Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bad Brains by Kathe Koja (1992): You Got the Silver

How fear the void when the void is where you live?

Ready for a long luxurious swim in the grimy waters of another Kathe Koja novel? Thought you were. March 1992 saw the publication of her second novel from Dell/ Abyss, that ambitious little imprint that wanted to put an experimental edge into horror fiction. Appropriately titled Bad Brains, it features an artistic, alienated, rather unsympathetic protagonist whose world is collapsing into a nightmare of surreality and neurological despair (much like Nicholas, the main character from Koja's 1991 Stoker Award-winning debut novel, The Cipher).

Depression would be a huge psychological improvement for Austen Bandy, a young man whose wife Emily has left him and who then finds so have his skill and passion for painting huge oil portraits of sphinxes and other human-animal hybrids. Once he accidentally cracks his head wide open - his grieving bitter head - he begins having seizures and sees things. Or rather, one thing that bleeds into everything, a dustdevil of fluid, liquid, mucus; silver, almost scalelike, delicate as fish skin and stretching out, elongating...

Think A Monstrously Decaying Blood-Limned Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or think Cronenberg's films like Spider or The Dead Zone. For better or worse, Koja drills into Austen's every hurt and weakness and casts all in a drizzly grey light or a harsh winter cold. The atmosphere this creates can be suffocating, even tedious, in its insularity. Here, human interactions are stilted and ineffective (just wait till Austen visits mom!); grime and grease tinge every surface; homes and clothes are worn out, threadbare; food and coffee always foul; sex, ugh; hopelessness and hard-won creativity mingle to create a stew of incipient insanity. But is it Austen's psyche that's wounded, or is it his very brain?

Read the back of the paperback (such accolades!). It's pretty accurate but it only hints at the sanity-shattering silvery snotty serpent thing that threads and drips and convulses and glides now in Austen's vision, befouling corners, mirrors, faces, beer bottles, then out the nose and ears because it is inside Austen's brain. And when the brain, where our true self resides, surges silver and pink and rebels against its own best interests, why it will show you just what it's up to, when you look in the silvered mirror:

I am standing here seeing it, I am seeing it

and took off the top of its skull

where the brain is

and inside, the most delicate writhe, each lobe filigreed, threaded and girdled with silvery death in all its masques and manifestations, in all its irrevocable forms: the elegant pulse of an aneurysm, an extravagant clutch of tumors concealed like an oyster's pearl, clots like molded caviar and each molecule burning, shining silver light on the bone chips ragged and blood like the swirled center of a dubious treat; and nestled in the rich middle like eggs in a nest, eyes.

1996 Dell reprint

Minor spoilers ahead! But transcendence - come disguised as an illness - awaits. After finding no mere medical doctor can cure him, Austen embarks on a long squalid car trip to see his ludicrous mother, then finds a new friend with lunatic father issues, and on till Emily reappears, unsmiling, unsympathetic, certain that Austen can never get past all that Art 101 bullshit and accept the responsibilities of his life without her. Then Austen hears from a gallery owner acquaintance back home that he's sold some of Austen's old paintings, and they're all changing: but in everything one constant: the relentless drip of a color so pale it was nameless; but if he had to, Peter said, he would call it silver.

Cover & stepback art by Marshall Arisman

Soon they all find reclusive Dr. Quiet and Dr. Quiet can help, gets Austen painting in a frenzy again (I assume his portraits look much like the artist-unknown cover art), starts using terms like "the stone of folly" and "duende" and "limbic borders" or some such, and reveals through videotapes of monstrosities - some of the novel's best moments - that Austen might not be alone in his sore world. Or he might be. Everything Koja depicts, everything Austen encounters, could it all just be code for the blasted crumbling architecture of Austen's brain, starved of its art, its love, its vision, its power of creation, that machine of luminosity and magic...?

...to cross the border where the air itself is glass burned black... not only live and die for your art but become it, go past it, eat it bloody and alive and make it over to devour again and again like Cronus eating his children, ignoring their screams because what is is what must be and in all the rooms in the house of art there is only one altar, one half-seen silver priest and one demand

UK paperback 1993

As you see, Koja's prose style is all edge and poetic deconstruction, stripped bare and decorated in discomfort. A weird poet of the crumbling and the crazy. This is no epic novel of horrors human and hellspawned, but a novel of inner horror, which I find captivating; I like her anguished artist characters who suffer for their (lack of creating) art, who twist and turn helplessly through a worn-out world, insides spilling out as they search for answers to a madness that seems more than chemicals misfiring. However I understand not everyone is so enamored of arty characters engaging in what could be seen as self-indulgent self-pity... "Shut up and paint!" you want to yell at Austen at times, but he really does have a physical ailment, so that seems a bit impolitic, no?

I read and liked Bad Brains when it came out, as Koja's writing appealed to my growing appreciation for uncompromising non-horror authors like Burroughs and Ballard and Celine, and lately I'd been wondering if it would it hold up for a second read, over 20 years later. Well, I couldn't put it down for the last 70 or 80 pages, the nightmare ratcheting up, and a strange haunt lingered about me for days afterward... proof that Koja, for all her stylistic eccentricities and lack of providing a real plot (Austen himself has no plot), effectively creates dread, suspense, fear and, okay, bewilderment. But what finally awaits Austen and the people he's, let's face it, dragged passive-aggressively along with him - everything ends in silver: messy, unpredictable, bizarre - I hope haunts you too. But that's no big surprise.


Bark At The Ghouls said...

I really enjoyed this review. I read this way back when it was first released and appreciated the revisit. I may have to give it a reread one of these days.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks Barkless! Took me awhile to write this post up, as reading and reviewing Koja is a challenge - a welcome one, but still. Definitely give it a revisit when you can since as you can see, I was quite satisfied with mine. And unlike THE CIPHER, which now goes for hefty collector prices, BAD BRAINS can be had cheap, if you no longer have your copy.

francisco said...

hey she got the same stylist than Stevie Nicks...

more seriously not so much of the titles of the Dell/Abyss line were translated to spanish, I have read Dead in the water by Nancy Holder and it is a very good book, a bit extreme in some pages but really good and interesting, a combination of classical elements of the genre, psychological and quiet horror and graphic horror, have you read it? I think it could be interesting for you

by the way psychological horror and quiet horror are more or less synonyms?

Will Errickson said...

I have not read DEAD IN THE WATER but I've liked the Holder short stories I've read.

Psychological and quiet horror aren't synonyms; the former highlights the fragile and tormented mental states of characters, while the latter simply uses subtlety to evoke fear.

J. said...

Little late here but the top cover art looks an awful lot like Marshall Arisman's work.