[March 5, 1961] A Host to Murder (Frederic Brown’s The Mind Thing)

There are many kinds of books.  There are important books, the kind that will be remembered and discussed for decades to come, like Harper Lee’s recent To Kill a Mockingbird.  There are progressive books that skirt the edge of convention, like Ted Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X

And then there are the just plain good reads, neither subtle nor ingenious, but worthy nonetheless–like Fredric Brown’s latest novel, The Mind Thing.

“The Mind Thing” is an alien, member of a race of parasitic telepaths.  Immobile on any but the lighest gravity planets, they take over the minds of suitable hosts, which then become their arms and legs.  A Mind Thing can only control one creature at a time, and control lasts until the death of that creature…or of the Mind Thing.  Thus, Mind Things have developed an acutely callous attitude toward the death of their hosts; it is merely a necessary step to move onto another.

These aliens have also perfected the art of transmitting their kind across vast gulfs of space.  This mode of travel is primarily employed for expansion of the Mind Thing domain, but it is also used to exile criminals to faraway planets.  Those banished offenders have a slim chance of finding themselves on an inhabitable world, but those that do, and manage to create the mechanism required to return them home, are hailed as heroes.

For they have discovered yet another world for the Mind Things to control.

In The Mind Thing, an alien felon is dispatched to Earth, specifically the fictional town of Bartlesville in rural Wilcox county.  At once deadly dangerous and highly vulnerable, the Mind Thing engages in a series of possessions, followed by suicides, of animals and people toward achieving its ultimate goal–escape from the planet.

The killer’s greatest foe, and also its most desirable prize, is the brilliant, vacationing Professor Ralph S. Staunton of M.I.T.  Staunton quickly becomes aware that something strange is afoot, but it takes some time for him to fully deduce the horror behind the mystery.  Will he solve it in time?

The Mind Thing is an engaging, quick read.  The story has that pleasant earthy realism that I associate with Cliff Simak’s work.  I don’t know where Frederic Brown grew up, but his depiction of the backwoods area near Lake Michigan rings true.  The Mind Thing is told both from the alien’s and several humans’ point of view, something that I’d expected to be a little heavy-handed, but Brown makes it work.  All of the characters are nicely realized, each one’s story being practically a self-contained vignette.  Sadly, we often come to know a character just long enough to see them die at the hand of the Mind Thing.  Of course, the best drawn characters are the novel’s heroes: Doc Staunton (described as one of the scientists who worked on Explorer 6; he’s clearly fictional–no one from MIT worked on that probe) and the intrepid Miss Talley, teacher and stenographer, who works with the doctor in the latter half of the book.  Their relationship is an excellent one, particularly by the end.

Fredric Brown is a veteran of the pulp era, and he’s produced consistently for the last two decades.  That goes a long way toward explaining the unadorned yet effective prose in The Mind Thing.  It’s not art.  It’s not flowery.  Nevertheless, Brown grips the reader from the very beginning to the last words of the eminently satisfying ending.  Brown is a fellow who knows how to tell a yarn–a disturbing, thrilling yarn. 

Four stars.

(Note: I must give warning to my more sensitive readers: There is a lot of death in this book.  The Mind Thing, in the course of its operations, coldly murders a myriad of animals (including far too many cats) and people.  It kills without sadism, cruelty, or remorse.  The depiction is never overdone, but nor is the impact minimized.  It’s gruesome–but also integral to the story.)

2 thoughts on “[March 5, 1961] A Host to Murder (Frederic Brown’s The Mind Thing)”

  1. I’m glad to see this got published. It was being serialized in Fantastic Universe when that magazine folded for good.

    It’s strange for Brown to come to a theme so late (several years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters to name just two), but it sounds like he’s added a grittiness to it. Sounds good.

    1. I was going to mention Puppet Masters but forgot in the course of writing.  Thanks for bringing it up.  There are definite similarities.

      I liked Fantastic Universe and was sorry to see it go.

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