The Brains of Rats

I have long loved the collection The Brains of Rats by Michael Blumlein. Here is the review I wrote :

Once in a great while you stumble across a work of fiction that makes you reevaluate everything you think, everything you feel, even everything you think you know. Michael Blumlein’s collection The Brains of Rats contains twelve such works. Nine of these stories were previously published, and three of them were new when this collection was released by Scream Press.

upon reading these twelve stories the first question you will find yourself asking is: “what genre is this?” I can’t answer that question. Blumlein can’t answer it either. These stories are largely unclassifiable. They are truly Sui Genres, that is, they are their own category.

These stories defy comparison. While reading them one begins to think of Swift’s most acerbic and caustic satire (think of A Modest Proposal), or Gibson’s Cyberpunk (Mona Lisa Overdrive), or Saunders’ Post Modern satire CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, or perhaps Lewis Carroll. But none of these are quite right. And yet, these stories call out toward all of these styles, and more. I guess the closest comparison is Roald Dahl (not the kid’s books we all know, but his adult collections such as Someone Like You, and Switch B*tch), or perhaps the films of
Luis Bunel.

So, what are these stories about, you ask. Well, the title story concerns a doctor. He’s male, but effeminate. He’s married to a masculine woman who controls him. Sometimes he likes to cruise for men who will abuse him sexually. It seems that the doctor has discovered a way to insure that all children born from now on will be of a single sex. That is, he is going to choose which gender to eradicate. It never occurs to him that his decision (either one) will spell extinction for the human race. Along the way we get discussions of Jean D’Arc’s sex, sexual deformities, and gonorrhea. This tale is presented in a paranoiac first person style that draws the reader into the skewed psyche of this very unreliable narrator. It is a queasy, yet exhilarating experience.

A few of the other stories include:

Best Seller is about a writer who’s down on his luck. To support his family he begins selling parts of his body to a rich old man. Told in the form of diary entries, this story always remains distanced. This distance sucks all emotion from the story. It is cold, calculated. Beautiful.

Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: a Case Report is presented like a paper written for a medical journal. Blumlein is, in real life, a practicing MD. It shows in this story. With cold, dispassionate precision he recounts how a patient “Mr. Reagan”, is dissected while awake and un-anesthetized. This is done so that portions of his body can be used to produce much needed goods for the third world. This story reads as the most vicious satire I have ever encountered. In this instance, Jonathan Swift aint got nothin’ on our boy here. If you thought Network was angry satire, think again. If you think MAD magazine is satirical, well, not by these standards. Maybe you think South Park is strong satire? Have they ever dissected a live, conscious human on South Park? I don’t think so. The point being made here is not a subtle one. This is clearly meant as redress for the foreign policy adventures of “Mr. Reagan’s” administration. This story is powerful.

Drown Yourself is a sort of Cyberpunk whodunit? Kind of a `guess who’s an android’ tale. Nicely done, even if the idea isn’t particularly new or novel.

Interview With C.W. is a surreal little gem. Impossible to get a hold on, this story just twists around in your mind. Like all those tubes on Star Trek, it goes nowhere, does nothing. But it does it nicely. Entertaining in a nightmare inducing way. In fact, this entire book is like a nightmare that has gone terribly out of control.

Freud would have loved Blumlein’s work. He would have relished all the scarred psyche’s, the out of control Id’s, the unresolved sexual tension, and the (dare I say it?) Perversion. Somewhere, buried inside the plots and characters that inhabit these stories, is a moral. It is this: we hurt each other. We break each other. We leave scars, and other distinguishing marks. We bruise, and batter and break the minds and souls, even of those we love. Perhaps of those we love most of all.

Blumlein slips into and out of different writing styles effortlessly. He is a master of the written word. He is a genius (I think that word is much over used these days, but in this case it applies). Each of these stories will grab you by a vital organ (or, at least one you think is vital), and drag you along. You will hate Blumlein for forcing you to look at the delicate terrors he has presented (a decaying corpse, a horny android, a wet suit and a sex swing, and a man who is making himself a defacto leper are just a few that will haunt you). But, in the end you will be glad you took the journey. You will finish this book, and you will be different.

A word about the physical aspects of the book itself:
Released by Scream Press, this hardcover is beautifully designed. Bound in black, with silver inlaid writing along the spine, it is a lovely book. The dust cover, faded blue with slightly grainy images of faces, set into these pictures are close-ups of faces and brains. The book contains nine wonderful illustrations by Stephen Elston. These drawings have the feeling of some strange collage. They depict cruelty and gruesome violence, mixed with odd Victorian sexuality. These illustrations perfectly fit the mood, and tone of the stories.
One illustration of note features a revolver and a microscope fused into one deadly piece of scientific equipment.

As a final note: this book was published in 1989. It was never a best seller. Most people have never heard of it. The world isn’t fair.

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