I knew of Donovan’s Brain because it was made into a pulpy sci-fi movie in the fifties. A brain divorced from body that can control other people with the power of thought alone! The hideous ability of a mind separate from the morality that the flesh engenders in the living! Because a brain apart can’t possibly be counted as alive, or so is one of the preconceptions of the novel.
The book is written by Curt Siodmak, a name I recognize though I haven’t read anything of his before. He was a popular screenwriter, having penned The Wolf Man—the one that starred Lon Chaney, Jr.—and so that may have been how his name entered my (as yet skull-housed) brain.
The novel is not as pulp-oriented as I expected. The central scientist is definitely mad, and despite a last-minute change at the end of the book, he’s so obsessed by science, by a single theory, that he’s virtually inhuman, no more than an ambulatory brain himself. And I guess that’s what surprised me about the book—along with being a tale of science gone mad—is that it’s a careful dissection of how obsession can destroy a person’s humanity.
See, the main storyline involves the scientist (Dr. Patrick Cory) who is convinced that he can coerce the brain into living past the demise of the body. His wife (Janice) is so tangential to the main thrust of the novel that you aren’t even told she’s his wife until a good twenty to thirty pages into the book. They live in a small town, have no social life, and don’t even leave the house (or he his laboratory) except for necessities. He has no concern for food or pleasure or anything except for the quest to prove his theory.
The brain he ends up proving his theory with is that of W. H. Donovan, a multi-billionaire, and a man who has ruined his own life with his obsession with money and control. As a result of Patrick’s experiment, Donovan’s brain gains telepathic control over the good doctor so that Patrick is able to see, from the inside, the hollow shell of a life Donovan made for himself, and how he’s driven (now from beyond the grave (sort of)) to make things right, though even his reparations are hamstringed by his inability to understand human nature.
They are parallels, and though Patrick ends up surviving with the help of a good woman (in a completely unconvincing change of heart re: science and discovery and the importance of other people as people) they are both really the same cautionary tale. Siodmak dresses the moral side, the side that treasures people instead of ideas, with faith and God, though the fact that the “good” side is put forward by a drunk and a self-negating suffering martyr of a woman doesn’t really let the novel prioritize one way of living over the other.
Two things struck me about the novel, other than it’s less than pulpy (for the most part) nature. The first is that it’s told in a diary form, harkening back to horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. The second thing, closely related to the first, is that the main character is so reprehensible and that isn’t a barrier to identifying with him (unlike the sexist jerk who fronts The Path Beyond the Stars). I think it’s because of the diary form that he’s tolerable—we’re in his head, and he doesn’t see himself as evil or jerkish or bigoted, so we can get his viewpoint completely and understand it even as we’re horrified by his actions.
Is Donovan’s Brain a good novel? The prose is uninspired, written in the dry factual manner of a journalist or (dare I say) a scientist. There’s virtually no imagery in the entire book. The novel is fascinating, though, especially after an opening that surprises the reader with Patrick’s cruelty, and his utter dedication to science, a surprise that works because it plays the reader’s natural sense of compassion against them.
Patrick buys a monkey from a traveling organ grinder, a monkey who is flea-bitten, half-starved, and has clearly never seen much love in its life. He feeds the monkey, gets rid of its fleas, suffers its bites as he tries to give it warmth, to befriend it. Then, when it is completely at ease and trusts him implicitly as its caretaker, he kills it with a single stab to the spinal cord. Negative emotions, of course, will influence the brain chemistry, which will taint his experiment. Just as the negative emotions engendered by that act influence the reading of Patrick’s character throughout the novel, and make his actions and thoughts endlessly intriguing.