Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, July 2, 2021


 The Homunculus by David H. Keller, M.D.  (1949)

What to say about David H. Keller?  That, from the publication of his first professional short story "The Revolt of the Pedestrians, " in the February 1928 issue of  Amazing Stories, he was one of the most popular science riters of the Twenties and Thirties?  That his writing could be evocative and exciting, although much of it is clunkiness to the extreme?  That the conservative, rascist, and anti-feminist feelings exhibited in much of his work should be passed by because of the era he was writing in?  That his personal qualities of generosity and comraderie made him a respected figure in fandom?  That his profession as a physician and psychologist offered his stories unusual insights for the time?  Or that, fairly or unfairly, time has passed him by and that he and much of his work will soon be forgotten?

Keller (1880-1966) began writing in amateurand school journals while still a teenager -- his first story was published in 1895 under the name "Monk Smith."  The stories and poems that followed, through 1902, were published as by "Henry Cecil," "Matthew Smith," and "Cecilia Henry."  During World War I Keller served with the Army Medical Corps as a neuropsychiatrist working with victims of shell shock; he returned to the Army Medical Corps during World War II.  

Following World War I, Keller served as the Assistant Superintendent of the Louisiana State Mental Hospital in Pineville, remaining there until 1928 when Huey Long's reform movement came about (the hisital's superintendent had supported Kong's opponent so reform was needed, you see).  Keller, evidently seeing the writing on the wall, had just moved on to Tennessee's Western State Mental Hospital.  Also in 1928, Keller went to New York to meet Hugo Gernsback.  Gernsback had bought Keller's story "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" and was greatly impressed with Keller's writing and the tale's originality; Gernsback usrged Keller to continue writing and submitting stories.  (In addition, Gernsback commissioned some $2000 worth of medical articles for a proposed magazzine titled Your Body.  Keller wrote the articles (about 300,000 words worth) in just 49 days.  And Keller pounded out short stories for Gernsback.  In all, Keller published ten stories in Amazing and Amazing Stories Quarterly in 1928, along with two stories in Weird Tales.  

In 1929, things went belly-up.  Gernsback lost control of Amazing, and the situation at the hospital in Tennessee was dire; political corruption and poor management thawrted Keller.  The governor of the state then declared "Tennessee jobs for Tennessee men," and Keller was out of this job.  He had lost both his main sources of income.  Keller then realized that there were other magazines out there -- if Gernsback wanted his stories, other editors may also want them -- he would become a full-time writer.  He published 19 stories in 1929, 16 in 1930, 14 in 1931, 7 in 1932, and 9 in 1933.  By 1934, Keller's daughter was off to college and Keller had only enough funds to pay for her first semester.  Magazines paid low rates but Keller's high productivity helps counterbalance that but did little to offset both late payments and the sometimes slow publication of his stories (one story was published five years after being accepted).  Keller had also opened a psychiatry private practice in Pennsylvania.  If he had operated as a general,physician his moneys worries would have been solved, but his experience in World War I and in state institutions led him in the other direction.  At the time physicians also treated (of a sort) mental disorders.  Most patients went to these physicians and, only when they ran out of money, did they go to Keller.  Keller was disparaged, but two weeks after dropping his daughter off for college, he received an offer from the Penhurst State School for mental defectives as their Assistant Director.  The school had previously rejected his application in 1929 because it was felt he was too old; the situation had changed and they needed someone with his experience.  Keller's acceptance ended his full-time writing career, although Keller would continue to write and publish for another 20 years.

One of his early stories, "A Twentieth Century Homunculus," from Amazing Stories, February 1930, can be seen as a precursor to The Homunculus, with its emphasis on Paracelsus and parthenogenesis, although the short story took an entirely different path.

You thought I'd never get back to The Homunculus, didn't you?

This is a light fantasy and, at 160 pages, a light read.  Keller veers strongly into Thorns Smith territory with his eccentric protagonist Colonel Horatio Bumble and his plan to make a baby in a bottle.  Bumble is a retired military officer and a retired psychologist, as well as a successful writer.  He an his wife Helen live in Bosert Pennsylvania because Helen believes that America is the best country to live in and Pennsylvania is the best state in America and Bosert is the best town in Pennsylvania and their street is the best street in Bosert and their house -- a large one with etensive grounds -- is the best house on their street.  And, as long as Helen is happy, Bumble is happy.  We open as Bumble is attempting to build -- not dig -- a hole, the purpose of which is a secret.  [Spoiler:  Bumble intends to put the bottle in which the baby will be grown into the hole.]  He is approached to a strange, outlandishly good-looking young couple looking for a job.  They are Peter and Sarah, brother and sister, who claim to be Russian royalty.  Much to his surprise, he and Helen hire the couple for $5.00 a week -- she for cooking and housework, he for gardening and general work.  The next day, Bumble gets up to find that Peter has built the hole, filled it with compost (manure), and covered it with a roof.  Sarah, in the meantime, has prepared a good breakfast and has cleaned the entire house better than Helen ever could -- and Helen was a fastidious house cleaner.

