If you’re a fan of horror fiction, surely you know the work of Kathe Koja. I first heard of her work reading a horror lit zine in the early 90s in a promo article touting her soon to be released novel The Cipher. The local strip mall installed a Hastings and they had the best selection of new horror titles in the world. It would be months before the library would carry any of her books, so I plopped down my money and the world has never looked the same to me since. When her second novel, Bad Brains, hit the stands, it was an instant purchase. I’ve only read it twice; when it was first released, and more recently for this review. Considering so many years have passed since my first read, I figured it was the perfect Tattered Tomes book for me to tackle.
The book wrestled me down to the mat instead, which was exactly what I was hoping for.
The best way to explore this novel with you is by spoiling it. So, if you’ve never read Bad Brains, shame on you, read it now, and consider yourself warned if you proceed past this point.
Austen Bandy: Artist, divorced, barely existing, tortured, and starved for something other than the life he’s living. A random accident sends him to the hospital to recover from a cracked skull and a scarred and frazzled brain. As he heals, the silver comes, first just in the corner of his eye, but soon it starts violating his world, consuming his sanity, controlling his life. The tried and true methods of mental health care cannot quench the seepage of liquid chrome that compels him to acts of violence. Desperate, Austen finds himself face to face with his loveless ex-wife and a strange doctor who can not only see what Austen sees, but who also thinks he can help Austen learn to deal with it through art.
Perhaps it’s best to start with some of the criticism I’ve read about the book, claiming it’s a great read, but a story that lacks a real plot. Like that really matters. To be fair, there is a plot to the story, a plot so primal we miss it if we stare too long. Our protagonist, Austen Bandy, is an artist, one who wins the Most Tortured Artist in the World Award if there is such a thing, and his journey is transformative, flowing through a viscous ooze of despair until finally coming full circle, returning to that which torments him so completely: Art. I feel a lot of criticism stems from the book’s ebb and flow framed within a ‘road trip through hell’ story. The structure tends to follow that formula, but by coinciding with the time-worn plot device of character transformation, it may have thrown some readers off from what they expected. The story was certainly ground-breaking, published at a time when experimental fiction was, well…more experimental. The typical horror novel of that time followed the tropes to the letter because that was what was expected, by both the publishers and the readers. The Dell Abyss line was all about taking risks, providing cutting edge horror to escape the mundane. Take the same story and publish it today and I feel most readers would feel right at home with Austen’s journey, probably more so because we’re accustomed to tales like this now. Kathe Koja broke that ground in horror fiction first, laying the map down for transgressive fiction before that term was even a thing.
Road trip stories, properly done, provide a great backdrop for character transformation. The journey is both physical and figurative, and hopefully subjective and organic to the character. The catalyst for Austen’s trip comes directly from his need to find out what the hell is wrong with him. He’s exhausted all the normal possibilities, his pocketbook is an insurance claim nightmare while his healthcare professionals suspect a high degree of hypochondria is an explanation of his symptoms. Turning to his ex-wife is out of the question; Austen knows exactly how that’s going to play out, no need for more torture. He must get out of town, anywhere, though he does have a destination in mind, he’s just too afraid to admit it. Dropping off his paintings at the local gallery so his friend Peter can watch over them, Austen loads up his car and just drives.
He came to a branching and without thought turned west, and south: Texas. Apparently he was inexorably bound for Cyndee’s. Well. Perhaps things really are never so bad that they can’t get worse. What would he say to her, how would he explain his visit? Hi Mom: I’m crazy, I’m broke, and I’m back.” – page 122.
The visit home to mom only gives him solace in the understanding that you just can’t go home. At least not home like you thought it would be. At one of the local dive bars near his mother’s house, Austen has a seizure and meets Russell. Familiar with the seizures that his father suffered from, Russell helps Austen out of the bar, forging an unlikely friendship. With both men basically at the crossroad of life, they decide to travel together, with Russell eventually doing all the driving due to Austen’s seizures, which have intensified in both unpredictability and frequency. And while Russell drives, Austen starts sketching again. Mostly it’s to whittle away the time on the road, but he’s back at his art, yet very afraid of sketching the silver that throttles his brain.
