Skip to main content

Fungalpunk is a term that I coined for the release of my debut novel, Mushroom Blues. It’s a play on all the countless -punk subgenres, poking a bit of fun at how ridiculous some of them have gotten. But at the same time, I wanted to shine a light on the fascinating nature of fungi and how immensely transformative, inspirational, experimental, and strange they are. This is a whole kingdom of organisms that we still don’t fully understand—hell, humans understand more about the moon than they do mushrooms.

This is one of the reasons fungi works so well in fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi. There is an inherent mystery to these lifeforms, such that fiction authors can elaborate on their applications in a story to incredible effect. By no means am I the first person to incorporate fungi into a SFF tale, either. There are so many writers—both living and dead—who have gone to great lengths to pour their passions for mold, mycelium, and mushrooms into their stories. As such, I want to pay homage to those who have come before, inspired me and my work, and continue to spread the spores of their weird and wondrous narratives.

And so, to colonize your imagination and TBR pile with new reads, I’ve compiled a list of nine books and series that embrace the magic of mushrooms.

 

NOTE: All of these are stories that I have personally read, and if you have any recommendations of your own, please comment below.

 

#1: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Author: Lewis Carrol

Publication: 1865

Lewis Carroll is the granddaddy of fungal fiction, from my perspective. How many times after reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or seeing Disney’s animated adaptation have you heard, read, or thought to yourself, “How many drugs did this guy take?” Well, despite the fact that Alice and her fated journey down the rabbit hole are now so synonymous with psychedelics, there’s no clear evidence that Carroll ever used drugs. Yet somehow, so much of the world he imagined in this book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass is oozing with hallucinogenic comparisons: Distortions of time and space, surreal imagery, loss of control, non-linearity, playful moods, fantastical creatures, spiritual awakening, and more.

Absurdism is quintessential in Wonderland, and Alice’s encounters with characters like the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Caterpillar, and more are so relatable and memorable because of their absurdities. It is this quality that shows Carroll understood the strange potential of hallucinogens (albeit second-hand through research and the writings of others). Ultimately, this leans into what fiction does best: Trasnporting us to worlds unknown, enrapturing our imaginations with the surreal and the ordinary, all at the same time. For anyone who has taken psychedelics, this might just sound familiar.

 

#2: The Ambergris Trilogy

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Publication: 2002 (City of Saints and Madmen), 2006 (Shriek: An Afterword), 2009 (Finch)

Aside from the Toads in the Mario video game franchise (who are frankly quite boring and mediocre), I had never encountered mushroom people before—that is, until I came across Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris trilogy. Even better, his fungal people are both terrifying and fascinating, embodying the most disturbing and intriguing aspects of real-life fungi. The world he created in Ambergris is brimming with rich history and colonization, the city lushly detailed with dripping mold and fruiting bodies. Each book in this series is a masterclass in mood and atmosphere, with VanderMeer’s poetic prose drawing you in deeper and deeper with every sentence.

City of Saints and Madmen (a short story collection) is a surreal introduction to Ambergris, its denizens, and the fungal inhabitants creeping beneath the surface. It effectively establishes the city’s history and complex dynamics through a series of compelling vignettes. Shriek builds upon this, tightening the focus on intimate relationships but broadening the narrative scope. It portrays the heartbreaking and dysfucntional bond between two siblings, all while pushing stylistic boundaries and infusing epistolary techniques. But Finch is my favorite in the trilogy, and a massive inspiration for my debut novel. It expertly melds a noir/detective narrative with the dark setting of Ambergris, fleshing out the sociopolitical relationships between humans and their gray cap colonizers, as well as presenting an infectious, immersive mystery to sink into.

 

#3: Wanderers & Wayward

Author: Chuck Wendig

Publication: 2019 (Wanderers), 2022 (Wayward)

At first, Wanderers doesn’t seem like a very fungi-oriented book. It’s a slow burn post-apocalypse, weaving an intricate and epic tale of infection across the United States. If you’re thinking zombies, it’s not that. This is a sleepwalking epidemic at its core, and Wendig brilliantly utilizes this framework to explore sociopolitical, cultural, and ideological clashes through the lens of America-gone-awry. Although it takes a while for the actual role of fungi in Wanderers to become clear, once those mushroom-shaped puzzle pieces fit into place, it is so satisfying and icky and wonderful.

The sequel, Wayward, expands upon this by honing in on something that made its predecessor so captivating: Connection. How do people react in the face of apocalypse? How do they work together or fight one another? Community is such an integral part of this series, in terms of how groups come together or fall apart. It’s a powerful sentiment because that concept of community and connection encapsulates a shared biological drive that both human beings and fungi have. Mycelium cooperates, coalesces, and expands, much like humans do—from families to villages to cities to nations. That interdependence is palpable, and it makes for a potent and engaging narrative.

