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  • Fungal War Machines
  • Ben Woodard (bio)

In their Romance of the Fungus World, R. T. Rolfe and F. W. Rolfe point to an odd attitude towards fungi in scientific, literary and other communities, highlighting a sweeping condemnation of fungi as part of a widespread fungiphobia. Rolfe and Rolfe justify this phobia through a brief survey of fungi in folklore and fiction, which shows a persistent association with pestilence, death and as “agents of dissolution.” Fungi clear the forest floor of organic debris and subsequently vitalize the nutrients of the dead thereby making space for new life. Fungi disintegrate their organic neighbors through secretions as well as rhizomatic expansion.

Beyond the organic, fungus dissolves inorganic structures and is vilified for its damage to human-made ones in particular. As Rolfe and Rolfe show, stories such as Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” are replete with descriptions of rot and fungi. This de-structuring of fungus can be spread to the faltering spatial dimension of ancient history in general, of the deterioration of old texts, of faded ruins, to the stretch of all civilized space which crumbles indefinitely in time. Jeff VanderMeer’s steampunk novel Shriek and its precursor City of Saints and Madmen embrace this theme clearly. The setting of both novels, the city of Ambergris, is a place where the original inhabitants, a race of sentient mushrooms called the gray caps, were forced underground. VanderMeer’s book is an oddity of form constituted by a thrice edited manuscript which suggests the unreliability of all its narrators as well as history itself (history being the main concern of the text both familial and on a wider scale). VanderMeer’s texts infuse genealogical history with the hallucinatory and unpredictability of fungus forming a decaying yet growing patchwork form of history, a history that, in its very form, is rotting to mush.

The fungoid, the fundamental creepiness of life, displays the unhinged spatiality of life as well as its rampant ungrounding, of the very surface which seems necessary in order to sustain it and all other life forms. Evident in the above epigraph, Thomas Ligotti’s tales are replete with fungus as a simultaneous operative of gross life and perpetual decay. In the “Bungalow House” the narrator becomes obsessed with an odd local artist who describes an old bungalow house, with a “threadbare carpet” of “verminous bodies,” and filled with “naturally revolting forms.”

Furthermore, in Ligotti’s “Severini” the narrator discusses the odd artist Severini and the works of his followers which are classified under the unofficial name “the nightmare of the organism.” (The most relevant title of these fictional works being “The Descent into the Fungal.”) Severini himself lives in a small shack out in the jungle, described as a “tropical sewer” sitting amidst trees and vines where there were “giant flowers that smelled like rotting meat” in the fungus and muck. The followers of Severini dream of a temple amidst a fetid landscape with “the walls seeping with slime and soft with mold.”

The sight of Severini’s shack is unbearable to the narrator as he states that “I never looked directly into the pools of oozing life” and that, unlike the others, he did not “wish to exist as a fungus exists or as a form of multi-colored slime mold exists.” Ligotti’s narrator promptly burns the place to the ground. The characters of “Severini” dangerously short-circuit the generative slime of unbound growth and the slime as the morass of the decayed linked together as “that great black life from which we have all emerged and of which we are all made.”

To swing back to literal fungus, the intertwining of life and death has long been a mark of fungoid existence, with the death and darknesses of forests being populated by fungus which thrives in the hollow remnants of more majestic vegetative growth. In this sense, fungus is representative of death and not another form of life. The fungal marks the unnerving transitive nature of somaticism – the food of the dead and the fruiting bodies. Fungal bodies are thus hardly bodies at all as they stretch the conceptual limits of their own bodies as well...


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pp. 5-6
Launched on MUSE
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