Four Essential Books
by Michael Blumlein
Michael Blumlein, a San Francisco-based doctor,
is one of the most distinctive horror/sci fi writers on the scene, as evinced by
three absolutely stunning novels and an equally dazzling short story
collection. Blumlein’s writing is distinguished by unnervingly calm, clinical
prose as distinct as that of nearly any writer you can think of, and an outlook
that can only be called profoundly strange--note the pointed and precise
biography he provides on michaelblumlein.com (“I
was born and raised in San Francisco. My father was a grocer and a card player.
My mother loved books”), a potent
example of his inimitable style.
Now here’s the bad news: the three novels and single
collection mentioned above are the only books Blumlein has published in a
career that spans over twenty years (I’m guessing his day job is keeping him
plenty busy). That’s our loss, although what he accomplished with those books
is more than most other writers can ever hope to achieve.
Blumlein exploded onto
the scene with THE MOVEMENT OF MOUNTAINS, published by St. Martin’s
Press in 1987. It was packaged as straight science fiction, although the
back cover blurbs by John Shirley,
K.W. Jeter and Rudy Rucker (sci fi’s very own Whack Pack) should have tipped off
cannier readers as to the book’s much weirder charms. It’s a fully assured,
poised and confident debut novel with real style and vision.
It’s about a race of humanoid mutants called Domers,
genetically engineered to harvest a fungus on a distant planet. Said fungus is
the only known cure for a sexually transmitted disease that has all but ravaged
the human race. The novel’s wonderfully quirky hero, an overweight doctor, must
make a choice whether to save the Domers or humanity, which is in the grip of a
new, even deadlier disease.
Of course the story is a fairly standard sci fi
account, complete with an ethical message, but it’s filtered through Blumlein’s
peerlessly disturbed imagination. What emerges is a rich and strange concoction
that grows increasingly hallucinatory. But in truth the book is terminally nuts
from the opening sequence, in which a man informs the hero that he has a sore on
his penis. This adequately sets the tone for a novel that often reads like the
testimony of deranged MD with a chip on his shoulder.
THE BRAINS OF RATS,
a Scream/Press issued collection, followed in 1990. It’s often difficult
figuring out what Blumlein was trying to say with some of the stories herein, or
at times what the damn things are even about, but they’re all fascinating
and compelling works of pure imagination.
Particularly noteworthy is the title story, which
examines, in deliberately clinical fashion, the true differences between male
and female. “The Wet Suit” is another stand-out, being an examination of the
implosion of a family in the wake of the discovery of what their deceased
patriarch did in his spare time. “A Promise of Warmth” is about a dude turning
into a lizard.
Then there’s “The Thing Itself,” a real head-scratcher
involving a star-crossed romance between an ailing physician and one of his
patients that incorporates angels, demons, and a startlingly ambitious
examination of nothing less than life and death. “Bestseller,” which closes out
the collection, is a lengthy piece about a poverty stricken man’s ill-advised
decision to sell pieces of himself to a decaying rich guy. The psychic
interplay between the two characters, one of them inheriting the limbs, tissues
and organs of the other, is perfectly delineated, as is the upheaval it causes
in the protagonist’s life.
Those desiring weirdness and pure imaginative
brilliance are strongly advised to track down THE BRAINS OF RATS, which was
issued as a mass market paperback in 1997 by Dell. It’s a stand-out volume in a
career that grows stronger with each succeeding book.
That rule held true with 1993’s
X,Y, Blumlein’s first-ever paperback original (from Dell’s
short-lived Abyss series, which turned out some pretty amazing work). It’s a
profoundly disturbing exploration of male-female relations that makes THE CRYING
GAME look like SESAME STREET.
After undergoing a protracted seizure, erotic dancer
Frankie wakes up thinking she’s a man, apparently having swapped genders with a
patron. Blumlein’s concentration, however, is on Frankie’s relationship with
her live-in boyfriend Terry. At first Terry thinks Frankie’s joking around, but
soon realizes that things have irrevocably changed in their once idyllic
romance, leading to some seriously twisted mind games that devolve into
out-and-out S&M as Frankie realizes the power wielded by female sexuality and
uses it to her advantage.
Interspaced with nonfiction excerpts outlining the
story’s real-life psychosexual parallels, it’s an unputdownable classic, but
also a decidedly twisted one. Many readers will doubtless view X,Y as a
pointless exercise in psychosexual grotesquerie, while others (particularly this
one) will find it a brave and unflinching peek into the darkest depths of sex,
love and everything in between.
Continuing Blumlein’s trend of getting better with each book (and taking
ever-longer to crank them out), THE HEALER, which appeared in 2005, is
his strongest work to date. In contrast to the others it’s a more or less
straightforward sci fi novel, perhaps an attempt at a mainstream bestseller. If
that was indeed Blumlein’s intent then he failed, as the novel was published in
hardcover by the independent imprint Prometheus Books, and never made it
into the chain bookstores. That’s a shame, as THE HEALER is stunner: endlessly
imaginative, absorbing and even profound.
It concerns a race of “Grotesques,” or Tesques, who are
afflicted with the “gift” of healing and its attendant responsibilities and
consequences. The main character is Payne, a Tesque snatched from his family as
a teenager and sent to work as a healer in a remote mining community. There he
learns a number of harsh lessons, such as the fact that healers are treated as
little more than slaves by humans, and that some folks don’t want to be
From there Payne is shipped to a gambling mecca--a bit
like Las Vegas times a thousand--where he joins a band of revolutionary Tesques.
He ends up in a government compound where he’s put to work performing the most
difficult healings there are. Payne also meets his long-lost brother, who it
turns out is wasting away from a weird disease. The problem is that Tesques
can’t heal each other...but that doesn’t stop Payne from trying, with unexpected
Obviously Blumlein, who in this book added an M.D. to
his moniker, means to symbolically explore people’s attitudes to doctors, and
does so in a wholly fascinating manner. HEALER is an eye-opening, mind
expanding piece of work that, despite the fact that the author’s gruesome
imagination is fully in evidence, seems ideally suited to reach a wider audience
than the previous books--which, alas, it didn’t achieve.
Great novel nonetheless. I just hope we don’t have to
wait another decade for Blumlein’s next book!
As a postscript, I’ll add a short account of Blumlein’s
film work, or “Michael Blumlein at the Movies.” Blumlein provided text
for the 1988 short “Decodings,” said to consist of “archival footage that
explores the problems of growing up gay in the 1950s and 1960s.”
I haven’t seen that film, but have viewed director
Stephen Berkman’s “Shape without Form” (included in the 1999 compilation DVD
SHORT 1: INVENTION), for which Blumlein shares scripting credit. It’s a
determinedly experimental 4-minute swirl of disconnected images set to equally
cryptic narration. Make of it what you will--I, while impressed by the
undeniable skill with which the film was made, found it off-putting and
Finally there’s director Vladimir Vitkin’s
feature adaptation of X,Y.
It has yet to be commercially released, but is a daring and powerful account, a
rare film that actually matches its source novel’s verve and perversity. In
other words, if X,Y the book sounds interesting to you, you’ll very likely enjoy