This Fall I read the 1985 medical thriller Heads by David Osborn. You can hear the audio version of it via The Slow Reader; full text is below!
About the book
Publish date: December 1, 1985
Back of the book summary:
More shocking than Coma, more terrifying than The Terminal Man, Heads is a thriller that goes deeper into the horrifying future of medicine than any novel has dared to go before. In an ultimate step into terror, David Osborn explores the murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death, when what begins as highly-classified research by a team of responsible doctors ends as a deadly game in which any of the players can be condemned to a purgatory more ghastly than hell.
Quick notes about the summary – The Terminal Man was a 1972 Michael Chrichton book (who himself referred to it as his “least favourite work”). Coma probably refers to the 1977 novel by Robin Cook. Osborn is also the author of a book called Open Season – best summarized by this review from Leslie on Goodreads:
3 former college buddies meet every year for an annual hunting trip at their secluded lodge. For the past seven years they have kidnapped a young couple, forced them to commit humiliating acts and then after a short head start they begin hunting them down.
From what you’ll hear about later in the review, that sounds on par with Heads.
I also found Heads listed as The Head Hunters on Kindle (published 2017) when searching for it online, so if you’re unable to find it try using that title. It has quite a different book cover that looks like it was put together as a cut-and-paste job compared to the 1985 cover. Had I realized these books were identical I might have paid for the eBook rather than buy a physical copy.
Speaking of which, that’s how I found the book! I first found it at a yard sale on Manitoulin Island over the summer; however, I decided not to buy it at the time. I realized after the fact that I should have bought it, so I bought a used copy from Amazon. It came from somewhere in California, but it looks like it originated from Alberta, Canada. I’d be interested in following that trail.
Getting back to the book, some basic stats:
- There are 294 pages in the main story
- There are 36 chapters (with a prologue)
- There’s a preview of the book Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, apparently a true crime novel, at the end of the novel, plus an order form for more Bantam books
My Reading Timeline
I started reading Heads September 10th, and finished reading it October 23rd. Depending on how you calculate it, that’s 44 days, good for approximately 6.7 pages per day. Or by chapter count, 1.2 chapters per day.
Questions to Answer
Of all the things I want to cover in this review, I want to make sure I answer these questions I have about the novel, partly based on the back of the book:
- Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel?
- Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story?
- Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)?
- Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985?
I’ll circle back to these questions at the end of the review to provide a sort of summary of my thoughts both while I was reading, and after I finished the book. Up until this point the podcast has been spoiler-free for Heads, but while I’m not going to cover off the entire book as I’ve done previously, consider anything past this point to have potential spoilers (if you were intending on reading the book).
What’s the book really about?
The back-of-the-book synopsis is probably one of the vaguest descriptions of a book that I’ve ever read, yet it (combined with the cool cover) still managed to spark my interest. Still, it’s not very descriptive as to what actually happens in the book so here’s a short summary.
The Borg-Harrison Institute is conducting highly-classified research experiments for the government or the military (to be honest, I’m not entirely clear who is funding this research). Borg-Harrison scientists are recruiting volunteer patients who are about to die – those with terminal diseases, life-threatening physical problems and the like – and offer them extended life as life-supported heads. No body, just their head attached to a console. In exchange, they sever all contact with their previous life and remain hidden away in a research laboratory.
One researcher, Susan McCollough, joins Borg-Harrison and starts working on the project – although she is unaware that the project is dealing with live severed heads. Eventually she stumbles upon the secret and must tread carefully, or else she could end up with a severed head herself.
So that’s what’s going on at the surface level. I’ll get into some more of the plot details as I talk about the book, but I want to introduce the main characters at least. Here’s who we’re dealing with:
- John Flemming. Brilliant scientist and “youngest-ever medical director of the University Hospital Brain Research Laboratory in Washington”
- Susan McCollough. Another scientist, and John’s assistant – which is why she’s brought on to work with Borg-Harrison.
- Michael Burgess. The lead scientist and surgeon on the project.
- Katherine Blair. A psychologist working on the project, is closely involved with Michael.
- Al Luczynski. An anesthesiologist at Borg-Harrison. Apparently has a talent to perfectly imitate other people’s voices which pays off only in one scene to manufacture a tense moment.
- Toni Soong. Michael’s assistant in surgery.
There are some smaller characters in the novel as well, but those are the main players. All of the lead doctors and scientists all seem to be considered experts in their field. They also know how to party, and that’s how we’re first introduced to them. Oh, and they’re also all extremely good looking. Somehow, Osborn still manages to give them a different look while still making them out to have perfect bodies. I guess in a way, it worked for me – I was able to get different mental pictures of the characters.
