Siodmak (1902-2000) already had 18 published novels under his belt in Germany before emigrating to the U.S., fleeing the anti-Semitism of pre-war Germany. His older brother, Robert, became a recognized name in the world of film noir. Kurt (now Curt, in the U.S.) broke into Hollywood with the screenplay for Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Much of the werewolf legend that has been quoted in countless films since is the legacy of Curt Siodmak.
Donovan’s Brain (1942) was a bestseller and was subsequently filmed three times, in 1944, 1953, and 1962. The 1953 version, starring Lew Ayres, is the best known of the three, and it is the only one I have personally viewed. The book has images that suggest a certain cinematic quality, such as the growing disembodied brain suspended in a jar of liquid in a laboratory. But the narrative is quite clunky, written as a series of journal entries, reminiscent of the epistolary novels of old, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The prose works best in the first several “chapters” and then degenerates into a hastily written pulp magazine style featuring poorly contructed one-sentence paragraphs. And unlike a movie, several key action scenes occur in flashback or “off-stage.”
John Brosnan and Peter Nicholls, writing in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (1979) are dismissive of Siodmak as a science fiction writer. But they are being unfair. Their attitude stems from regarding Siodmak as an outsider to “genre” science fiction fandom, which gathered around authors from the sf pulp magazines at the time. Since Siodmak came from Hollywood, and his books were unknown in the U.S. (only one of his 18 German novels was translated at the time), Siodmak didn’t have street cred within the tight-knit sf community. Quoting Brosnan and Nicholls: “[Siodmak] has often been involved with sf-orientated subjects but has never really displayed much feeling or understanding of the genre. Like other German film-makers of his generation he is obviously more at home with the supernatural, the macabre and the grotesque than with science, and such science as he introduces tends to be for picturesque atmosphere rather than for the sake of its rationality or logic.”
I would challenge Brosnan and Nicholls to show me a “genre” sf writer of 1942 who was as successful at blending science fictional elements with a twisted noir backstory like the one gradually revealed as the plot of Donovan’s Brain unfolds. Siodmak also does horror better than most of his “genre” sf contemporaries–the closest disembodied villain in all of sf/fantasy literature might well be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron, who exists only as an eye atop a tower. Not to mention that the science in the typical issue of Astounding Science Fiction or Amazing Stories in 1942 was really pretty thin. That was an era when sf fans thought it was profound of Isaac Asimov to be publishing thinly veiled sf rewrites of the fall of the Roman Empire. Asimov’s psychohistory is more pseudo-science than anything in Donovan’s Brain. In fact, Siodmak’s novel doesn’t do half bad with the science. The main character is a physician, Dr. Patrick Cory, who slowly has his mind taken over by the brain that he has kept alive in a jar. In keeping with his protagonist being a doctor, Siodmak mentions real drugs and real treatments at several points in the novel, and he even gets points for the occasional anatomy lesson. For instance, I have never encountered the recurrent laryngeal nerve outside of a medical text before I read Donovan’s Brain.
Donovan’s Brain was originally serialized in Black Mask magazine in 1942 and published in hardcover by Knopf in 1942. The Dalenberg Library paperback copy is Popular Library G560 from 1961, originally priced at 35 cents, now appraised at $10.00. Black Mask was predominantly a mystery pulp, but they weren’t averse to publishing a wide range of adventure stories—a cross-over story like Donovan’s Brain fit right into the editorial policy. Leo Margulies and Ned Pines, who founded Popular Library, already had a stable of science fiction publications in their past, including Pines’ Thrilling Publications, with titles like Thrilling Wonder Stories. Frankly, other than not coming from the world of sf fandom, Siodmak was as much a “genre” science fiction writer as anyone else getting published in those days.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD