Homunculus by local author Jerry Stubblefield is a bad dream in book form. It’s an acid trip gone horridly wrong, an art house horror flick disguised as dark comedy—a cruel joke. But for all of the book’s cringe-making and queasy confession, it is a well-written novel—one sure to win a small contingency of fans.
A homunculus is, according to Dictionary.com, “A fully formed, miniature human body believed, according to some medical theories of the 16th and 17th centuries, to be contained in the spermatozoon.” It’s also an awkward word to pronounce, the jumble of consonants sticking to the tongue. But the very difficulty of the word is appropriate for the character it describes: a tiny, angry man born from the bellybutton of Hector Owen, the book’s slumpishly middle aged anti-hero.
Owen is a failed writer. He rarely leaves his house, is letting his relationship with his wife—a seemingly charming and attractive women—slip away. All signs point to clinical depression, which is not in the running for “most fun topics about which to read.” Kudos to Stubblefield for not penning the typical depression narrative. However, to avoid cliche he constructed the literary tool of the homunculus, a living version of Hector’s psyche.
“I fell asleep humiliated, amidst lingering feelings of hope and pangs of fear—it was frightening to know the homunculus was somewhere in the house, and he knew me very well, and he was mine and only mine, and outside me,” Stubblefield writes. It’s a creepy passage, but this book, at under 300 pages, tips the balance with all manner of creepiness.
Not to ruin the plot for any potential readers, but those of delicate sensibilities and sensitive gag reflexes should know Homunculus examines, in detail, all manner of bodily functions. It also delves into themes of narcissism in sexuality as well as alluding to incest. Tread carefully, readers. Stubblefield has a knack for the gross:
“It is in fact a hank of hair, and it extends not just into my stomach, but on down to my intestines where it’s hopelessly enmeshed with the fetid, smegma-like matter that sticks to my hands as I pull,” he writes in one hallucination sequence. “The pain and revulsion begin to bring on nausea, but I have no choice but to continue; I’ve already pulled out yards and yards of the stuff.”
But there is an innocuous side to the book. It’s set in Asheville and references many local landmarks. Even former Asheville mayor Leni Setnick makes a cameo in the character of would-be public servant (and object of Hector’s desire) Lainie Wishnick:
“I began to meld pieces of Lainie Wishnick’s dialogue with some lyrics off the Tapestry album, and Lainie Wishnick herself with Carole King—they did resemble each other.”
It’s a strange passage, but funny in its aptness.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter