The Brains of Rats (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Michael Blumlein, Michael P. Kube-McDowell

It's hard to categorize this book, certainly a mixture of SF, horror and most certainly weird fiction. It is however memorable with some of the stories so vivid and shocking in their imagery that they stay long in the mind after completion. Having learned that the author Michael Blumlein is by profession a physician it is not surprising that the content of many of the stories showcases his background, and this alone makes them all the more difficult to read and digest!

 

"The Brains of Rats" is an analysis of our genetic makeup, "Around the fifth week a single gene turns on, initiating a cascade of events that ultimately gives rise to testicle or ovary. In the male this gene is associated with the Y chromosome; in the female, with the X. An XY pair normally gives rise to a male; an XX pair, to a female."  It is difficult to understand if the narrator is more male than female and in the same way his wife causes concern over the nature of her own sexuality..."My wife, a laborer, wear only pants. She drives a truck."

 

"Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: a Case Report" This story has a real disturbing edge, it is the harvesting of a human body whilst the donor is kept fully awake and aware of the process. The coldness and the narrator's total lack of empathy with the patient Mr Reagan makes for very uncomfortable yet memorable and essential reading..."The patient was offered the choice of an Eastern mode of anesthesia, but he demurred. Mr Regan has an obdurate faith in things American."

"Shed His Grace" Once again the narrator in this story appears to have issues with his sexuality and gender and the fact that he is only ever referred to by the letter "T" adds an eerie detached quality to the writing. The story is set during the Reagan administration of 1984 an ostentatious and extravagant time as the US is represented to the rest of the world by an actor and his equally flamboyant wife, the demure and sensitive Nancy. As we begin to understand the life of "T" this odd individual living a lonely existence is soon to shock us with a conclusion of some defiance. He has an almost obsessive (and possibly unhealthy) fascination with Nancy Reagan her slim, petite, nubile body occupying his thoughts often.."She wore a purple silk dress with a pink floral pattern across the bodice. The neck was high and ruffled, the sleeves short. Around the wrist she wore a gold bracelet...Her lips were red and smiling, her eyes bright. She made a demure gesture and turned down a long hall. The hem of the dress brushed against her calves, stroking them only inches above the mound of her heels."  This is also the time of the 1984 Olympics and "T" has a a preoccupation with the well muscled and toned athletes on display. His use of a razor to mark and shape his body leads to a disturbing final scene.

 

"The Wet Suit" is a gentle memorable story about family, love and death. Cam's father has died and his mother Fran wants him to help maintain/repair the family home and to inspect a rather odd cardboard that his father kept. This is a story that openly states we are all not what we seem, we all keep secrets from our loved ones....but at the end of the day does that really matter? We all need time out, our own space to indulge in our own pastimes and not be judged by others. What does it matter if it makes us happy, harms no one and helps maintain family harmony.

 

"Bestseller" continues the theme of selling/harvesting body parts. The narrator, an unsuccessful writer, slipping into poverty, is faced with a difficult decision when his son Nick is diagnosed with cancer. How can he afford the treatment? By chance he sees an advertisement "Donors Needed" and when a delightful woman answers the phone he is intrigued enough to agree to visit her medical organisation, as she only requires a survey to be completed and for this privilege he will be handsomely remunerated...."she explained that their research was in the field of organ transplantation , though she was quick to reassure me that the study only required a questionnaire and simple blood test. They were offering two hundred dollars to all those who enrolled." The allure of easy money persuades our narrator to return many times to the medical centre where the lovely Devora convinces him that if he continues to help them with their studies/program he will be richly rewarded. Events appear now to spiral out of control when his body parts are sought.....but he has a wife Claire and a sick son to support..how can he refuse! The horror creeps in as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion.

 

I judge a good book often by its ability to make me think and ask questions. There are many stories in this collection that are highly visual in the message they are promoting. At times uncomfortable to read, sometimes a little perplexing and puzzling but equally very memorable. A great thanks to the good people at Valancourt books for supplying me with a gratis copy. They are doing so much to promote and publish rare, neglected and out of print fiction and for their kindness I have written a fair and honest review.