). It blew me away. So for ages now, having sold off my copy more than 10 years ago, I've wanted a revisit. While vacationing throughout Colorado, I found this Dell 1997 paperback reprint. These are stories Blumlein wrote throughout the 1980s, under the radar, for publications like Twilight Zone, Omni, Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as more experimental, even postmodern mags like Interzone and Semiotext(e). Once you've read these stories you'll see why. If you're into J.G. Ballard, David Cronenberg, classic cyberpunk, that kinda thing, you'll appreciate Blumlein's icy new world.

I even reread a couple during my vacation, lounging around when not sightseeing, but eventually gave it up: the stories probed deep into pain, terror, confusion, grief, in a very immediate, intimate manner. There was no comfort, no ease, no escape - obviously not vacay reading. To begin, let's take the utterly stunning "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report" for example: written in 1984, it concerns a then-current real world political figure and... well, some spoilers ahead.

Were it not so detached "Tissue Ablation" would be the blackest of satiric comedy; imagine Burroughs's Dr. Benway becoming one of America's most lauded surgeons. The story however is written in the exact style as it sounds: academic medical (you might get your Gray's Anatomy handy). This distances the reader only a tad; soon one realizes the enormity of the procedure being performed and - it can't be. Not that. It is nearly unimaginable, but with the good doctor detailing every slice, every incision, every removal in the most exacting words, we can see all too well the madness before us.

I would be lying if I claimed that [the patient] was not in constant and excruciating pain... In retrospect, I should've carried out a high transection of the spinal cord, thus interrupting most of the nerve fibers to his brain, but I did not think of it beforehand and during the operation was too occupied with other concerns.

Oh man. In retrospect. Oh holy shit. This is where science fiction meets horror, and the punchline, as it were, is devastating. We're never given a reason as to why the world now works as we see here; the conviction of the piece, and its resolution, are the sole reason why. Politically "Tissue Ablation" is a raging, maddened polemic; artistically it shares roots with Swift's "A Modest Proposal." As a work of horror, it is truly "horrible" yet not without its own kind of cold efficient beauty. It's one of the strangest - and best - stories of '80s horror.

Much of Brains of Rats concerns gender differences both at the biological and the social  strata, a theme which appears in nearly every story. These are ideas virtually never addressed in horror fiction of this era. Are we defined by our brains? Our genitalia? Some intermingling of each? Is what we think of as "natural" simply what our bodies are? Is mind not nature? The title story begins with the detached authority of a science textbook, even when it becomes about more than simple - or not so simple - scientific facts. The cadence is almost hypnotizing, and finally ominous:

The struggle between sexes, the battles for power are a reflection of the schism between thought and function, between the power of our minds and powerlessness in  the face of our design. Sexual equality, an idea present for hundreds of years, is subverted by instincts present for millions. The genes determining mental capacity have evolved rapidly; those determining sex have been stable for eons. Humankind suffers the consequences of this disparity, the ambiguities of identity, the violence between the sexes. This can be changed. It can be ended. I have the means to do it.

Blumlein lulls you with his matter-of-fact languor, but when the physician narrator turns on a dime to state his ability, you're left almost breathless. Characters represent at times perhaps not individual people but states of mind, philosophies, idealized members of the opposite sex. As he continues, offering snippets of evolutionary biology, autobiography, history, and philosophy, the amorality shocks but the conceit intrigues. More, we say, even as we recoil. More.

I felt almost in familiar territory with "Keeping House," a tale that wouldn't have seemed too unusual from Ramsey Campbell's pen. In first-person narration, a woman details how she and her husband purchase a house, one of a pair of identical structures built next to each other. The couple disagrees which to buy. Would it have mattered? Something seems wrong from the start; she blames the house next door. Her efforts to exorcize this "entity" through will power - I found a way in my mind to merge one wall of the house with another, eliminating perspective and the lessons of vision. Solid forms I deconstructed, melting their complex geometries into simpler dimensions - then reminded me of Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition. Then, our narrator notices filth and noxious odors everywhere, can't stop cleaning, disinfecting, comes to think her very own family, husband and infant daughter, are responsible; even her own sexuality is suspect. The final lines seem almost foreordained even as her behavior seems almost incomprehensible. Marvelous and accomplished stuff, definitely a high point of the collection.

