Henning Koch - The maggots eat your organs, they take over the functions…, and they’re much more efficient than you ever were. They eat everything in your body. The only thing they don’t touch is your brain

9781936873548 (509x800)
Henning Koch, The Maggot People, Dzanc Books, 2014.


henningkoch.com


A young man meets a woman and falls in love with her, despite her protestations that he will soon turn into "a maggot person"—a maggot-filled body topped by a still-functioning brain. Michael begins experiencing severe pains, and the young woman's prophecy begins to take hold.


Michael, a lonely, aimless Londoner, inherits a family home in the south of France and is surprised to find himself entangled in a passionate tryst with a local beauty named Ariel. He's even more surprised when she breaks the bizarre news that she's a "maggot person"—and that because he's had sex with her, he's now one, too.
Michael thinks Ariel is "mad, mad, mad" when she explains what it means to be a "maggot person"—though you look like anyone else, your internal organs are entirely consumed and controlled by maggots, with the squirmy critters now performing every bodily function on their host's behalf (the brain is left intact, however, so one's thinking remains functional). Ariel warns Michael that his transition from humankind to maggot-hood will be fraught with excruciating pain and heavy bleeding but that "no painkillers will be of any use because the maggots eat the painkillers." She also warns him not to tell anyone about his newfound status—though, as we learn later, maggot people are part of a thriving underground, they're also hunted and discriminated against by some of the most vaunted echelons of society. After Ariel dies (or, rather, comes as close to death as maggot people can; they don't die so much as take extended, comalike rests), the narrative chronicles Michael's European quest to discover the truth about who he is and what his future might hold. Though the core concept of Koch's first novel (he's also written the story collection Love Doesn’t Work, 2011) is intriguing, one of the most compelling elements of the book—Michael's philosophical reflections on identity and connection—begins to get lost in a jumble of increasingly superfluous plot twists.
Some of the deeper themes feel enduringly relevant, and fans of creepy sci-fi–tinged thrillers will enjoy this book. More mainstream fiction readers may find it a touch too out-there. - Kirkus Reviews


