By Zé Burns
The last thing I’d want is a hole in my head, but after reading Skull Nuggets, I can at least say I’ve considered it. Meet Robert, depressed and lonely. He is obsessed with neurophages, the so-called brain mites, “that live in the brain and metabolize neurotransmitters.” Days out from a stint in a psych ward, he knows he has to cleanse his brain of the repulsive little buggers. The answer, he discovers, is trepanation: the act of burring a hole in the skull. It so happens that a mysterious local clinic performs that procedure. Only the clinic’s motives may not be what is best for Robert.
Vaughn writes vivid prose, giving us so many strong images in so few words without the reader feeling bogged down in description. The body horror within, though limited, is well-constructed and performs its necessary task. Yet in this otherwise dark backdrop, Vaughn injects humor and love.
She crafts realistic characters, even with their eccentric twists, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind that they are people like you and me. The reader bonds quickly and deeply with Robert. We feel his pain and fear his misguided approach. Bet, his companion through all this, could have easily fallen into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché without Vaughn’s expert characterization.
Vaughn captures humanity so well, almost disturbingly so. We see the grief and brokenness along with the hope and love. She truly understands the human mind and the suffering that afflicts it. She shows that if we flush out the bad, there isn’t much left that makes us human.
The book resonated with me. It pulled me back to the dark times in my life with mental illness and, I must admit, disturbed me. Robert’s depression is palpable, some of the best handling of the illness I’ve ever read.
That said, the ending felt rushed. Without giving spoilers, it seemed to lack the necessary conflict to make the conclusion truly engaging. Despite this, it remains a stellar book.
This novella may not be for those with weak stomachs. It’s about drilling holes in peoples’ heads after all. But both those who suffer from mental illness and those wishing to know more will finish the book with a new outlook on life.
You can find the book on Amazon here.
Zé Burns is a Seattle-based author of horror and the surreal, an avid proponent of bizarro fiction, and a lover of all things weird. He is the editor-in-chief and owner of Babou 691. You can find him on Twitter at @ZeBurns or on his site: zeburns.com.