Happy OcTOBLERfest-Halloween – with fungi!

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I’m really happy that I was able to take part in this month-long extravaganza celebrating one of my very favorite writers – and also someone who’s become a friend and a major emotional support during some difficult times. I frankly don’t think she gets nearly as much recognition as she deserves, so this is quite simply great.

When I decided I wanted to spotlight a particular story, initially I had no idea at all which to pick; there are a lot (lookit). But one popped into my head a few minutes later, a particular one that’s stayed with me because it’s quite simply one of the most evocatively strange things I’ve ever read.

I’m talking about “New Feet Within My Garden Go”, which was originally published in Innsmouth Press’s anthology Fungi and was reprinted in the August 2015 issue of Apex Magazine. I shared that particular ToC, which is how I stumbled on it. And I read it and I was like.

What.

(in a good way)

It starts with the single word “Earthquake” and continues:

Dunya’s fetid body moves, recoils from the poisonous length of river which tongues through contaminated ground. Waves of loam pushes into belt of stones, over belly’s meadow to the rise of breasts wrapped in tiers of conks which bleed amber, ochre, celadon. Climbing shoulder and neck, golden gomphus shape a collar which presses  to jaw as brown eyes behold the curve of an emerging cap and stem in the hollow of a once-elbow.

Dunya is fruiting.

I should say that I’m one of those people who actually enjoys having no idea what’s going on in a story, or at least no immediate idea. I like it when I’m tossed in the deep end and left to flail around, figure out how to swim through it on my own. When it’s done like this, it absolutely sucks me in.

By the time I reached the end, I honestly still couldn’t have told you exactly what happened. I can’t really summarize it here, other than to say that there’s a man-who-was-a-boy and a girl and a world in ruins, and what happens between all of them. But that’s kind of the point, I think, and one of the reasons why I love it: what matters in this story, or at least what mattered to me, wasn’t so much what happened as how it felt. And how the emotions are transmitted to the reader, which isn’t through conventional narration but instead through gloriously hallucinatory description:

She stumbles more than walks, head light from the spores which cloud her body, yet with every step feels herself changing again. The small red cap bursts from her once-elbow, breaking through soil in an effort to reach the weak light which bleeds overhead. Along her back, bell-shaped caps explode from vertebrae, golden trail through dark wood. When misting rain breaks from the sky, she falls to her knees, arms and head tipped back allowing conk and gomphus to drink. Tainted rain funnels down her throat and in the mud ahead, the man slips. Falls.

Dunya is on him before he can rise, sodden body covering his face once more. She inhales-

What have they done to you?

One of the best things about the way all this works is how it plays on the connection between fungi and decay. We have tons of stuff about growing, flowering, fruiting, about fertility. But the flowers and fruit are tainted and poisoned by whatever happened to this world, and that gives the entire story this dreadfully wonderful feeling of Wrongness, the kind you get in nightmares that at first glance seem mundane. The Wrongness extends into the barely remembered past; we don’t know exactly what’s been lost, but the loss permeates every line, with the decay that comes after something has died. The man-boy – Pavel – has lost his family, but it’s clear that he’s lost a lot more than that. There’s the girl he believes he finds in the wasteland, and then there is again the sense that he’s the one genuinely living thing left, the one thing that isn’t rotting.

This is emphasized by the fact that Pavel comes from the sky and appears to have been there for a long time, and in the process of the plot he descends to the ground and the nightmare it’s become. The difference between those two worlds – or two elements of the single ruined world – is stark, and one of the other things that works so strongly to emphasize it is the fact that the sections from Pavel’s point of view almost make sense. They’re definitely recognizable in a way the rest of the story isn’t, although the prose is full of bizarre, dreamlike imagery:

Pavel watches the world for a long time, counting the birds which arc past (zero) and the horses which gallop in the meadows he used to run as a child (zero). The ghosts won’t come out until dark, he supposes; they, like the pigs, will root through the damp trash for what they can find. He wonders if this makes him a pig or a ghost and he cannot say, because just then there is a girl. A girl who turns her ruined face to the sky.

He has not seen a girl in thirty-one years.

So many things are hinted at there, and just enough is made explicit that the rest of it escapes total incomprehensibility.

That incomprehensibility is so much a part of what’s so effective, because it immediately gives you the intense feeling that you’re in the midst of a world completely alien and therefore completely unfriendly. You know what the words mean, but how they’re arranged and what they’re doing defies familiar meaning.

I should note that the unfriendliness doesn’t necessarily mean hostility. My interpretation was that it essentially meant a kind of indifference. Because another primary feature of how fungi are portrayed here is the act of consumption. There’s no hatred in the consumption – at least none that’s recognizable – and there’s also no real recognizable affection. There’s only the instinct, and beneath it, again, the sense that something has been lost beyond retrieval, and that a tiny part of the creature introduced in the story’s beginning remembers that once she wasn’t the thing she is now:

She wasn’t always like this, she wants to tell him, but there are no words.

(The ghost of the girl she was passes unseen, silent, and leaves no footprint, for that is left to another.)

There is only the haze of spores, the need to plant a new garden. The need to break him open the way she was broken.

Which means that it’s not only a strange and disturbing story. It’s also incredibly sad.

(that’s a combination I very much enjoy, which you probably know if you’ve ever read my stuff)

Stories like this inspire me, because they tread a line I’m very interested in treading: balancing between the right level of opacity and the necessary amount of comprehensibility. I love this kind of prose, where everything is stripped back to unfiltered senses and it’s left to the reader to sort it all out. At the end of the day I think it’s the sheer wonder of the imagery that brought me back to it, but the imagery is so vital to everything else that makes it work so well.

You know what it actually made me think of? You ever play The Last of Us,  or seen it played? This time, as I read it, I found myself thinking of the fungus-zombies in that game, and specifically what a story told from their point of view might be like. Maybe the vague sense that they’ve lost almost all of themselves, but mostly a ruthless, relentless instinct to consume.

Long story short: It’s great. Read it.

(Then read everything else.)

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