We Read Dead People: HEADS

Welcome to We Read Dead People, where authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & StrangeWhen I Am Through with You) and Daniel Kraus (Rotters, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch) read a novel from the glory days of direct-to-paperback horror—the magnificent 1980s—and determine whether it was worth the suggested retail price.

In David Osborn’s Heads (Bantam, 1985), everything is lovey-dovey, hunky-dory between studly young neuroscientist John and his not-quite-as-talented-but-not-bad girlfiend Susan. Until! John is killed in a car crash. Determined to see through John’s work, Susan accepts a job at a mysterious government lab, where she eventually finds. . . heads! Severed heads! That are alive! Including John’s head. Aaaaaggggghhhhh!

SK: Are we doing our usual 7-word synopsis? I’ve prepared one for once!

DK: Isn’t it a 6-word synopsis?

SK: Dammit.

DK: Now you have to recalibrate! Here’s mine: Heads or Tails: Regardless, You Lose.

SK: Bikinis, Bad Romance, Bain de Soleil. I guess I panicked in my recalibration.

DK: You gotta think fast at We Read Dead People. I will say, unlike some previous books—hell, pretty much all our previous books—the cover of Heads actually lived up to the premise. Though, really, there’s not much beyond it. I mean, you expect a bunch of living, severed heads and that’s what you get.

SK: The title was somewhat uninspired. The only thing it doesn’t get into is all the oversexed doctors working at Barg-Harrison.

DK: Borg-Harrison. Get your facts straight, man! The title points to the only really good scene in this book: Susan walking into the Hall of Heads. Susan discovers that the supposedly “donated” brains are actually entire heads, severed against their will, being manipulated to increase, I guess, the brain’s potential? I guess? The heads retain individual personalities, which is super promising, but they don’t do much with it. I wanted bickering heads!

SK:  I wanted heads with psychic powers or something amazing.

DK: As animate severed heads go, these were really boring heads.

SK: They tried to negotiate labor rules. That was a snoozer.

DK: When the heads went on strike, for a split second there I thought, hey, maybe this is an allegory for America’s disenchanted or something. Nope, it’s just boring. I wanted a scene where all the insane, discarded heads were in a room just burbling nonsense to one another.

SK: I had gotten the impression most had died, but yeah, the room was creepy. It was as if they were being punished.

DK: They were! There’s a passage describing how Katherine tortures John-head by tweaking his wires, making him orgasmic one minute, feeling like he has a full bladder the next. It’s the best paragraphs in the book because it’s actually menacing. Hey, the doctors called the heads “ECs” Do you remember what that meant?

SK: No. Let me look.

DK: Excited Craniums? Exceptional Cabezas?

SK: I found it! “Experimental cerebrals.”

DK: Hmm. I say we go with “Exceptional Cabezas.”

SK: The main subplot is Susan taking up a romantic relationship with the head medical doctor, Michael, unknowingly setting off a jealous love triangle with another researcher, Katherine. Also in the picture is Al, an anesthesiologist who can “throw voices” and refers to his bathing suit as a “bikini.” The rest was just bad sex fantasies with the doctors.

DK: It’s becoming safer to say with every book we read that a lot of these authors had issues with women. Osborn is super into the idea of “feminine wiles”. I’ve isolated four places where he has women characters pulling off major plot points via their wiles.

SK: Yes, the three women in this were all somehow using sex as some sort of weapon.

DK: In theory, these are all super geniuses, but the only way they get any work done is by seducing one another.

SK: That’s how science works, right?

DK: I will say i know one person who loved the sex stuff. Her name is Stacey Adams. Stacy Adams, judging by her signature in purple pen on the inside cover, was a young woman who once owned this book.

SK: Oh, my.

DK: She carefully marked the sex scenes’ beginnings and ends with discreet little marks. And I thought, good for you Stacey Adams! She got more out of this book than I did.

SK: I’m glad it was working for her. I could not get past Al referring to his “bikini” and how Michael wore his “bikini” better, and I guess the author is unfamiliar with what a “bikini” is?

DK: The cruelest insult: the Incest-o-Meter was a zero, right?

SK: Maybe that’s what made it a thriller and not horror?

DK: It’s too bad, because in more twisted hands, there could have been some legendary incest here. Like, you have these bodies without heads. So maybe the bodies could’ve been kept alive too? But the characters wouldn’t know who the bodies belonged to! Man, I’m going dark here. Like, they’re just basically sex dolls.



SK: Come back from the dark side, Daniel.

DK: And who could stop the heads from being used a sex dolls too?!

SK: Well, we know the docs can activate the heads’ orgasmic mode. So there’s potential for all sorts of nastiness.

DK: I think we have successfully found the good horror novel buried in this bad one.

SK: Sorry, but one more gripe about Al. How was his “voice throwing” talent not used in relation to all the disembodied heads?

DK: I know! What?! And just to finish off the gripes: following Robin Cook’s Coma (1997), medical thrillers were hot, but I think writers like Osborn stole all the wrong things. He clearly did a lot of research, but doesn’t weave it into the story in any productive way. He just info-dumps a bunch of medical jargon that we can’t possibly follow or want to, then it’s back to the seductions. Meanwhile, really basic things are ignored. Like, there is no way a facility this top-secret would not be covered with security cameras, which would have sunk Susan’s plans way earlier. I just. . . I don’t know. There are so many better-severed heads in the arts.

SK: Donovan’s Brain.

DK: That severed head from Re-Animator.

SK: Fiend without a Face had flying, attacking brains.

DK: All classic severed heads. Those severed heads had personality!

SK: I will say it was interesting to think about whether the sheer horror of a head with no body attached is as frightening today as it was back then. So much of our lives now is online and virtual, not physical. Ethics aside, it didn’t creep me out as much as it was supposed to.

DK: Wow, you’re getting deep.

SK: Sorry. I could talk about the bikini again.

DK: No, this is interesting. Like, in the good old guillotining days, there was probably nothing more fearful than a headless body. But, hell, we spend much of our lives now interacting with disembodied face icons. We could be disembodied icons and who would now? If not for nude selfies.

SK: Thank god for nude selfies.

DK: All right, let’s put this to bed. Was Heads worth the original price of $3.50?

SK: Okay, the story was a bad medical / techno thriller disguised as horror, which was a letdown. However, the cover is so amazing that I am happy to own it, so in a wild plot twist, it really was worth the $3.50. Maybe only to me and Stacey Adams.

DK: This is flat no for me. If you lead with a premise this salacious, you can’t end it there! You have to build to new levels of depravity that Osborn doesn’t seem capable of reaching. It’s not poorly written per se, but it makes the cardinal sin of lurid paperbacks: heads or no heads, it’s boring. But, seriously, I’m happy for you and Stacey.




About the Author:

Dan Kraus was Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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