That’s another thing, though; Osborn seemed to have a penchant for describing Katherine’s “titian” hair. I’d never heard of that before; apparently it’s a “brownish shade of red hair” often confused with auburn hair. I thought it was overused in the book at first, but the descriptor came up at another point in the novel to create a somewhat helpful context so I would again conclude that in terms of physical descriptions, Osborn was able to differentiate the characters very well.
However, that’s where the “characters done well” bit stops. I felt that the personalities and motivations of the characters were all surface-level, with very little depth to any of them. The characters also portray some viewpoints very much rooted in the 1980’s. The men in the novel are seen to be powerful, and the women are forced to use “their gender” to advance their careers or ambitions. Katherine in particular is portrayed as cold and calculating, and the few times we get limited 3rd person narration from her perspective don’t do very much to cast a better light. She’s basically there to be a manipulative, power-hungry antagonist for Susan, the lead character of the novel.
About Susan – it’s more than a little disappointing that a lot of her actions are governed by her overwhelming attraction to men in the novel. The book starts with her and John Flemming together, but when he dies early in the novel it devastates her. This is understandable, I mean I can’t imagine going through losing a loved one. But not too long after John’s death, she becomes overwhelmingly attracted to Michael and many of her decisions in the novel (until probably the last third of the book) are only in conflict because she is so attracted to Michael. Part of the attraction is rooted in his physical appearance, but they have very frequent, mind-blowing sex in the middle of the novel (some of which is described in somewhat amusing detail, but mostly just referred to in passing). The way it’s written, Susan seems to be very much controlled by her relationship with Michael and finds it hard to think straight.
I guess you could say that I wasn’t impressed with the characters and how they were written. Luckily, the story moved along at a good pace and was interesting enough that I could look past the poor characterization. And I actually enjoyed at the way information was slowly revealed as I read along. It wasn’t a mystery novel so I didn’t feel cheated that plot details were withheld behind-the-scenes, so to speak.
After John Flemming dies in a horrible car accident, we mostly follow Susan’s point of view with a few glimpses into the other characters actions. Most of the information that we need comes from Susan’s limited viewpoints; we really only check in with the other characters so that we know what’s going on at the surface. Osborn seems deliberately vague with what they’re talking about (even though we can kind of infer what’s really happening), but that’s okay.
As Susan moves out of her deep depression due to John’s passing and starts to work for Borg-Harrison, we start to get more details revealed – both from Susan’s perspective, and from the other characters – and it mainly follows at the same pace as Susan’s revelations.
For example, once Susan joins Borg-Harrison, we start to get some more details about squabbling between the scientists and the source of their funding. Not too long after that, while frustratingly coming to an impasse in her work, Susan accidentally discovers John is technically still alive in the form of a disembodied head connected to a console. He’s not the only one – there are five or six active “volunteers” in a restricted floor of the institute. Once Susan finds out what the project she’s working on is truly about, that’s when the information just starts flowing out.
We get some more insight into just how close this project is to failure, and the inner machinations of the research institute as they try to figure out how to minimize any damage potentially caused by Susan’s discovery of the heads. The solution is to give her full access, and as Susan learns more and works more closely with John, more and more is revealed. We even get point of view chapters from the heads themselves, which in itself is interesting. At one point, they also go through the surgery involved in severing a head from the body and keeping it alive (although in that surgery, there’s an error and the head dies anyway).
Eventually we learn more about the nature of the volunteers. They’re supposed to be those that are basically dead already – either a terminal disease that has almost run its course, or some other reason that their bodies will cause them to die. But it’s revealed that Katherine is fudging things – an unknown number of volunteers could be people who are healthy and not close to death at all. It’s implied that John Flemming’s signature was forged while he was being worked on in the hospital after his accident.
This revelation about the source of the heads is actually very important, because it lays the foundation of the threat to Susan’s life – that she could very easily become a head on a console. In fact, that’s the main conflict at the end of the novel. John dies, and in order to deal with knowing too much, Katherine and Michael conspire to put Susan’s head on a console. I actually wasn’t sure what direction the book would take, and thought that it was possible Osborn could actually do this to the protagonist.
Spoilers! She makes it as far as the prep table for surgery. Part of the prep process includes shaving the head of the “volunteer” and drawing incision lines across the neck. This is what leads to a fairly cringe-inducing scene. Susan escapes, and eventually encounters Katherine in a locker room. She knocks her out cold, and anesthesiologist Al L. walks in to find her unconscious, on the floor. His first thought is not to help her out – far from it.
