Frank Henenlotter and his obsession with controlling, bloodthirsty beasts has brought us two of the quirkiest creature features from the 80s: one was Basket Case, the other was Brain Damage, the ill-fated tale of a man, Brian Denton, and his relationship with Aylmer, a parasitic creature who pumps Brian’s brain with a blue, highly hallucinogenic drug in return for victims’ brains. Novelisations are shaky ground at the best of times, but Robert Martin’s literary adaptation is one of the better ones; so good, in fact, Henenlotter and Martin ended up working together on the scripts for cult classic Frankenhooker and sequel Basket Case 3: The Progeny. This novella is a delightful piece of fan faction that packs some extra surprises.
The most interesting aspects of Brain Damage: A Trip Through Hell are Brian Denton’s drug-induced hallucinations. These range from pure ecstasy — “He was lost in body-sensation, his entire body throbbing with the course of his heart-beat. It seemed he could sense each individual cell of his body, and that each of these cells had become a vibrant spark, radiating wave on wave of light and energy” — to the deepest, darkest dregs of paranoid distress: “Brian turned and sped towards the restaurant door […] the other tables were alive with brains — large and small, braised, roasted, toasted and raw. The gorge rose in his throat, nearly overflowing at a family table where a waiter carved a single mammoth brain into thin slices.”
I found Brian’s blue goo trips fascinating because they are remarkably reminiscent of other 20th-century drug-fuelled texts. The euphoria Brian experiences is very similar to Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-driven observations in The Doors of Perception (1954) — “I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitive equivalent of breathing — but of a breathing without returns to a starting-point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to even deeper meaning” — and even the colourful acid trips described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).
On the other end of the spectrum, Brian’s paranoid and twisted delusions contain all the humour and satire of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-cocktail influenced scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971): “Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge — impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. ‘Order some golf shoes,’ I whispered.” This, in my opinion, is where Martin shines as an author. It suggests that he is trying to weave himself into a larger literary tapestry by tipping his cap to these countercultural texts. This adds a whole new depth to Henenlotter’s original story.
To say that Robert Martin has the literary gifts of Huxley or New Journalists Wolfe and Thompson would be a misguided statement, but just because he cannot hang with some of the greatest wordsmiths of our time is not to say he is a bad writer. Brain Damage needs to be approached as a piece of fan fiction, and Martin delivers a slice of exactly that. You will find no wild literary techniques or Hemmingway-esque prose here, but Martin writes with a simplistic ease that makes his adaptation an enjoyable read. You can tell he enjoyed every second of writing this book, and that pleasure radiates on these pages and transfers itself straight back to the reader.
Brain Damage: A Trip Through Hell is available on Kindle now