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Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak

When I was writing my post the other week about my reading history I tried to remember my favourite Science Fiction books from my teens. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one, Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage was another, but my absolute favourite from back then was Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.  This made me desperate to read it again; it’s out of print, but I ordered an old paperback and devoured its 160 pages as soon as it arrived.

Siodmak was born in Germany, of Polish Jewish descent, leaving Germany before WWII and settling in the USA. A mathematician, he became a successful screenwriter getting his big break with The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney in 1941.  At first glance, Donovan’s brain has all the trappings of a pulp sci-fi novel – the melodramatic story of a mad scientist who keeps a brain alive and then the brain takes over him.  However, it’s not that at all!   In fact, it’s rather serious, and alongside the SF with a horror slant is a novel that’s pure noir.

Patrick Cory is a middle-aged doctor who experiments in his lab at keeping animal brains alive funded by his wife Janice. One night he’s called out to a plane crash and rescues a dying man.  He harvests the brain before the body finally dies and connects it up in a tank.  It turns out the man was a rich industrialist, W H Donovan,  who was dying of kidney disease anyway.  Cory manages to keep the brain alive successfully, recording the brain waves, but can’t work out a way of  communicating with it.  The brain starts to grow, and then one night, Cory falls asleep after tapping Morse Code on the brain’s container. He wakes up to find some names written on the pad.  This is the start of the brain’s telepathy with Cory.  The elderly Dr Schratt, his sometime alcoholic assistant, begs him not to take it further…

“… You are killing faith! I’m glad only a few men like you exist! Your researches have made you more and more rational, until you refuse to recognize a single fact cannot be proved in the laboratory. I’m frightened, Patrick! You’re creating a mechanical soul that will destroy the world.”
I listened patiently. Schratt obviously had thought deeply about all this, and saying it seemed to make him feel better.
“Great mathematicians and physiologists,” I said quietly, “inevitably arrive at a point where their minds meet something beyond human comprehension, something divine. They can only face it by believing in God. Most scientists become religious when they reach that stage of research.”

Schratt looked at me astonished. Those might have been his own words. When he saw I had not spoken with irony, he nodded, but doubtfully, still mistrusting me as a convert to his philosophy.

Cory of course can’t let go, he’s already ensnared by the brain, and as the days go on the brain gets stronger, and then it takes his body over, and also adopts the mannerisms, gait and penchant for cigars of its dead owner. Donovan sends Cory to LA to sort out unfinished business, and this is where the novel turns into a noir detective story. Cory cannot resist the brain except when asleep, and finds himself signing cheques, and carrying out the dying man’s last plans to get his own back on those whom he believes have wronged him in business. Cory is finally scared …

I recalled the stages I had passed through during this experiment with Donovan’s brain. At first I had concentrated on Donovan’s orders, forcing myself to understand him. During the second phase I easily interpreted commands, and acted accordingly. Finally I had permitted the brain to direct my body.
Until now I was unable to resist. I had lost control completely!
The brain could walk my body in front of a car, throw it out of the window, put  a bullet through my head with my own hands. I could only cry out from the despair of my imprisonment, but even the words my mouth formed were those the brain wanted to hear.
A wave of terror engulfed me as I realized I was like a man fastened in a machine which moves his hands and feet against his will.

Donovan’s Brain may not have the best writing, but it does have a philosophical side that explores ethics and other scientific dilemmas amongst the many other moral issues raised by the story. It’s also written as journal entries by Cory which help give that first person authentic noir narrative. So, some thirty plus years after I previously read it, how was it on re-reading? I think you can guess – I still love it! I want to track down the film too. (10/10)

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