Russell thinks Austen has seen the face of God through his seizures, and though he doesn’t outright encourage the seizures, he does welcome them for Austen, at first. As the convulsions intensify, the things Austen sees is like a waking nightmare.
How strange to look down and see those distorted fingers sprouting like antennae or weeds in a garden, it seemed like something he ought to be upset about but it was just so extremely interesting, all his skin was that strange color now. A pulsing, somewhere around the bones of his wrists, like little throbbing clocks beneath the demure coverlet of skin and he raised his arms to show Russell, to say, Hey, isn’t this weird? Look.” – page 233.
When Austen attacks Russell, calling attention to the police and getting kicked out of places to stay, Austen falls back within himself. His fear cripples him, and Koja is an expert of creating the tension and dread that comes with that territory, even using the silver in mirrors to distort Austen’s reality to the point where he sees the chrome-like fluid dripping from his pores. As the seizures reach a fever pitch, Austen reaches out to Peter, who is storing Austen’s paintings free of charge at his gallery. Apparently, Peter managed to sell some of the paintings, and the news of that infuriates Austen so much that he really doesn’t fully comprehend exactly what happened. Peter informs him that the paintings changed. No trick of the light, the colors of the paintings changed right before his eyes, shifting as though a black overlay had been applied by unseen hands. The paintings sold for ‘large money’, but that’s all beyond Austen at this point. He’s angry because he didn’t give Peter permission to sell and now he can’t see how they’ve changed. Austen’s just looking for an excuse to lash out by then. He falls into the warm embrace of a local stripper procured by Russell only to be completely surprised by Emily, his ex-wife, post coitus, adding the deep sting of regret to Austen’s woes.
Russell manages to track Emily down, and her appearance reapplies a voice of reason to the scenes, though the voice is no longer detached and unemotional, it’s personal and full of venom and barbs designed to dig deeper into Austen’s fragile state of mind. She wants a whole hospital work up on Austen, and he almost complies just for a chance to spend time with her, fully aware it’s not worth the effort but still needing the rush of her, unable to fully cut that cord. These scenes are the most dramatic, with tension so thick you can cut it with a knife. Shuffling from doctor to doctor, each with less credentials behind their names than the last, Austen finally ends up with Dr. Quiet. Emily is furious, convinced the doctor is a quack, and decides her time with Austen has gone terminal. But Austen finds some comfort with Dr. Quiet, especially when the doctor claims he sees what Austen sees. After suggesting Austen start to paint again, the tortured artist comes full circle, using his art to break through the borders.
What’s a road trip without a final destination?
The story asks more questions than it answers. What border is Austen breaking through? Life? Death? Sanity? Is the silver that is consuming his life real, or only in his mind? Can Dr. Quiet really see what Austen sees? What of his paintings, the oil shifting and flowing on the canvas?
The answers to these questions matter inasmuch as they don’t matter. Knowing doesn’t change anything. In fact, answering these questions could possibly destroy the experience. Understanding the story, the knowing part of these questions, is not dependent on the horrifying experience relayed through our characters. The horror here is organic and subjective, which is exactly what Koja does with her fiction. The why, the how, is irrelevant. Bad Brains defines cutting-edge horror, and is a work that only Kathe Koja could have produced. Her work typically features fully realized characters facing their individual demons, and their horrors are intimate and dependent thoroughly of the character, continuously racking up the tension with each page.
If fear of the unknown is mankind’s greatest fear, doesn’t it make sense that the scariest thing we can go through is a horror so intimate, so organic, that it changes every dynamic of our lives and has everything to do with us? This is scarier than any monster we can conjure with our collective imaginations. The journey the reader takes with this book is to travel down that limbic highway, heading towards a barrier, and once we break through the border, all our other fears are nothing but petty cries of inconvenience.
Kathe Koja’s Bad Brains deserves a special place on your bookshelf. You should read it and revisit it frequently, if only to remind us that the silver is always there, lurking in the corner of our eye. You can remind yourself again and again that it’s only a book…it’s only a book…
Only the words on the page can keep the silver at a safe distance.
Break on through.