No small ambitions here: The Maggot People, a first novel by Henning Koch, offers everything from a Sardinian Eurotrash orgy to Christ on a coathanger. On a coathanger, Christ Himself, and if you’d care for a talking dog as well, the Alsatian in The Maggot People will more than fit the bill. Name of Gunter, the creature’s got a sweeping conversational range—as you might expect, considering it’s been around a thousand years.
Gunter, with his long perspective, would at once recognize Koch’s novel for what it is: a picaresque. It’s all about the ramble, replacing the increments of plot with one mind-bending encounter after another—though in this case the meandering feels downright creepy-crawly. Candide, in this case, is a maggot. He’s an entire body-bag full:
someone whose body has been taken over by maggots. Invaded and conquered. The maggots eat your organs, they take over the functions…, and they’re much more efficient than you ever were. They eat everything in your body. The only thing they don’t touch is your brain.
With a catalyst like that—what’s more, one that uses sex to “colonize” its host—small wonder the resulting chemical reaction goes from curiouser to curiouser.
The Maggot People starts out a slacker love story, Eurotrash division. Its protagonist Michael is 23, a footloose Brit, saying things like being busy is overrated.” He falls for another stray, Gunter’s keeper, herself bearing a fairy name: Ariel. She appears to be Spanish and a “lovely owl-faced girl,” just as Michael appears to be a lucky young man, taking her swiftly to bed. Alas, the next morning Ariel announces, “I’m actually solid maggot.”
In another day or two, so is Michael: man, you do it once… With that begins the mind-bending, and this often bears the serrated edge of exaggeration. One minor character, for instance, has “his face half-hidden behind steel-rim aviator sunglasses, like a cocaine dealer from Grand Theft Auto. Michael ought to know, since he dabbles in the drug trade himself. That plotline too, however, gets dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up. Our picaro no longer cares for money: “nothing but printed paper…, carelessly flung about when he needed something.” Come to think—just what does a wandering worm need?
To stay alive, Number One. Michael’s maggots can repair most damage to his body, their body, but Koch’s bug, unlike Kafka’s, turns out to have active predators. Powerful forces, mostly Catholic clergy, seek to obliterate these skin-sacks and their brains, and that threat, it turns out, had something to do with Gunter winding up a dog. Other maggot people have it easier, downloaded into cryogenic safe storage, while their depleted body hangs, yes, on a coathanger.
Most of the novel’s later adventures have to do with either setting up such destruction or avoiding it. In Barcelona Michael’s an assassin, in the Spanish countryside a double-agent, and in Rome he’s gone rogue. His first sponsor in the struggle is a high-ranking priest who turns up at, of all places, the Sardinian clusterfuck. But this Monsignor O’Hara, a man, is opposed by Abbot Giacomo, a maggot, and between the two they put Michael through all sorts of metamorphoses. Eventually, gone rogue, he’s deep in the catacombs under the Vatican, and there he discovers the flash-frozen brain and depleted raiment of Jesus. The Savior, turns out, was Himself a maggot, and recyclable.
With that the picaresque turns apocalyptic, in keeping with an essentially dark vision, a “world full of people sleeping their way through life. The Second Coming proves surprisingly livable, however, not so much Hieronymous Bosch as St. Augustine. Indeed, hasn’t Giacomo been citing The City of God? Can it be that we’re reading some grody variation on the opening verses of John: the Word made Flesh?
Such heady questions, I rush to add, never keep The Maggot People from being one freaky roundelay. Koch brings off a number of spectacular effects, for instance a leap out a third-story window. If Michael sticks the landing right, afterwards he only has to lie there “waiting for the maggots to do their work; pressing the stub of the shinbone and foot against what remained of his leg, while the maggots reconnected the two.” One reads this novel for such passages, wickedly entertaining whether restorative or, the more common case, a massacre. Too bad the writing suffers a nagging sloppiness, such as the repetition of “maggots” above. Similarly, Koch falls prey to bursts of unfelt summary, in hand-me-down language. Here’s Michael reacting to the sudden reappearance, a hundred pages after he helped bury her, of his Ariel:
The first moments passed in astonished recognition. There was a jolt of recognition as he moved closer to her smell, the shape of her arm and the softness of her neck.
At flat moments like that, one wonders about the editing (and I should acknowledge that I too am with Dzanc Books, the publisher), but Koch is working out of a hard-forged personal aesthetic, clearly. Like Michael, he’s an outsider, living in Berlin yet writing in English. His book of stories Love Doesn’t Work (2011) featured swashbuckling and mysticism much like the stuff of The Maggot People. Besides, isn’t a certain lack of feeling inherent to the picaresque? Isn’t the point not whether we suffer Michael’s stubborn yearning after Ariel, but whether we’re caught up in his Gran Guignol? So too, when so much of the story’s a pan-Mediterranean game of hide-n-seek, I don’t see why Koch’s reborn Christ does away with all technology. That special effect seems borrowed from another movie, and yet I can’t deny the pleasure of seeing such a bucolic manifestation of New Heaven, New Earth. The skin of this book may barely hold all the squirmy things within, but they certainly tickle—in every sense. - John Domini


