Biology, especially on a smaller scale, is sometimes completely indistinguishable from horror. The real world has given us ravenous insects with absolutely terrifying eating and breeding habits and plants that trap prey for days while digesting it alive, amid numerous other unsettling marvels.
But among the most unnerving natural phenomena are fungi. There are mushrooms that take over an animal’s entire nervous system, eat the brains of lifeforms that unwittingly ingest it, and do just about anything to reproduce, no matter how horrific. Naturally, science fiction and fantasy authors have taken it upon themselves to up the ante and create some terrifying fungal life of their own. Submitted for your approval, six of our favorite freakish fungal creations in genre books.
Children of the Next Level (Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R. Kiernan)
In Agents of Dreamland, Kiernan blends multiple strains of weird fiction and existential horror into a pure, concentrated dose of otherworldliness. As no weird fiction would be complete without either some kind of fungus or parasite, she delivers both in spades via a parasitic fungus willingly injected into the bodies of a group of cultists with aspirations to be the next Heaven’s Gate. While Kiernan doesn’t linger on the body horror, the details of what the fungus does to the Children are terrifying enough—the victims are described as “draped” around the room they use for incubation, their speech devolving into nihilistic anti-human rants that would make Ligotti blush—and that’s before the things that hatch from their skulls go “skittering” away. It just goes to show some of the best body horror doesn’t have to be described on-page.
Twilight Moss (Night Watch, by Sergei Luknayenko)
The Twilight, the bluish realm only accessible to the mages and supernatural creatures of Sergei Luknayenko’s dark fantasy Night Watch pentalogy, is also home to its own bizarre biological life: a bluish-purple moss that feeds on mystical energies. As the layers of Twilight get deeper, the moss grows more and more aggressively. The twisted part of it is, in spite of having sorcerers as close to ageless as you can get, neither the Night Watch nor the Day Watch has any idea what the stuff is. In a setting where people either know or pretend to know literally everything about how their world functions, the best anyone can muster about the moss is “we don’t know.” Add to this the fact the Twilight is (possibly) an organism unto itself, and suddenly a small detail like creeping moss becomes undeniably sinister.
Gray Caps (Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer)
The Gray Caps start out as indigenous mushroom people driven underground by the genocidal colonists who founded Ambergris in City of Saints and Madmen. By the time Finch rolls around, they’ve taken over the entire city, and even possibly killed the beloved river-dwelling giant squid. Ambergris under Gray Cap rule is a dystopian place, with human-fungal hybrids and large walking mushrooms inhabiting a nightmarish bureaucracy run entirely on and by spore-based lifeforms. Under the Gray Caps, the normally vibrant city of is described as a kind of dead body covered in new spore architecture, the main character’s superior is a talking mushroom with hairlike “teeth,” and humans in law enforcement regularly become “partials,” getting more and more fungal grafts until they become something very far from human.
Ophiocordyceps (The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey)
In M.R. Carey’s post-apocalyptic novel The Girl with All the Gifts, a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (called the “zombie fungus” for the way it takes over an ant’s body) mutates to affect humans, turning the population into ravenous “hungries” ruled only by their base desires and instincts. Worse still, the disease can be transmitted either through bite or the fungus’ airborne spores, meaning just avoiding the zombies isn’t enough any more. By the time of prequel/sidequel/sequel The Boy on the Bridge, most of the world is depopulated, and the fungus is able to mimic existing cerebral structures, creating intelligent (if feral) hungries who roam areas reclaimed by the wilderness like a semi-urbanized version of Lord of the Flies.
Thirty-Four Bennett Street (The Rook by Daniel O’Malley)
O’Malley’s Gilliamesque novel of supernatural intrigue is an embarrassment of riches where bizarre supernatural events are concerned, but an especially gruesome section in the middle sees the agents of the Chequy Group investigate what they initially think is a haunted house. They shortly discover it is actually inhabited by a people-eating fungal hive mind that possesses some humans, driving them into a religious fervor, and digests others, spitting them out as slurry. By the time the protagonists get there, the entire building is one gigantic nervous system spitting out an unintelligible Gregorian chant and swallowing up anyone who gets close. To make matters worse, the fungus spreads aggressively, meaning that if the Chequy can’t find a way to stop it, it could “convert” the entire city of Bath—or possibly the entire world.
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The Mushroom Queen (“The Mushroom Queen,” by Liz Ziemska)
In Liz Ziemska’s twisted fantasy tale, a humanoid mushroom switches places with a human woman, intent on taking over her life and living among us. Not only is it clear she’s not human, but the callous way she condemns her victim, flinging her into a root system and letting her dissolve until she becomes one with the fungus growing on her back lawn, is particularly unnerving. The story tells, in some detail, how the human woman slowly becomes one with the roots, which, while beautifully written, is unnerving to think about. Ziemska also delights in the descriptions of how the Queen attempts to act human, with her body “forming around” her victim’s husband when they’re close, breathing through gills, and coating a wall of the bedroom in green slime. Shudder.
Did we miss your favorite fungus?