No, his first thought is that he’ll never get another chance to have Katherine in such a vulnerable position again. His second thought is that he could do whatever he wanted to and take advantage of her. The only reason he doesn’t take off his own pants is that he realizes he has no time and would get caught. So he hides her hair and draws the incision lines across her neck. He figures that no one would be able to tell the difference between her and Susan without hair and naked from the neck down.
I guess he was right, because it’s Katherine that ends up on the surgery table when the details of the program are revealed to the media – but too late to stop the surgery in progress.
That’s probably the only spot in the novel that I thought could have been ripped right out.
Highlights from the Book
I dog-eared some pages while I was reading because there were some passages there that I wanted to highlight. Here they are:
“Al Luczynski, wearing an undersized bikini completely at odds with his round bearded face and big bearish body…” Was bikini an often-used term for Speedo’s in the 80’s? Weird image from this quote.
In chapter 10, Katherine is going to the Borg-Harrison headquarters to meet the board chairman, and Osborn describes the house in great length. His wording for when she doesn’t find him is odd: “Katherine found him not there.” Wouldn’t it have been better to say “Katherine didn’t find him there”?
Chapter 20 – not a particular line, but this chapter was unique in that it was from the viewpoint of John. It was neat to get inside his head (no pun intended) and then he also describes the surgery process. Chapter 23 was also from the heads’ viewpoint and what goes on “after hours”.
Answering the Questions
Getting back to the questions I asked earlier, let’s start with number one.
Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel?
I would say no. That quote implies to me that there are current processes in medical sciences (current in 1985, at least) that would be explored. It’s true that the line between volunteer and victim blur in the novel, but I don’t think they were really “explored” in the meaning I’m thinking about. As far as I can tell from the book, it’s clear that the research project started with good intentions and was all “proper”, at least as proper as severing heads and keeping them alive could be.
But eventually as they started experiencing problems keeping heads alive or useful, and running out of viable candidates to volunteer, the board director basically tells Katherine “don’t tell me what you’re doing and I won’t ask” when it comes to being creative with procuring new subjects. Once we have that topic broached by the characters, it seems like the novel tailspins into creative new ways Katherine can find new volunteers.
So no, this “murky boundary” is pretty much just a surface-level feature of the book.
Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story?
Yes! I mentioned earlier that I thought Susan could potentially end up a severed head on a console at the end of the book. And I guess by direct correlation, Katherine was for sure in danger at the end. The book was at least realistic in terms of not protecting characters or pulling punches.
Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)?
I don’t truly know much about research projects or hospitals, but I had a hard time believing in the characters. They all seemed to be partying and sleeping with each other, and were all perfect specimens of the human race (except for an avuncular old man working at the institute, who made me think of Ducky from NCIS).
But yes, I suspended my disbelief a little bit while reading the book. I don’t mean that as I was reading I believed that what they were doing was truly possible. I just mean that there wasn’t really anything in the book (the almost-rape scene aside) that made me stop reading and say, “well there’s no way that could happen.” In the universe of the novel, it was believable.
Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985?
This one I need to research a little bit. Unfortunately it’s not something that comes too easily in a Google search. I think I’d have to dive deep and read some essays, but I’m not really interested in doing that (nor do I have the time). I picked a bad question to ask, in retrospect. I did find some breakthroughs in medical treatments in the early 80’s, though, and they included things like vaccines, MRI scanners, and apparently a surgical robot.
Digging a little deeper, apparently artificial skin was discovered and developed in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But also in 1981 was the first successful combined heart-lung transplant. Since the novel features what I would call a head transplant (from a body to a machine), I looked up some more transplant firsts near the 1980’s. Here’s a short list:
- 1963 – First human liver transplant; first human lung transplant
- 1966 – First human pancreas transplant
- 1967 – First human heart transplant
So I suppose if you were to look at what was happening in medical technology I’d argue that you could speculate the kind of procedure described in Heads would be at least plausible. I’m rather impressed by the research David Osborn seems to have done in this field.
Overall I scored this book 2 stars on Goodreads. My one-paragraph review:
The characters act on a mostly surface level in this book, but the plot was interesting enough to keep me going. A lot of 80s view points very obvious in the characters too.
Obviously, I’ve done a bit more thinking about the novel since then and went a little further in-depth. But I still stand by the 2-star review. It’s a very disposable novel, and I’ll probably forget about it in years to come and never re-read it. The characters are not at all memorable and some of the secondary characters are very cartoon-like and have exaggerated traits. If you want to read this book, find a very cheap copy (free, if you can) but don’t spend a lot of time hunting this down.