OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Published by Innesmouth Free Press, 2012.
Editors: Orrin Gray and Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Cover art: Oliver Wetter
Hyphae – by John Langdon
Dutiful son James reluctantly checks out the country house old dad refuses to leave.
This is a classic Lovecraft-style weird tale in that the reader is always one step ahead of the antagonist in anticipating a growing dread and horror. James’ character is sufficiently well drawn with small details to enable the reader to empathize. What he discovers is predictable (as per tradition with this sort of story), but the author resolves the problem quite deftly with an original touch. Well done.
The White Hands – by Lavie Tidhar
Excerpts from a history of a world both human and fungoid. Really a “what if?” scenario where human explorers come in contact with sentient fungi and the centuries of conflict (sometimes between fungi) which subsequently erupts. Certainly human/fungi love affairs complicate dynastic planning, and the HUMAN-FUNGI Accord of 945 A.F. is rather nifty. Fragments of history.
Some of the details and ideas I liked, but overall it struck me as more like background notes for a book or a TV series than a story. Granted, somewhat in the Olof Stapledon tradition of the grand sweep of history, but it felt incomplete. Nevertheless conjures up interesting visions.
His Sweet Truffle of a Girl – by Camille Alexa
A most unusual submarine in a unique predicament. A submariner in … let’s say a biological submarine, pines over a daguerreotype of his lover. As things go from bad to worse, he fears he will never see her again. A creature of the stygian deep threatens. There is but one slim chance of survival. Dare he take it?
The “environment” of the submarine is rendered quite credible due to the author’s attention to detail over its workings. For me that stands out over and above the plot or the characters. Definitely an “idea” piece, albeit one that manages to present an authentic fungoid mood. Found it fascinating.
Last Bloom on the Sage – by Andrew Penn Romine
In a world gone eldritch two cowboys (one not human) plot to stop a mystic train in order to rescue a prisoner who happens to be an evil, disembodied brain. One of the cowboys, Legs McGraw, has no legs at all but rather “tentacles squidging trails of slime,” tentacles “with the pungent tang of rotting mushrooms.” Apart from that, he is very companionable. The other cowboy, Duke Winchester, is armed with Colt Hexmakers.
All that is weird is in fact perfectly normal to the inhabitants of this alternate Wild West, but makes for unexpected and zany dynamics for the reader. I quite enjoyed it. Over the top the way I like it.
The Pilgrims of Parthen – by Kristopher Reisz
Hallucinogenic visions induced by mushrooms turn out to be a gateway to a shared alien world. Like a video game there are save points from which you can start the next time you get high. So, amusingly, social media is alive with instructions from people further along in the quest telling others where to go. They leap frog each other in an effort to discover the secret of the otherworld. The unlucky ones find out what it is.
I’m assuming some sort of metaphor for drug addiction and alienation but I’m too dense to grasp the subtle underpinnings, preferring instead to wallow in growing anticipation of what will be discovered. Takes a while, a bit slow may haps, but I came away satisfied.
Midnight Mushrumps – by W.H. Pugmire
Ritual sculpture within a bed of fungus a bad idea. I don’t even know how to explain the basic plot of this story. Can’t wrap my brain around it.
This is a sort of surreal fairy tale and a grim one at that. It is without doubt a mood piece, and good at conveying the mood, but I found myself confused over the precise nature of the mood intended, not to mention unable to figure out exactly what was happening. My “wtf?” confusion kept pulling me out of the story. Likewise the lengthy paragraphs which I found annoying. I’ve become intellectually lazy over the years and suspect I’m not doing the story justice. I feel it is carefully crafted to achieve a particular artistic goal, but it reminds me of the avant-garde student films I walked out of at University. Others with different tastes may conclude this is the best story in the anthology, but not I. Did like the title though.
Kum Raul (The Unknown Terror) – by Steve Berman
The price of studying fungi in a Mayan cave.
Because I have taken a number of courses on Mesoamerican studies, including an academic tour of Mayan and Aztec ruins in three countries, I came away a trifle disappointed at the limited use of the Mayan aspect. Also can’t help but wonder if this story was inspired by the Mario Bava film Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. But my musings aside, the main flaw is that the story is all tell rather than show, almost as if it is a synopsis of a movie script, which, since it is an excerpt from the author’s Guide to Lost Gay Cinematic Characters, it probably is. Then again, perhaps the guide is fictional, being a riff on the type of Gay characters which could have existed in films of Yore. That would make it highly original. I have no idea.
Overall, the film sounds rather dull, a low-grade B movie without redeeming features, or at least none indicated. So why do I find this interesting? Always a sucker for stories and films about dangerous fungi lurking in a cave.
Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose – by Jeff Vandermeer
Not easy being a detective in Mushroom city. A persistent, indeed, obsessive-minded no-name detective emerges from a river (likes to swim apparently) on to the foreshore of an abandoned city. Quite close by he comes across a rather extraordinary recumbent form. What you might call a life-changing event happens, his original quest immediately forgotten. And yet, successful in a way.