 

#4: Mexican Gothic

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publication: 2020

If there were ever a perfect genre marriage for fungi, it would be Gothic horror—the two go hand in hand like fated lovers buried beneath the ground, decaying together for all eternity. One of the standout examples of this is Mexican Gothic. The novel plays on the Gothic trope of the cursed manor, but by setting it in her birth nation of Mexico, Moreno-Garcia has the opportunity to explore weighty and personal historical themes alongside the tense, atmospheric story of a corrupt and rotting family legacy.

Through the eyes of Noemí, the foul deeds of the Doyle family come to light: Racism, colonization, eugenics, class disparity, abuse. This family got rich off of gold that slave laborers mined for them, and the greed that filled their pockets has become a disease that decays their souls. Which is why High Place (the novel’s setting), is so brilliantly portrayed—almost as a character in and of itself. It’s a physical representation of the Doyle’s deteriorating morality, infecting those who inhabit its mold-covered halls. This insidious horror and how it contaminates Noemí and the surrounding cast of characters is breathtaking, a terrifying hallucination that blurs the lines between reality and unreality.

 

#5: Fungi (Anthology)

Editors: Orrin Grey & Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publication: 2012

Out of every book on this list, Fungi is probably the best place to start for those new to fungal fiction. Not only does it feature fantastic stories by authors like Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Tremblay, Laird Barron, Lavie Tidhar, W.H. Pugmire, Ann K.Schwader, and more, but it also conveys the breadth of genres and tones that mushroom-centric narratives can tread. There is darkness and horror within these pages, yes, but readers will also find whimsy, lightheartedness, and optimism.

Not all of the stories are exceptional, some falling into forgettable territory and using mold, mushrooms, and psychedelics as one-dimensional story devices. But the majority of tales in this weird collection are worth exploring, and many are truly stunning. Particular highlights are John Langan’s “Hyphae,” a visceral depiction of the dementia and death of the narrator’s father as a transformation into mycorrhizal fertilizer, and Laird Barron’s “Gamma,” an emotionally potent exploration of childhood and adulthood, memory and trauma, death and decay. If you want to start your fungal journey more broadly, then this anthology is an excellent primer.

 

#6: The Girl with All the Gifts

Author: M.R. Carey

Publication: 2014

This is the one thing you knew was coming: Zombies. After the original The Last of Us video game blew up in 2013, the concept of a global outbreak stemming from fungi has burrowed into our brains like colonizing cordyceps. There’s such a cultural fascination with zombies, and mushrooms fit so well into that mold. But, where The Last of Us series focused on the United States, British author M.R. Carey took a different approach to the zombie apocalypse: Setting his novel in his homeland of England.

What makes The Girl with All the Gifts excel is how it gradually expands its scope. At the beginning, a young girl named Melanie and other seemingly normal children attend classes in a mysterious underground facility. The facility is operated by military personnel, and it becomes clear that things are not what they seem. As the story progresses and the base comes under attack, the scope increases. We learn that there are infected zombies and a parasitic plague, how that plague is transmitted between people, who the children are and why Melanie is special, as well as what has happened across England (and likely the world). Not only are the zombies a genuinely frightening threat, but Carey deftly balances character relationships, world, and plot in this threatening landscape. Even better, the integral role of fungi is handled intelligently, threading the mycelial filament between danger and mystery.

SIDE NOTE: The 2016 movie adaptation of The Girl with All the Gifts was also written by M.R. Carey, and is an excellent analog to the book. I recommend checking out both.

 

#7: Rosewater

Author: Tade Thompson

Publication: 2016

The first book in The Wormwood Trilogy is hard to pinpoint in terms of genre. Set in near-future Nigeria, Rosewater is a story about first contact, dealing heavily with the legacy of Africa’s colonial history. But that first contact also comes in the form of a giant alien xenoform called “Wormwood,” which has arrived on Earth and is carrying out a soft invasion of the biosphere. Strange things are happening: Wormwood moves through the planet’s crust on an inexplicable mission, America has closed itself off to the outside world, and a giant alien biodome has popped up in Nigeria. That’s where the city of Rosewater comes in: This ad-hoc urban sprawl has developed around the dome, where denizens bask in its rumored healing powers, often causing the dead to rise again or unnatural mutations in the living.

But the locus of this novel is its protagonist, Kaaro, a thief-turned-government agent. He’s been inside the dome, and is one of few living “sensitives,” rare people who can connect to the xenosphere (a psychic link between the world’s collective consciousness). This link is somehow bound to the alien Wormwood, a fungus-like organism that constitutes the xenosphere. Thing is, sensitives are dying, and Kaaro is tasked with uncovering the truth.

