I first read Michael Blumlein about nine years ago. I was still working as a gallery attendant at the Phillips Collection, a mid-sized art museum in Washington, D.C. On that particular day the HVAC system decided to break down, making the average temperature in the building an uncomfortable and sweaty 92 degrees. They stationed me in one of the least traveled areas of the museum, which meant I was not only hot but bored.
It wasn’t too hard to fight off the boredom and ignore the heat with Blumlein’s collection The Brains of Rats in hand. Although billed as horror, the collection is not your typical fare of monsters, ghosts or serial killers. Subtly disturbing, most the tales roam the dark, unfamiliar hallways of hospitals and medical practices, examining the fine lines of terror the medical industry has for everyone. One story, for example, is about a doctor with the ability to alter the sex of an unborn fetus, raising interesting and chilling questions about gender roles and identity. Another story features a struggling writer who starts selling body parts to make money for his family. Blumlein’s own experience as a surgeon serves him well, allowing him to bring in a visceral realism another writer might not have achieved. I had drifted away from fantasy, s/f and horror for a time, and I think of this book as one of the ones that brought me back.
After being so impressed by his work, I kept my eyes open for anything I could find. His two novels, The Movement of Mountains and X, Y, are both interesting but not as successful as the collection. Every now and then I’d stumble across a fabulous short story in places like Interzone, making me think he was more of a short story writer than a novelist.
But then along comes his new novel, The Healer.
Payne belongs to a race of mutated humans called grotesques. Although essentially human, they are set apart and looked down on by their human counterparts because of their unsightly cranial ridges and distorted bodies. A small number of grotesques develop the ability to heal others by pulling out infected or diseased material into their own bodies and then expelling it through a small orifice in their chest. Their unique abilities place healers in high demand, making them into slaves for the humans. Overworked, most healers have a short life span, a small blessing for people with very difficult life.
We follow the life of one particular healer, a grotesque ironically named Payne, from his initial recruitment and through his whole career. He spends his early days working for a mining colony, but Payne is quickly discovered as one of the most skilled and powerful healers in generations. His power puts him in high demand, and he quickly becomes a pawn for both human rulers and Grotesques fighting for independence. Blumlein’s other life as a medical doctor serves him well again. While he makes wonderful use of describing many odd diseases and disorders for Payne to cure, it also seems to influence the odd mixture of power and servitude healers continually feel throughout the novel.
As a character, Payne may frustrate some readers. He lives very much as a pawn throughout much of the novel, bouncing back and forth between outside influences, rarely making real decisions for himself. Often he acts as a tour guide through this fabulously detailed and metaphorical world Blumlein created. The dark and disturbing ending, however, develops fully out of a difficult choice Payne makes for himself, thus delivering a glimmer of hope for both Payne and the world he lives in which he lives. With all this going for him, not to mention very favorable blurbs on the cover by Peter Straub and Ursula K. Leguin, Blumlein's status as a writer is about to rise very quickly.