Perhaps it was foolish of me, but I went into The Maggot People expecting a kind of romantic black comedy — a piece of experimental absurdist lightheartedness, possibly, something more Terry Gilliam than David Cronenberg. Henning Koch’s debut novel is indeed absurd, but it is a much more serious, grotesque absurdity: The Master and Margarita as written by William Burroughs, a politico-religious sci-fi thriller with talking dogs and immortal maggot people. I blame my confusion on the jacket copy:
After inheriting a home in the south of France, a young man meets a woman and falls in love with her, despite her protestations that he will soon turn into “a maggot person” — a human skin stuffed with maggots and topped by a still functioning brain. Michael begins experiencing severe pains, and the young woman’s prophecy begins to take hold.
This is all true — but, of course, it only describes the first few chapters. Then, the novel becomes a bizarre, drug-fueled (or at least punctuated) adventure, filled with corrupt priests, sadistic madams, snarky prostitutes, and comatose religious figures, culminating in a series of plot twists that can only be deemed improbable, even within the novel’s fantastic world.
Talking animals, maggot people, centuries-long conspiracies — these may sound like the trappings of genre fiction, but that’s not entirely accurate. The seriousness of The Maggot People and its scathing critique of human greed push the novel closer to allegory, albeit a somewhat tongue-in-cheek version. In a 2011 interview published at The Nervous Breakdown, Henning Koch referred in passing to the New Weird, a term which lies somewhere between genre and movement. The New Weird describes a style of fantasy or science fiction whose literary influences are more likely to be Franz Kafka or H.P. Lovecraft than Isaac Asimov or J.R.R. Tolkien. The central plot mechanism of Koch’s novel, a process whereby human beings become the titular maggot people, and then immortal through a vacuum exchange of old maggots for new (disgustingly described in all its buggy glory), should place it pretty securely among such creations as China Miéville’s surgically animalized ReMade or Jeff VanderMeer’s mushroom people. The comparison becomes less apt, however, when one considers the matter-of-fact nature of Koch’s prose: terrible things may be happening, but they can generally be traced back to human foibles or errors, and there is no sense of creeping dread so prevalent within works falling under the umbrella of the New Weird.
Considering that the majority of characters in the novel can most accurately be described as conniving, greedy sadists, the frequent meditations on human nature that fill the novel are, in general, horrifically pessimistic. “People are liars. People are swine,” spits an Irish cardinal to Michael, immediately after he’s blackmailed the young man into an assassination plot. Still, humanity (such as it is) has its bright points, such as the elusive Ariel, the woman who inducts Michael into the ranks of the maggot people, and Günter, the irreverent and filthy German Shepherd who used to be a priest. Neither of these characters are precisely fully formed, “real people,” and nor are any other characters in the novel. Even Michael, the character to whose point of view the narration most closely adheres, remains fairly flat throughout the book. Yet this allows for Koch’s hilariously irreverent asides to jump from character to character, including a bizarre diversion on the ephemerality of pastry:
A thing must always be enjoyed at the perfect moment. Delay imposed a sort of moral inversion on things; what was once considered a general good would become an evil.
Colonization, slavery, industrial development had all at times been considered by various fools and villains to be aspects of progress. Yet, when compared with these monstrous historical facts, Giacomo felt there could never be a compelling argument against a custard roly-poly.
The only argument was that it must be enjoyed.
A reader familiar with Koch’s work might notice that the prose of The Maggot People is somewhat more lyrical than that of his book of short stories, although retaining an oddly conversational tone. Even abandoning any desire for a heartwarming narrative or ethical exemplars (neither of which will be found in this novel), one does encounter a surprisingly close attention paid to social ties, whether they are created through duty, love, or circumstance.
Despite the disappointment of the final section of The Maggot People, in which Michael and Ariel resurrect Jesus Christ and assist him in bringing about Paradise on Earth (not to mention an incredibly disturbing early scene involving a puppy), Koch’s novel manages to be gripping and absurd, bleak and delightful, astonishingly weird yet simultaneously familiar. Perhaps the custard roly-poly is not the only thing that must be enjoyed at its perfect moment. - Eleanor Gold


