Lois Wilson is smarter than all the other kids in her school, more of a science whiz than even her pharmacist father. She cares about behavioural science so much she’s built up a lab in the pantry, experimenting on rats while her seven year old brother Billy watches on with awed worship, her mother is disturbed, and her father doesn’t know what to think. But after her father suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves him bedridden and her pantry laboratory is taken away from her, Lois decides—with unwitting advice from college professor Kevin McShane—rats are so passé and she can cure her father and advance the future of behavioural science all from the four walls of her very own home.
So goes the 1981 horror novel Brainchild, written by V.C. Andrews ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman. I found this book in a stack of books given to me by my mother, and judging by the bookmark in this copy, this tome hasn’t been picked up since the 1980s. That was no bother for me, waiting for a bunch of new releases to pick up from the library, and I started reading it purely to pass the time. Brainchild hooked me from the start, and I found myself pausing YouTube videos and pulling out this book to continue reading randomly, pulled in by this psychological horror that was the Wilson family’s life. I was expecting cheesy horror, like the slew of trashy ’80s horror movies I binged on streaming sites a while back. Brainchild was a surprise—the horror in Neiderman’s book relies more on psychology, on the psychology of human behaviour and behavioural science, and I found myself recalling high school psychology information I thought I’d long forgotten about, especially when Lois is talking with community college professor Kevin McShane.
Being a horror mass market paperback from the ’80s, the one thing that got on my nerves was Neiderman’s constant tangents about the female characters’ breasts. Thanks to Neiderman, I can tell you with perfect clarity the breast size of every single female character, the heights of the male characters, and the pockets of fat and pudge that make up Lois’s fairweather “friend” Barbara Gilbert. This is exemplified early on when Lois invites Barbara and Bernie over to her house, ostensibly for innocent purposes, but they all strip naked and Lois conducts an experiment on her unwitting classmates. It took me back to Stephen King’s Carrie—anyone who’s read Carrie knows the scene early on where Carrie White strips off her bra and describes herself in detail a female author wouldn’t—but lucky for us, Neiderman’s obsession with breasts vanishes around the halfway point, and the second half of the book is all about the tension, Lois’s growing influence and control over her family, and you almost forget about that rocky start, and all of the telling of every major and minor character’s backstory, because now we’re at the horror. Barbara doesn’t even merit a mention in the second half.
It’s fascinating watching Lois as she starts her journey from misunderstood genius into full-blown psychopath, using the SS in Nazi Germany as a justification to manipulate her brother into committing awful acts for her, setting up a full Skinner box to command her bedridden father to bend to her every whim, and brainwashing her mother to fear leaving even her bedroom. Despite this, Lois is not entirely an unsympathetic character—even in her most irrational, monstrous moments, you can tell where she is coming from, and isn’t that the most horrifying thing, that the worst people in humanity can justify their behaviours? Lois is bullied by her classmates, and her mother is incredibly unsympathetic, basically viewing her daughter as a freak. Until her true colours show with McShane, I haphazardly switched between feeling sorry for Lois and loathing her behaviour. She is written to be like a younger Mengele, someone who is willing to go the extra mile to “improve” society, but unlike all the other behavioural scientists portrayed in Brainchild, she lacks a conscience, even using a thesis to back up her claims as to why emotions and empathy are holding the world back. We know she is wrong ethically, much like Mengele and his evil associates were wrong, but it’s intriguing to hear her justify her actions.
The ending, while a little rushed and tacked-on—looky here, we conveniently suddenly believed the good guys!—leads to a conversation between McShane and three other behavioural scientists. This conversation posits a similar thesis to A Clockwork Orange—can morally reprehensible people who are the perfect actor, the perfect face for rehabilitation, truly improve? In the justice system, so many people argue that prison and imprisonment should not be seen as punishment, but as a system for rehabilitation, and that anyone, no matter how horrific, can be improved. But this is open to bad people manipulating the system, pretending to be better (or even worse, using behavioural science to manipulate others, even experts in the field). Brainchild doesn’t end on a happy note, even if “good” has prevailed and “bad” has been punished, but would that have been as satisfying?
Brainchild by Andrew Neiderman is an ’80s mass market paperback that is a slow-burn, builds up with more and more intensity, and leaves you wanting more. If you have any interest in the psychology of humans or behavioural science, then this’ll scare you and also make you think. If you’re into family horror, of a family member who uses science to command her family into whatever she wishes (beware: emotional and psychological abuse victims), then this will definitely frighten you, because the scariest reality: Lois Wilsons exist everywhere. This is both a cheesy read and a horrifying psychological tale.