I like this because it speaks to my taste. It takes place on familiar territory, namely a Lovecraftian nightmare of rot and infection. The description is quite good and accessible. I get what is happening (almost) though I don’t understand the why of it. Much of the symbolism skips by me but I don’t mind because the setting is memorable, the situation horrible. A bit more clarity would help, or at least help me. I need a lot of help.
Let me take a stab at interpreting the symbolism. Crawling out of a dark river. Could be he’s just crawling out of a river like it says. Or it might be the river Styx and he’s emerging into some sort of afterlife. Or perhaps he is “awakening” into a dream state, a nightmare. Or possibly he’s been dead and been restored to life in a now diseased world. Maybe he is hallucinating while sitting in a dentist’s chair. I don’t know. Maybe he tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river and we are experiencing his death visions. Then again, maybe he’s just pulling himself out of a river in order to look for somebody. I believe writers hate readers like me.
When you consider I was the only one in High School English Lit class to consider Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge an extraordinarily witty and hilarious satire of English life you may possibly grasp how authentic a critic I am.
Goat’s Bride – by Richard Gavin
Faithful to the old religion. At first sight a swansong to pagan beliefs, demeaned and diminished by the new religion, seemingly on the verge of extinction. But those of you familiar with Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough will know what happens next.
So much that is written about traditional European paganism reeks of disapproval and anti-pagan propaganda. This story is refreshingly different. It successfully captures the raw power and majesty of ancient perception of the divine from a point of view within said belief system, and I don’t mean a light-hearted New Age approach either. It’s a very visceral blast from the past. The ending, if a trifle ambiguous, is quite impressive.
Contrary to what many moderns believe, the old pagans were not superstitious idiots. There was a breadth of concept which appealed to the imagination, especially on an emotional plane, a vision of sacred wisdom which convinced believers they were in communion with the gods of nature on a very personal level indeed. This story captures that sense magnificently. Nothing disrespectful here.
Not that I advocate the old religion. I’m an atheist. But I do like to see religion, any religion, being portrayed in fiction authentic to the actual beliefs of the faithful. Otherwise why bother?
Tubby McMungus, Fat from Fungus – by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington
Anthropomorphous cats are an exercise in dangerous greed and one-upmanship. Tubby makes a good living designing and selling Merkins (also known as “dick wigs”) to the court of Chester II, only to discover the products of Seignior Chiazza have become all the rage. He must come up with the ultimate Merkin in time for the annual “Mad Menagerie” at court.
Not to my taste. Which is odd. Wind in the Willows is one of a select few favourite books which I reread every year. I believe I own all of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy series. And who doesn’t like the feisty Ewoks?
Yet the fact remains I find most humans-in-animal-form characters not very convincing or satisfying. Why cats? Why not aardvarks? Or baboons? Or even human beings?
A case can be made that cats, being notoriously self-conscious easily offended egotists, are perfect for the plot of this story, but I didn’t “buy it” enough to settle in. After all, Tubby McMungus is a jerk (of course he is, he’s a cat!) and I felt little empathy for his character. Miss Mousha, his hardworking ratty seamstress, was far more sympathetic from my perspective, but little use is made of her.
I do admit the story has an authentic fairy tale “feel,’ a sprightly jesting tone almost Chaucerian in nature, so I assume people who like this sort of thing will find it quite delightful. I, however, curmudgeonly cold-to-fantasy sci-fi geek that I am, was left standing awkwardly at the threshold, peering past a half-open door without any ability to relate to what I was seeing. I don’t think the gossipy bats in the story would approve of me. Nor fantasy fans.
Wild Mushrooms – by Jane Hertenstein
An old world obsession with mushroom picking. Basically an auto-biographical piece, perhaps partly or even wholly fictional, musing on the influence of parents from the old country who persist in the habit of picking wild mushrooms, not for the usual dignified scramble for hallucinogens reasons, but simply to add to the table. No wonder their daughter, who doesn’t even like mushrooms, finds this wildly embarrassing. One of those “Oh my god, my family” things.
It is a slice of life piece. Not unexpected, given that the author teaches a “Flash Memoir” course. It is well done, and even I can appreciate the nostalgia, but it’s not really a “horror tale” and seems out of place as it stands in sober contrast to the rest of the stories in the anthology. I strongly suspect it was selected for that very reason (plus the quality of writing). It’s just not the sort of thing I am personally interested in. Nothing wrong with the story. Maybe something wrong with me.
Our Stories will Live Forever – Paul Tremblay
What can a dreaded horror offer you in an emergency? If you possess even the slightest phobic fear regarding flying about in gigantic commercial airliners, do not read this story! Can hardly say anything about the plot without giving away the ending (something I scrupulously attempt to avoid doing in these reviews) so let’s just say the weird person sitting next to you in flight may turn out to be a lot weirder than you think.
I rate this entertaining, even though it made me cringe. Repeatedly. The ending is curiously satisfying though. Something I would do, given the choice. Once you have read the story and considered my reaction to it you may possibly begin to look at me sideways.