I was interested in the premise of the book--a man turning into a "maggot person" just can't help but peak my interest--and the beginning was fairly interesting. We meet the main character, interact a bit with him, and then of course, things get a bit weird and disgusting when he sleeps with the female maggot person who infects him, making him one of them. I still could have been fine with that, though, as nasty as that sounds. 
What took the book down a notch for me was the fact that he has to wiggle his way through obstacles such as the threatening Mama Maggot, priests with guns, and eventually, how to literally wiggle his way out of somewhere. 
That may all sound fine and good, quite exciting, yes? To an extent. Most of it is just ludicrous and you must have an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief for this book to even begin to make it through. If you make it to the ending, you will still probably hold up your hands in discontent; is this what the book has been about the entire time because there really is nothing else to show for it, and uhh...this was the weirdest twist I've ever laid eyes on in a book. I'm still mad when I think about it.
So, was the book creepy? It definitely had a creep factor. Maggots inside of the characters cannot be taken lightly. Would I recommend reading it? Maybe just the first 50-100 pages... - Chelsea Woodring


An Interview-in-Excerpts with Henning Koch


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Henning Koch, Love Doesn’t Work, Dzanc Books, 2011.


Enduring her jet-set life in Sardinia, a woman has learnt to sublimate her erotic longings caused by her husband’s impotence, until a visitor offers a more immediate solution.
A claustrophobic banker fears the destruction of his relationship when he discovers a yawning hole beneath the streets of Stockholm.
The arrival of a gorgeous Russian piano prodigy inspires a screenwriter to look beyond his treadmill London existence.
And while fixing a leaking toilet in the wilds of Sweden, Ingmar Bergman explains the predicament of lovers in a hostile world.
“Love Doesn’t Work” offers classic storytelling with profound, startling insights into human desire and its shortfalls. Inspired by the ancient Cathars, these seven tales present a vision of life as an inevitable struggle against ignorance, darkness and sexual confusion. Devilish and playful in tone, they leave the reader with a sense of outraged satisfaction and delight.

Read a sample story, In Memoriam, Ingmar Bergman
Does Love Work? An Interview with Henning Koch by Jen Michalski


oil derrick town
Henning Koch, The Bones (novella)


“The Bones” is the opening novella in a planned cycle of dystopian stories, presenting an all-too-familiar society in which brutality and destructive thinking seem likely to derail the human project before we manage to reach global enlightenment – or, at least, an acceptable level of happiness for all.
“The Bones” was first serialised in the American author David Abrams’s popular blog, The Quivering Pen.
“…a funny, frightening vision of an unspecified future in which America is a wasteland society whose currency is oil. Some would argue it’s not much different from the current state of the nation. I’ll let you draw your own parallels, but let’s just say I think Mad Max would be right at home in Koch’s neo-Western Apocalypse….”  - David Abrams


The Bones – Part 1
“Oil Town was not a town at all, it was a long road skirted on both sides by corridors of buildings the colour of dust…”
The Bones – Part 2
“The Oilers were shocked when they heard that Wyre had gone to the foreign journalist to spill himself. It was like him, of course, he was a turncoat and loser whose family had never played by the book…”
The Bones – Part 3
“Some people always have to give you the run-around. They reveal a few things, then back off, gloat at you, tell you it’s meaningless anyway. It’s a way of making themselves feel important…”
The Bones – Part 4
“The next thing she heard was a sharp, scraping sound, metal against metal. And feet swaddled in skin shuffling across a packed-mud floor. Also wind-blasted sand against the plank walls, trickling through in places…”
The Bones – Part 5
“In his very own reptilian way, Arty Simpleton idly hung around for a few days, though he did take a few circumspect walks past Wyre’s house…”
The Bones – Part 6
“Oil Town had first been created by the very best efforts of the people who lived there. And these people woke up in the mornings, took deep breaths of dust and told themselves that everything had been for the good…”
The Bones – Part 7
“Like many fighters who come out on top, Arty Simpleton began to realize after a few days that his total victory over his old rival had left him empty…”
The Bones – Part 8
“After her first sighting she did not see them any more. The bone men, or people, or whatever she should call them, kept out of view and did not give themselves away…”
The Bones – Part 9
“After they’d followed the stream around a few more bends in the valley, the mountains opened up and there was a flat plain a couple of kilometers across with agricultural land and orchards; and forested slopes…”

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