By John Henry Nolette
364 pages $19.95 Black Powder Press
Steve: Amidst the looming entry of America into World War I, an asocial, disturbed young man gets an industrial job and finds community and meaning when he connects with anarchist organizers at his workplace. His life takes a drastic turn, however, when he discovers his insatiable craving for human BRAINS. He becomes a wanderer in the still-wild places of New England, his only companionship an amorphous blob, that perhaps represents the glory and pathos of the id. Gradually, he discovers the monstrous entities at the brink of our perceptions that really rule our world.
Egg: On the surface this a horror novel. The story follows a young man haunted by creatures and desires from another world. The menace is alien, and the ways of a world before civilization create havoc on America. On another level, the spasms of industrial society in the early 20th century provide another layer of horror. Law enforcement abuses dissidents and the poor, and the rich get away with literal murder—all masked by the name “Progress.” Environmental destruction, plagues and war spell out the end times, a terror that echoes from the era of the story all the way to the present.
The main character exists on the fringes by squatting, traveling off the grid, hanging out at libraries… or with HP Lovecraft…. or at a leper colony. He also frequents book fairs where he eats up the finest in radical thought. Which is fascinating, for I acquired this book at the local Anarchist book fair, where the author was in an exhausted freshness having just completed this work.
Normally John Henry is the art director for the magazine Anarchy: Journal of Desire Armed. John is determined to use art to deepen people’s appreciation of ideas and practices such as anarchy.
Steve: Yeah, anarchy shows up here. Before I launch into some obligatory literary and political critique, let me say that as my intro suggests, this book is FUN. If like me, you’re interested in early 20th century pulp fiction and anarchism, this novel is a gold mine from a fellow fan. Don’t judge this book by its Gothic cover; it gets pretty darn playful with its subjects. Did you think that about the horror themes?
Egg: The horror here is fine I suppose. I felt creeped-out for a minute but the disturbing scenes and ideas were so consistent throughout the book that it normalized the strange. Other readers have a different take-home. John assures me that the passages featuring brain eating has change his stature in some polite circles. The monsters come early and persist throughout. Perhaps a gradual approach could really insinuate the shivers.
There are also passages where it seemed the writing slipped between the sort of language people spoke 100 years ago to the kind of shit people are saying now. But will modern readers sit through the cumbersome language of the 19th century??? probably only a lunatic fringe.
Steve: That fringe might be me. When I finally got to reading Wells, Verne and Stoker, I was hella impressed. They ain’t called classics for nothing.
At first I didn’t know whether the Homuncula style was intentionally retro, or the result of a new writer on a very small press. No modern novel would start with “I was born” (Homoncula is in first person), and expound on history and faux anthropology without at least a half-hearted effort to tie it into the story. Yet in reasonable time I determined that the style was intentional, both from the overall competence—clean editing with only an occasional anachronism—and phrases like “my dear reader.” If you liked books better 100 years ago, dig in.
Egg: I wasn’t as sidetracked by that history and faux anthropology, but I had a criticism. The main character Robert is intensely into current events, radical politics and ancient cultures. This evidently is also the author’s interests for much of the book acts as a sort of a processing of factoids that John Henry has amassed. Homuncula’s narrator then has the benefit of 90 years of making sense of the events that he is observing as they unfold. Why not have the main character only receive part of the story, get unreliable info or mere rumor? My understanding of history is that often initially most facts are not known and people’s perception of events are wrong.
This is a minor complaint especially in regards to an artist’s first work. Did you not think this way or just cut him slack?
Steve: I thought the presentation of the history and faux anthropology, aka the anarchy and the horror, got hampered by lack of cohesion between them.
As the theme suggests, this is heavily inspired by HP Lovecraft—without apology, but striving to acknowledge Lovecraft’s … ahem … conservatism (although Lovecraft’s fanatical anti-Black views are not discussed). What is a radical Lovecraft fan to do? The author hopes to make the connections between individualist strains and influences in anarchism—Nietzsche, Stirner—with both the social anarchism of the proletarian unrest of the period, and the depraved egomania of pulp horror.
That unified field didn’t quite emerge for me. First, the style shifts depending on the emphasis. There’s Lovecraft-ish lines like “I saw monstrous, blasphemous things of every conceivable size and shape.” Monsters that would be cute enough on Sesame Street hopefully evoke horror through blunt adjectives (though I once shared this common critique of Lovecraft, I’ve learned this works great in audiobook).
Then when, only a few pages away from that, radicalism is the focus, there’s impersonal history lessons: “The anarchist located the problem in the very organization of society itself, exposing institutions as a vast system of control imposed on the masses by the elite, instilling and ingraining capitalist values, myths, and morality and normalizing, day after day, the hierarchies of class.”
Occasionally John tried to connect it all; the monsters will exterminate us unless we overcome coercive authority. But I craved a real synthesis—I missed my conversations with Emma back in the day, when she’d reference Nietzsche and Tolstoy in the same breath, and even if I didn’t understand how it all was one, she spoke with such heart that it made no sense to point out any logical contradictions.
I’d also like to see more focus on the paradox that anarchism in all its stripes, the most social of philosophies, attracts so many asocials and misfits. Even if the the author isn’t there yet, he’s on the right track. This is a first novel as far as I know, and I think John will go further combining these themes in fiction. I’m psyched to see what comes next. And this is a fun book.
Egg: Homuncula is an independently published work that took several years of thought and experience to make its way to us. I could write a long article detailing the hardships, heart break and resistance that got it to us by 2016. Knowing the back story of this book makes holding the physical thing precious to me.
We’ve discussed how this work delivers classic horror and anarchist intelligence, but there’s more, not evident by the cover and blurbs. Passages that describe the rural landscape of the North East U.S. are vivid, the author knows this region like his own finger prints. The segment describing a blob-like creature sourced from vomit reveal a true life awe for children — including the author’s own offspring. The passionate detail to historic events, radical culture and esoteric knowledge offer a different angle than what boring historians have to offer. This book can then be described as Howard Zinn meets H(oward) P. Lovecraft.
I think Homuncula is best read if you vow not to shave or work for a month, live off the grid in a poorly constructed shack that is lighted only by candles. As the days pass and your sanity descends with Robert’s you have only the barest of food so to feel the hunger that haunts the new world as it smashes into the old world.