Homuncula by John Henri Nolette [Book review]

This novel is an intriguing mixture of horror (very much in the style of H.P. Lovecraft) and anarchist ideas and history. I suppose this could be viewed as rather an unlikely partnership but in truth the writer blends them rather effortlessly to produce a remarkably well written, thoughtful, wryly humorous and genuinely frightening narrative. It has taken what is often the obscurity and onanistic discourse within anarchism and presented it in an exciting and readable way.

Through no fault of his own Robert Henry Pearce is an outsider, initially because of his appearance and then by a series of horrific events that change his life and his understanding of who he is forever. Pearce inhabits a world where one’s worst nightmares become reality. He will be overcome by a craving for the taste of human brain and will find himself an incubator of creatures he cannot really know or understand. His world will become one of slaughters and brutalities that leave him, and the reader, horrified and shocked. Pearce will, at times, be possessed by remarkable physical powers and gain some insight into what is really happening around him. A man on the move he travels across early twentieth century Massachusetts and New York State pursued by the “law” and the private armies of the rich, taking refuge in the forests and hills as well as in the bustle of cities.

Now, reading this the plot does seem somewhat demented and indeed there are times when Robert struggles with his sanity as he attempts to understand the reality around him – or what he believes that reality to be. As in Lovecraft there are some dense passages of history (in this novel they are carefully crafted and selected) that our narrator wades through in an intellectual attempt to understand who he has become by discovering echoes and similarities of his situation in historical events. Gradually Pearce and the reader become aware that there is much, much more to both history and the present than we once thought there was.

As this quest for learning and struggle for life carry on we see Pearce becoming more and more aware of who and what he is. He will begin to take agency for his actions and see how he, as an individual, develops in reaction to the horrors that surround him and infiltrate his life. However exhausted and frightened he may be we are aware that he is becoming himself. Throughout the book we sense an individual strength in the narrator that is a reflection of his attempts to own some type of autonomy. He may well be, awfully lonely, terrified, and mentally and emotionally lost at times, yet he continues to struggle for control of himself. Whatever madness he has to confront he still is Robert Pearce and is continually in the process of making himself. As much as anything else we could read this work as a novel about the strength of the individual

His role as an outsider, his command, however frayed, of himself leads naturally to an alignment with the anarchists and their ideas. Their philosophy carries within it a freedom and self respect that he understands and aligns with. When the slaughters begin he becomes a one man army choosing his targets, whenever he can, among those he considers agents of the state, and the cultural and physical oppressors of the working class. He buys a copy of Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own from Bartomoleo Vanzetti and takes part in a bombing mission organized by the insurrectionary anarchist communists grouped around Luigi Galleani in their fight back against the American State during World War One – a state that attempts to destroy their individuality and sense of comradeship as forces in the world are trying to destroy his.

The novel succeeds because no matter how complex or unlikely events may seem to the reader, the narrative remains taut and engaging – even if what we engage with is frankly disgusting or horrific. At times there is a wonderful surreal sense of humour at work – it’s not everyone who can wander the country highways followed by a large blob they have incubated!!! That said, it is a sense of suppressed terror that dominates the novel. Some passages are explicitly frightening or, at the very least unsettling but this sense of looming horror is somehow always there, leaving the reader edgy and tense. The familiar becomes the frightening – if you have any sense you will never go hiking again after reading this novel.

Read it then for the horror, for the gripping narrative and the atmospheric passages of description. Read it also for a celebration of the individual affirmation of Stirner’s phrase from The Ego and Its Own – “I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered by anything else”. If, by the end of the book, Pearce has not succeeded in being his “own” he never gives up no matter how little he understands the forces of the unknown ranged against him.

John Henri Nolette Homuncula
Black Powder Press and CAL Press, 2016 $19.95 available to purchase through Lulu, on-line.