I read a lot of books, but it’s a little bit rare to come across one with a truly original concept. Novels tend to recycle the same old tropes, with only the execution to set them apart. I can’t say that about Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s new novel Dungeon Brain, as it definitely took me to unexpected places.
When the story begins, June Nilman, whose surname seems quite appropriate, wakes in an abandoned hospital somewhere in a dystopian future. It’s a world devastated by war, where programmed content is fed to the inhabitants through ocular implants. June has a few problems. She suffers from some form of amnesia, but even worse, her brain has apparently been stuffed with myriad other personalities and memories, a sort of punitive schizophrenia. Finding herself in the mental mob is a difficult task. In addition to her psychological obstacles, she has a human nemesis in Maggie, a Nurse Ratched-type character who seems to control the institution as well as a type of alien creature that acts as a sort of security patrol.
June needs to escape, and to do so she needs to access the personalities locked in her head, with the danger of being lost inside them. Even if she manages to escape the labyrinthine facility, Maggie, and the creatures, there is no way of knowing things will be better outside her prison.
Dungeon Brain is more science fiction than horror, but it is certainly horrifying science fiction. Losing oneself inside yourself is probably about as scary a possibility as exists, and the novel reinforces Douglas Winter’s thirty-year-old assertion that horror is an emotion rather than a genre in and of itself.
Ethridge writes with clarity and literary depth, and does an excellent job of creating the feeling of existential terror that permeates the novel. His writing shows a sense of craft above what you typically encounter in the horror field today while still connecting on the visceral level where horror (emotion or genre) lives. This is the first of his books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
You can order Dungeon Brain from Amazon, and check back here on the 14th for a guest column from Mr. Ethridge.