Blumlein's first novel, 1987

Others: "The Wet Suit," with its quiet, uneventful denouement, could almost be a piece of realistic New Yorker-style fiction, except the wet suit of the title belongs to the deceased father of a middle-class family whose son learns of its vast fetishistic importance in the man's life. An importance, the son learns, everyone else in the family already knew... More Ballardian insanity in "Shed His Grace," all video mediation and clinical political pornography. Some classic cyberpunk stylings feature in "Drown Yourself" and "The Glitter and the Glamour." The former is (almost) straight out of Gibson's Burning Chrome, in which two androids "meet cute" in a wailing nightclub, while the latter reads like sentences were edited out, perhaps, to leave only an impressionistic jangle in the mind as we subconsciously put the story - future clone of some schmaltzy lounge singer? - back together again.

And most unexpectedly, Blumlein can break your heart: in "The Thing Itself," friends and lovers grapple with sickness and love and death. Myth, poetry, imagination: the real and the unreal at once, all intertwine to make peace with finality. The climax, perhaps a eulogy, perhaps a dream, perhaps only a journal entry or unmailed letter, is nearly the most touching I've ever read in horror fiction.

I remember the last morphine shot, the one that let you lie back, that let the knotted muscles in your chest and neck finally ease. The room was dark, your friends circled the bed like a hand. One by one they told the stories, they made a web of memories with you at the center.

Not the usual "unputdownable" or King-style encomiums 

And finally, "Bestseller," one of the bitterest, saddest tales about the economics of earning a living by the written word as any by Karl Edward Wagner or David J. Schow or Lovecraft, even.

The monkey sits on our head, we sit on the monkey. I finish the book, and an hour later the doctor calls to say that my young son has cancer. Cancer. What is the heart to do? Between exhilaration at completing the book and this sudden grief, my heart chooses the later. It is my son. They want to cut off his leg.

It is also the most startling, making literal a metaphor about one "breathing life" into one's art. Simply spectacular.

And the intro: oh, look, it's by our old pal Michael McDowell, the late lamented author of seminal '80s horror works like Cold Moon over Babylon, The Amulet, and The Blackwater series. It is a perceptive and faintly envious piece: I urge you to read it before the stories - you'll find no spoilers. McDowell states that "Blumlein's is a dignity of narration delineating madness and aberration. Even the stories that are 'predictable' such as the Who's-the-Android narrative of 'Drown Yourself' become treatises on passion and obsession." Indeed.

I will state it plain: The Brains of Rats is excellent, a rarity in '80s horror fiction, an adult work of brave and bristling smarts, skill, and fearlessness, as true and honest and uncompromising as the genre gets (which it so often isn't very). These stories are not for those who think horror is only skeletons and slime and gore and ghosts, who long to identify with everyday-folks protagonists, who want tidy oh-so-that's-what-it-all-meant finales, who want to step vicariously into the driver's mind-seat of the insane. So the stories aren't "scary" - Michael Blumlein has given us something better, unparalleled in power: a freezing, eye-watering blast of fear and pain from the most desolate and despairing of mysterious countries, that one of meat cradled within our skulls.

5 comments:

Josh Caporale said...

This seems creepy and like such an excellent idea for a horror fiction piece. I had to scroll down, so I wouldn't be spoiled. I have to find this thing!

Adam said...

Glad you're getting around to talking about this book. I've had that paperback for over a decade now and "Tissue Ablation" is one of those stories that sticks there, deep in the back-brain. It's horrible, it's beautiful, and ultimately, if you approach it from the detached standpoint of the narrator, it is 100% plausible.

The Native Americans knew not to waste...

Authorfan said...

Very interesting piece.

James Gracey said...

I have to try and acquire a copy of this from somewhere - wonderful write-up. I've only read Keeping House (found it in a collection of short stories titled I Shudder at Your Touch) and was immediately seduced - and unnerved - by Blumlein's style. The way he conveyed the narrator's neuroses was up there with Shirley Jackson - and no one does neurotic narrators quite like her.

Will Errickson said...

BRAINS OF RATS is a must-buy!

I can totally see the Jacksonian slant to "Keeping House" - good call.