Rosewater is a bizarre and fascinating story, traversing into political thriller territory as much as it does prescient sci-fi and hallucinatory new weird. Kaaro is flawed but relatable, even with all the uncanny things he has experienced. But what I appreciate most is how Thompson’s evocative worldbuilding (from the fungal aliens to Rosewater and the biodome) is so thoughtfully incorporated into the sociopolitical, cultural, and historical landscape of Lagos and Nigeria. Personally, I can’t wait to continue this series.

 

#8: What Moves the Dead

Author: T. Kingfisher

Publication: 2022

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. It packs so much into a few dozen pages, regaling readers with the downfall of a decadent family. But personally, the story left me wanting: I wanted to know more about the Usher family, to delve deeper into the madness of their crumbling lives and their decaying home. Author T. Kingfisher certainly felt a similar way, crafting What Moves the Dead as a retelling and an expansion of Poe’s famous work—fleshing out his world and characters, as it were.

Much like Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, this novella takes place in a countryside manor. But where the former is an intoxicating indictment of post-colonialism, What Moves the Dead is a taut, intimate character study that doesn’t stray far from its core handful of characters. This limited scope works in its favor, though, allowing each character to blossom and reveal their truest selves. Now, the real magic (and the real horror) is how those revelations unfold—as such, there are some stellar twists in this story. All of them stem from how the protagonist, Alex Easton, uncovers the truth of how fungi have infected and possessed not only the landscape and creatures around the House of Usher, but also the people who inhabit it. This is a mystery at heart, and fungal body horror at its finest. Plus, the sequel, What Feasts at Night, recently released, and I’m aching for more from these characters and this world.

 

#9: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Author: Rivers Solomon

Publication: 2021

As its title suggests, Sorrowland is a bleak and disturbing story. It follows Vern, a pregnant fifteen-year-old who is married to the cult leader of Cainland. Every night, she undergoes the horror of being strapped to a bed and force-fed drugs. Much like the runaway slaves in 18th and 19th century America, Vern escapes into the woods, evading capture while surviving in the unpredictable wilds. She even gives birth to twins out there, raising them with a reverence for and knowledge of nature.

Where this book truly succeeds is in its depictions of Vern’s transformation. Out in the forest, her body slowly succumbs to strange changes, but the exact cause is unclear. Is it a side of effect of the drugs she was given, or not receiving them anymore? Has she been infected in some way? Understandably, Vern struggles to understand what is happening to her. She has to uncover truth in order protect her family, while also dealing with the traumas of her past and the violent cycles of history that laid the groundwork for her life and the world she knows.

The potency of this narrative lies in the poetic embodiment of transformation. Fungi as organisms exist on a biological basis of reshaping and renewal—decay generates nutrients, which in turn inhibits new cycles of life and growth. The very biosphere of Earth that we’ve inherited is a beneficiary of this pattern. So too do our individual lives (and the moments in history that we inhabit) exist in constant states of transformation, and Vern’s reality goes through its own cycle of decomposition, reformation, and regeneration. The result is a dark and brooding exploration of the human psyche, but one that gracefully blurs the line between us and fungi.

 

BONUS: Mushroom Blues

Author: Adrian M. Gibson

Publication: March 19th 2024

This one is a bit of a cheat, but (surprise!) it’s my list! If you’ve read all of my recommendations and are fully on board with the idea of fungi in your fiction, I hope you’ll give my debut novel a shot. Even though Mushroom Blues is wrapped up in a mystery/police procedural/noir package, it’s ultimately a story about awakening and acceptance. These are two interconnected journeys that have changed my life for the better, despite the challenges they’ve introduced along the way. The use of psychedelics in particular has been directly responsible for these monumental personal transformations: My ability to awaken to the realities of existence, understanding truths that I had previously neglected or ignored, as well as the reclaimed agency that came through accepting who I am in relation to my past, present, and future.

In Mushroom Blues, those are the barriers that the protagonist, Henrietta Hofmann, has to confront and break down—much like mycelium consuming a fallen tree. Reflecting my own experiences, mushrooms are integral to her journey, fueling the necessary death and rebirth of her sense of self. In reality, fungi have the potential to change the world, from one individual consciousness to entire ecosystems and societies. These are extraordinary organisms, and I hope to see more mycological representation in fiction going forward.

A new age is upon us, and, from my perspective, that future is fungal.


Adrian M. Gibson is a Canadian SFF author, podcaster and illustrator (as well as occasional tattoo artist). He is the creator of the SFF Addicts podcast, which he co-hosts with fellow author M. J. Kuhn. The two host in-depth interviews with an array of science fiction and fantasy authors, as well as writing masterclasses. He lives in Quito, Ecuador with his family.

For the latest updates, follow Adrian on Instagram, Twitter, and Threads @adrianmgibson. You can also stream/watch new episodes of SFF Addicts every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, and more.

Leave a Reply