Fungi, edited by Orrin Gray and Silvia Garcia-Moreno, collects about two dozen weird and fantastic stories focused on the theme of fungus, including mushrooms, molds and a whole related class of bizarre life forms.
I expected mostly dark tales of decay and derangement, but many of the tales here turn out to be lighthearted, whimsical, even silly. Whatever one's preference in terms of tone, Fungi undeniably contains a healthy measure of strong genre fiction. Whether due to my own predisposition toward more serious horror and dark fantasy, or because the more playful efforts are not as strong, I consider the most successful stories here to be those darkest or most surreal in tone. The work of John Langan, Laird Barron, and E. Catherine Tobler stood apart in my estimation.
Langan's lead-off "Hyphae" is a concentrated dose of nastiness. I dare anyone to read this without at least once letting out a disgusted, shuddering moan. I haven't seen Langan write something so viscerally gruesome until this. So awful, yet wonderful. I loved it.
Laird Barron never disappoints, and his "Gamma," a cynical yet emotionally powerful survey of childhood, adulthood, entropy and decay, balances a boy's recollection of his father killing a lame horse named Gamma against a present-day, adult contemplation of his wife leaving him for another man. The story looks outward to embrace death and human existence more generally, and finally broadens to face horror on a truly cosmic scale.
It's worth noting that E. Catherine Tobler's "New Feet Within My Garden Go," which may well be my favorite piece in the book, is a bonus story present in the hardcover but not the paperback version of Fungi. It's a shame many readers will miss Tobler's tale, which is complex, detail-rich, and overflowing with delicious, poetic weirdness. Beautifully and artfully told.
Another handful of stories deserve mention. Nick Mamatas describes in "The Shaft Through the Middle of It All" an apartment building where fungus growing in a ventilation shaft can bring harm to residents, though another use of fungus brings a kind of retributive power. J.T. Glover's "The Flaming Exodus of the Greifswald Grimoire" tells of two brother sorcerers, adventuring grimoire hunters who find trouble when they try to snatch a tempting tome in a house they assume is empty. Paul Tremblay's "Our Stories Will Live Forever" has the feel of straight realism, until a character dealing with terror of flying undergoes a transformation. Lastly, "The Pilgrims of Parthen," by a writer new to me, Kristopher Reisz, suggests a society taken over by the visionary trips brought on by newly discovered mushrooms, which seem to transport the user into a distinct and transcendent separate reality.
Several more, despite falling short of total success in my judgement, possess strengths of expression or concept sufficient to at least partly recommend them. These include works by W.H. Pugmire, Ian Rogers, Daniel Mills, Jeff VanderMeer and A.C. Wise. Also, one humorous story in Fungi that I think works (by virtue of going way over the top) is Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington's "Tubby McMungus, Fat From Fungus," which describes a showdown between rival merkin-makers for fashion-conscious society felines.
Where other stories fell short, lapsing into slightness or forgettability, was often in making a story's entire point nothing more than someone being consumed by mold, or surprised by the druggy effects of mushrooms. Of course, some that miss the mark for one reader may please others looking for different approaches to the subject. Whatever tone the reader prefers, Fungi contains a more than sufficient number of challenging and artful takes on the theme. Readers receptive to the fungal theme, and familiar with at least some of the authors contained here, should find in Fungi a successful weird fiction anthology and an overall satisfying read.