We now learn of Bumble's plan to grow a baby in a bottle.  Using the works of Paracelcus and adapting a formula for creating a homunculus.  The four go out and plant the pre-treated bottle in the manure.  It will take forty weeks, Bumble says.  Then the bottle will be dug up, broken, and the baby removed.

Peter and Sarah regale the Bumbles with personal stories from throughout history, the people they've met and the things they have seen.  Bumble fugures they are the world's greatest liars, or mental defectives, or...

[Spoiler:  Pete and Sarah are immortal and are magic.  She is actually Lilith, Adam's first wife.  Also the Bible's view of creation and of God are somewhat different from Sarah's recollections.  Sarah/Lilith has always wanted a baby but could not by natural means, so she had to wait centuries for the universse to create Bumble who would have the idea of making a baby in a bottle.]

Things begin to get out of hand when the story is leaked.  Most putbumble doen as a simple crackpot, but a well-known sob sister for a New York paper begins publishing aricles made basically from whole cloth, accusing Bumble of being anti-women and anti-motherhood, announce the formation of the DBBS (the Destroy Bottles and Bumble Scoiety).  A notorious mother-loving gangster read this and takes afront at Bumble for tying to destroy mother hood.  Another reporter begins a series of columns to counter the first by rejoicing in the possiblity that women may no longer be needed to continue the race.  A major corporation triess to buy its way into Bumble's process, even though they doubt it exist.  

The mayor of Bosert, who never eaally card for Bumble because he could never fugure a way to get graft from him, seizes on the situation to have Bumble arrested because there is an ordinance about burying garbage; the mayor sends a relunctant Chief of Police (who always liked Bumble) to haul him in.  What the mayor does not realize is that Bumble, who had been many places and had done many things, had never been arrested and, thus, he always wanted to be.  So Bumble is arrestd, refused the $5 bail, and insists on being locked up.  He also calls his lawyer, instructing the man to tell Helen not to post bail because he (Bumble) is looking forward to the experience of being jailed. 

The mother-loving gangster (remember him?) meanwhile has gathered twelve of the most vicious criminals in the country to get vengeance for supposedly slighting his mother.  They roll into town, break Bumble out of jail the first night he's there, and drive off to parts unknown (actually just outside of Skowhegan, Maine), where they plan to kill bumble in the most horrible fashion.  Sarah, being magic, know just where Bumble has been taken and gets to Skowhegaan ahead of the gangsters.  She enlists the local sheriff's department to come along on the rescue -- she, being magic, has impressive persuasive powers.  Out side the hideout, she goes in alone, reverting to her Lilith persona.  She then charms the entire gang into letting bumnle go and then entices each to write a full statement of all their previous invidual crimes and misdeeds.  These confessions she gives to the sheriff, who becomes famous for capturing the most wanted crooks and murders in the country, using only stealth and good detective work.

Back in Bosert, time goes on.  Peter and Sarah are no longer employees, but welcomed gueats of the Bumbles.  Most of the world has forgetten about the baby in the bottle because other. more pressing national and international crises have arrived.  When the forty weeks are up, bumble has invited a small select group of persons to witness the bottle's opening; none accept the invitation.  It is only Bumble and Mary and Peter and Sarah who are present for the ceremony.  The bottle is broken, and there it is!  A baby boy!  Both healthy and without a navel.   Bumnble and Helen are both overjoyed.  They have never been able to have children of their own and now they have a son.   Sarah is silently happy because now she has a child and will leave the Bumbles to raise it.   All three revel in parenthood although none is an actual biological parent.  The next morning Sarah and Peter are gone without notice.  There was a note from Sarah and presents from her to Sarah -- Sarah's very expensive jewels (she is Russian royalty, after all; maybe) and wardrobe.  Bunble got  brief not from Peter, saying, So long and thanks for everything.  He did not open the present from Peter.

And the baby, dubbed Horatio, Jr., now had a navel.

Despite a very off-putting (for me) anti-feminist and pro patriarchal tone in a good part of the book, I found it to be a very good read.  Your opinion and your personal philosophies may differ.  

P.S.:  I should mention that the book was publisjhed by Prime Press, an early science fiction and fantasy small press founded by four members of the Philadelphia Science Fistion Society in 1947.  Prime published eighteen  books in its four-year history, including three by Keller, along  with notble works by theodore Sturgeon, Lesteer del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, George O. Smith, and Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. as well as reprinting two rare Utopian books.

1 comment:

  1. I've read a few stories by David H. Keller, M.D. over the years. Solid efforts. But I have never run across a PRIME PRESS book in all my years of visiting used bookstores.