Pros: Some fascinating surreal bits of horror
Cons: More whimsy than I would have liked
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
I’m fond of “cosmic horror,” and a fungal-themed anthology posted under the horror genre sounded right up my alley. While I enjoyed Fungi (edited by Orrin Grey and Sylvia Moreno-Garcia), it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting. Quite a few stories were more whimsical in nature and seemed to have little of horror to them. As is frequently true of anthologies, which are of necessity put together to someone else’s scheme and preferences, you’re unlikely to enjoy all of the tales equally. Mild content warning for self-harm, all sorts of methods of death, and some slurs.
The book starts off well with John Langan’s Hyphae, in which John goes home to find out how his father is doing now that his mother has left. Though the place seems perfectly clean, it gives off a horrific stench. When John follows this to the basement and a tunnel dug out into the earth, you know things can’t possibly end well. This one was short, bizarre, and creepy, just the way I like ’em. A little later in the book, Kristopher Reisz’s The Pilgrims of Parthen involves a strange mushroom that’s started popping up. It enables people to visit a mysterious, seemingly uninhabited city, and users become obsessed with finding out the city’s secrets. I also liked Goatsbride, by Richard Gavin. It tells the tale of a dying old god and what happens when invaders come to his land. One of my favorites in here was Laird Barron’s Gamma. It’s a very unusual road to telling a tale of the fungal takeover of the world, and it made me shudder. Cordyceps Zombii, by Ann K. Schwader, is an elegant and intriguing poem.
“Parthen can’t be conquered. You have to love her.”
Paul Tremblay’s Our Stories Will Live Forever involves a man who’s afraid of flying who takes an ill-fated flight. The man next to him gives him something, saying, “take this if you want to live.” This is a fascinating story with an intriguing run-on style. A.C. Wise’s Where Dead Men Go to Dream sees Jonah going to a woman who “sells dreams” in order to find out what happened to his missing lover, and the results are fascinating. Daniel Mills’s Dust from a Dark Flower tells us a tale of a 1700s village in which gravestones have started to disintegrate precipitously into spores, and the spores aren’t content to stop there. The Shaft through the Middle of It All, by Nick Mamatas, explores a bit of vengeance wrought by a woman when her community garden gets torn down for a gentrification project. Note that the main character does refer to some characters by slurs, although it seems that this is a case of characterization rather than author editorialization.
The second story, Lavie Tidhar’s The White Hands, totally jarred me. The atmosphere was about as different as you could get from the first tale, and it isn’t my cup of tea. It’s a collection of… maybe encyclopedia entries? It details various organisms and events and places, gradually laying out a strange world in which the “Human-Fungi Accord of 945” seems to have been followed by quite a few years of strange events, like a pirate captain (half-human, half-fungus) called “Scarlet Hood,” and the rise of a deadly empire. It’s… interesting. Camille Alexa’s His Sweet Truffle of a Girl struck me similarly. In it, Morel has created, through the abilities of Dr. Crimini, a living, organic, puffball submersible. His goal is to impress the father of Amanita, the girl he loves–only the maiden voyage doesn’t go as planned. Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington wrote Tubby McMungus, Fat from Fungus. The main characters are cats, a rat, and some bats, and Tubby himself is a merkin-maker (a maker of pubic wigs). A wager results in Tubby stealing some strange materials to make the very best merkin out of, resulting in terrible consequences. Yes, cats with pubic wigs. I don’t even know what to say. I’ll give it to the authors–this has to be the most creative tale in here, and that’s saying something.
Andrew Penn Romine’s Last Bloom on the Sage was in-between for me. It’s a depiction of “the spore-changed West”, where Duke Winchester is working with tentacled beyonder Legs McGraw to rob a train. It has a touch of horror to it, but it’s still kind of whimsical and humorous. Jeff VanderMeer’s Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose is another in-between: it’s definitely creepy, but the ending is fairly silly. Still, the writing style drew me in. A Monster in the Midst, by Julio Toro and Sam Martin, involves a man and his automata tracking down the source of a globe-spanning fungal infection. It has a bit of that larger-than-life steampunk vibe to it, and it feels incompatible with the style of horror I was looking for. Chadwick Ginther’s First They Came for the Pigs sees a wealthy man trying to hire people to deal with the fact that all of his people are turning up killed by fungal growths. He goes with several men underneath the city, where he comes face-to-face with something awful. Ian Rogers’s Out of the Blue sees a real estate agent for haunted properties teaming up with a detective who works on supernatural cases. This story is a bit predictable, but fun to read–and it hints at a wider world that I’d like to read about.
Steve Berman’s Kum, Raúl (The Unknown Terror) is a nice tale of a fungal terror in Mexico, but the presentation is dry and straightforward, robbing it of that frisson of horror. I enjoyed the not-so-horrific tale of Wild Mushrooms, by Jane Hartenstein, in which a cancer-stricken mushroom hunter goes into the woods to die, but it felt like it sort of stumbled to a halt. It’s nice and poignant, however. Lisa M. Bradley’s The Pearl in the Oyster and the Oyster Under Glass pulled me in, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. Main character Art is a bear? Or not a bear but wants to be a bear? Or not a bear but a phantom bear? Anyway, the tale involves cleaning up an oil spill using mushrooms. It’s kind of surreal, but it does avoid being excessively random, which tends to be a peril of surreal writing. Go Home Again, by Simon Strantzas, is an odd tale of a young woman coming to terms with her father’s death and her mother’s disappearance. It feels like it could have been pared down a little, but it’s an interesting read.
Some of the stories read like the authors decided to try out some hallucinatory mushrooms before they started writing! Midnight Mushrumps, by W.H. Pugmire, reads this way to me. I don’t even know what to say about it. Polenth Blake’s Letters to a Fungus is a delightfully hilarious piece made up of letters by one of those people who sees themselves as being the neighborhood HOA police, constantly writing letters and making complaints about everything. In this case, she has some complaints about the fungal growths in her garden (although I can’t blame her for making a fuss when they eat Aunt Mabel).
Overall I’m glad I read this anthology, but I’m also glad it wasn’t priced very high. Hopefully now that you’ve read this you have a slightly better idea than I did of whether this would suit your tastes.