Severance by Robert Olen Butler

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Severance

Author: Robert Olen Butler

Why I Consider This Book Odd: This book has an absolutely lunatic premise. It is said that a decapitated head can remain in a state of consciousness for 90 seconds. In heightened states of emotion or agitation, people can speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Combine the two and you have the micro stories in this book.

Type of work: Fiction, short stories, flash fiction

Availability: Published by First Chronicle Books in 2006, this book is still in print. You can buy a copy here:

Comments: It’s weird, including a Pulitzer Prize winner here, but hell, I already got me a Nobel Laureate, so why fight it. The acclaimed can also be so very, very odd.

So, as I said above, this book combines the premise of consciousness in a decapitated head and the ability to speak quickly when under duress. This book is a series of tales from heads speaking approximately 240 words. I initially did not like this book and set it aside for a few months, but when I picked it back up again, I fell in love with it.

The tales from heads separated from bodies range from the touching, to the horrific, to funny. Anne Boleyn’s words after her head is severed from her body are to her daughter, Elizabeth, and they are heart wrenching:

…but still there is my sweet girl my Elizabeth her pale face and her hair the color of the first touch of sun in the sky, the pale fire of her hair, she turns her gray eyes to me and I know I am soon to leave her… and I say rise my sweet child and she straightens and lifts her face and I bend to her, I draw near to her, I cup my daughter’s head in my hands

The story from Lydia Koenig, a woman who was beheaded by her son in 1999, is just dreadful:

…my baby, my own baby boy his bones deep and untouchable inside him, I dress him in pink thinking it makes no difference I hold him baby and then in plaid and he has freckles on his nose… and the man is gone and my baby cries all night through, though he is no baby he is returned and he says help me find a vein help me tap this vein and I cannot…

The story from Gooseneck (Gansnacken), a dwarf who was a court jester to Duke Eberhard the Bearded, who beheaded him in 1494 for sad, but funny actions beyond his control:

…I am jester not a sailor the goat breaks his knot and bolts just as I leap from the rope and fly at my stricken lord and fall heavy upon him, crotch to face, and alas I am already full excited at my joke, like a lover

The book contains many famous beheadings, like John the Baptist, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey and similar, but also has more modern, less famous decapitation victims telling their tales, like people beheaded in the Middle East since 9/11. There are two non-humans in the book – a chicken, whose body indeed ends up crossing the road, and the dragon slain by St. George (who is also included in the book). There is a man beheaded in 40,000 B.C. and insanely, the chicken speaks better than the dragon, who speaks better than the Cro-Magnon man. Most insane and odd of all, Butler records his own putative decapitation in 2010, losing his head when he sticks his head ill-advisedly out an elevator.

This book is a short little read, but you may find yourself going back to reread the tales. It’s a delightful, odd little book, built around an odd but amazing premise, the sort of idea that makes you smack yourself on the head and wish you had thought of it yourself. The brief stories are richly detailed and full of both history and emotion. It’s amazing what Butler can do in 240 words. I am a well-known lover of excellent flash fiction and Butler’s flash is breathtaking.