Where Dead Men Go to Dream – A.C. Wise
As best I can make out, a rather depressed young man is seeking a way to communicate with his dead girlfriend in order to apologize for unintentionally driving her to suicide. That the young man is named Jonah is a bit of a giveaway. Reading this I don’t experience a smooth narrative drive so much as a jangled kaleidoscope of vividly captured moments, like looking at a handful of mirror shards each depicting an isolated image from a shattered mosaic. For me the story flashes like a strobe light. The emphasis is not on the plot but on Jonah’s disturbed and obsessive state of mind.
The story is riddled with angst. I hate angst. I suffered from extreme depression off and on for more than thirty years (extreme to the extent where a depression clinic at UBC refused to treat me on the grounds they only wanted to deal with patients who had some chance of being cured) and, having reached a stage in my life where I am actually enjoying life, I’m buggered if I want to revisit the atmosphere of regrets and remorse over failed opportunities that used to fog my brain.
Which is to say that the story, despite its “weird fiction” aspect, is psychologically astute and accurate to the point of being painful to a former depressive like me. Any writer interested into gaining insight into the physiological reality of a character in this condition would do well to read this story.
You might think “Nah, this is unrealistic. Nobody thinks like this. It’s made-up pseudo-intellectual B.S.” I beg to differ. This story hits home, hits hard, for anyone who’s lived through episodes like this.
Well done, in other words. Powerful and effective.
Dust from a Dark Flower – by Daniel Mills
The New Hampshire village of Falmouth buries its deceased Reverend in 1767. He is soon replaced by a Reverend Judah Stone who brings “imperturbable mildness and good humour” to his task. That is not all he brings …
Couple of particularly good things about this story. First, it’s relentless pace and momentum slowly builds an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of dread and apprehension as one unsettling discovery after another is revealed. Second, in style and choice of words it reads very much like something penned in the historical period it is set in. This adds immensely to the credibility of the tale.
I do believe Lovecraft would have enjoyed it. Very much in canon.
A Monster in the Midst – Julio Toro San Martin
Green slime mold has covered much of the Earth in the age of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette. The Vicomte Triste leads an expedition of aerostats to a point in the Atlantic where his clockwork man (which he invented) tells him to drop into the sea in a submarine (also of the Vicomte’s invention) to confront the horror at the centre of the contagion, potentially a bad idea it turns out. Seems the Vicomte has not thought things through.
A touch of steampunk, a liberal spread of unspeakable horror, and a character whose thoughtless heroics and unjustified confidence faithfully reflect the mindset of the nobility in the historical reality of the period; what’s not to like? Not what I would call “serious” horror, being rather light-hearted in nature, without much solid substance, but definitely a good read.
This sort of story cheers me up and makes me chuckle. I repeat, not for you to question my sanity …
The Pearl in the Oyster and the Oyster under Glass – Lisa M. Bradley
Two environmentalists, one part bear and part man, the other a “mixed-skin” woman (literally mixed-skin, her body covered with multiple skin grafts) interrelate at an Oceanside oil spill where booms impregnated with oil-eating mushrooms are deployed to purify the water.
I can’t tell if the part bear/part man aspect is an allegorical interpretation of both man’s relationship with and alienation from mother nature, or if he’s actually a hybrid creature. I assume the mixed skin woman is symbolic of something as well, or maybe not. The fact that their interaction with each other leads to nothing annoys me. As does the ending, which I won’t divulge, but the point seems to be that everything is pointless, yet there’s always hope, maybe.
I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all. Rather than a coherent story where characters are set up with some sort of explanation and the problem at hand is resolved or at least evolved through the main character’s effort successfully or not, this is more of a mood piece where everything is what it is and nothing matters. Too existential for my taste. Nothing solid enough for me to sink my teeth into. I’m completely lost in a story like this.
Nothing wrong with the writing. Some very good description for instance. I just don’t understand what it’s all about. Guess I’m just dense. I’m not the first to make that suggestion. Oh well.
Letters to a Fungus – by Polenth Blake
Incensed with the spread of sometimes deadly fungus over her property, Jane dashes off angry letters of complaint to the fungus. Unfortunately, the fungus writes back.
Not a “real” horror piece, but a bright, almost cheerful bit of horror. The fungus is really quite insolent. A bit selfish too.
I’m sure the situation is an allegory for something or other, maybe even a parable, but I just set my brain to idle and let the story wash over me. Like so many short shorts, despite a silly premise, or maybe precisely because of the silly premise, it is a quick and fun read.
Six more stories to go but I’ve run out of room. Believe me, everything in this anthology is worth reading, including the introduction and the bibliography A Brief List of Fungal Fiction which is “not intended as an exhaustive compilation.” That explains why they left out Mario Bava’s Caltiki, The Immortal Monster in the film list section. It is, however, intended to “serve as a lead into other mushroom wonderlands.”
Come to think of it, that would be a good description of this book: “A Guide to Mushroom Wonderlands.” It be a worthy addition to your library of Lovecraftian fiction. In other words, a “must have!”
Check it out at: < FUNGI >