If the somewhat ridiculous title and trippy cover art of Curt Siodmak’s 1942 novella Donovan’s Brain wasn’t enough to sell me on it being decent and exciting Crap Looking Books material, a glance at the blurb was all I needed.
“Dr Patrick Cory is being destroyed by a brain which he recovered from a dying millionaire.”
That’s a pitch and a half right there. The story is surprisingly simple. Somewhat estranged surgeon Dr Patrick Cory saves the brain of a millionaire who happens to crash his plane nearby. He feeds the brain, and as it grows it extends increased control over the doctor, manipulating him to carry out an unknown and possibly diabolical plan. Beyond the seemingly simple Hollywood Horror premise, this book is a surprising technical triumph that would still hold weight as a new release today.
As the story progresses, so does Dr Cory’s obsession with the brain, and the brain’s influence over him. This way in which plot and character are so linked propels the reader onwards, as they find themselves wanting Cory to keep testing on the brain. When it starts to control him, the reader is less eager for him to be free, and more interested in seeing where he’ll go.
The concept of two brains fighting for space in one head is an excellent device for questioning just how sure we are of our own tastes and feelings. Dr Cory refers to himself in the first person even when he is under control, raising the question of just how much free will he and the rest of us have- even when we’re not sharing our head with someone else. The text is a metaphor for all brains. Just as Dr Cory follows the brain’s orders with no understanding as to why, we all enact impulsive decisions and reactions without real knowledge of our motivations or the systems that govern our thoughts.
Speaking of metaphor, the text employs strong, original scientific metaphors throughout, that even seven decades later have not become cliché or overused. The reader is aware of looking through a scientist’s eyes, examining the world and making sense of it in a clinical and medical fashion. It is bold originality that some modern writers, who still insist on giving their characters butterflies in their stomach and springs in their step, could learn from.
While the pseudo-deceased Donovan is often perceived as a money-driven villain, there is a sense of balance. Dr Cory remarks that “the rich man lives a packed life equivalent to may ordinary ones” and that “to amass millions in the short course of a life, one must be ruthless and untroubled by conscience” but fails to see his own driven nature, and how scientific process is just as vital and dominating to him as money is to Donovan. This duality between the two characters further reinforces the blurred lines in the mental conflict between them.
For something written in 1942, Donovan’s Brain features a surprisingly strong female character in the form of Cory’s wife Janice, she for whom “the more horrible the truth, the braver she would be.” While she possesses distinctly archetypal feminine qualities of care and compassion, she doesn’t simply borrow her strength from a list of stereotyped traits considered masculine, but makes her own identity. Strong individual women were in abundance even in the 1940s, and modern writers could take a note from Curt Siodmak in properly representing them.
There are some awkward signs of the times however, as a black adult male is frequently referred to as “the coloured boy”, but a reader can forgive this archaism and I don’t see that any future digital reissue couldn’t easily tidy this up.
The climax of the novel is satisfactory but the conclusions it draws are unfortunately drab. Dr Cory reasons that while “the brain’s constructive imagination […] is limitless”, being a person of quality and honesty comes from learned behaviours, which mankind has to constantly work upon. It is a weak revelation, which expresses the doctor’s understanding that there is more to life than science and reason, but falls short of any great reflection over the intrinsic truths of human identity. Given that this is a book about a giant brain, punctuated by conflicts between different attitudes and feelings, a tighter and more existential closing would have been more effective and rewarding.
So how does it sit in the Crap Looking Books eye? I really don’t know.
It is, unfortunately, an impeccably well-written book, and an enjoyable read. The title and cover tie in beautifully with the book itself, proving themselves not just a means to sell the novel, but devices that affect and colour the narrative itself. The calm, sterile illustration reflects how fetishistically Dr Cory sees what has actually become an indiscernible revolting grey mass in a jar, and highlights his belief that the brain is something pure and hallowed. Even the title, while initially a little silly, is no more ridiculous than The Golden Compass or The Wasp Factory, and reflects how much the text focuses around that one singular item with utmost purpose and importance.
I’d recommend it if you fancy a study in driven characters, and if you’re the sort of person who questions your own motives or forgets why you like the things you do.