Fungi. Mushrooms, molds, mildews, stuff that's a little bit of both, do slime molds still count in this category? I'm not as up to date on my taxonomy as I could be. But I know the fungi have their own kingdom now!*
Their place in the life cycle, their vital role in breaking down dead matter into its constituent bits for reuse by other life forms and, very likely, their even more vital role in holding together the vast internal hydraulic system that some scientists refer to as land life's "Hypersea", their astonishing variety and range (the largest and oldest organism currently alive is a fungus, for instance) make fungi really quite fascinating, and quite stimulating to a certain kind of imagination. Like that of a speculative fiction writer or fourteen.
The Fungi anthology collects a range of speculative fiction of a range and variety almost as astonishing as that of the kingdom it riffs on. A few authors are happy to just play new iterations of cosmic horror/inimical alien themes introduced by sub-genre granddaddies William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft, but some have truly bizarre new tunes to play on the hyphal strings of their mushroom banjos. As it were.
It's really hard to choose stand-outs to highlight here, and I suspect that every reader will latch on to different ones. Some might like the very first body-horror flavored "Hyphae" by John Langan, in which a decrepit old hermit's truly epic case of athlete's foot is only the beginning of the yuckiness; others will start having weird and creepy nightmares from Kris Reisz' "Pilgrims of Parthen", which discloses that some magic mushroom trips have greater consequences than others. Then there's quite possibly the weirdest weird western written, maybe ever, Andrew Penn Romine's "Last Bloom on the Sage" which depicts a train robbery-cum-political kidnapping against a backdrop of a western U.S. utterly transformed by a wholesale takeover of the ecosystem by various fungi, including some sentient, ambulatory fungi who have to be treated as equals by, if not venerated as somehow greater than, humans. And Richard Gavin's witchy, pagan romp "Goatsbride", a sort of revenge tale in which the ergot madness of early America is explained as a semi-deliberate act subtle of bio-terrorism.
I do have some favorites, though. And, oddly for all that I'm a total genre fiction fan, my favorites are perhaps the least weird, the least fantastic of them all: memoirist Jane Hertenstein's "Wild Mushrooms" is a possibly fictionalized, possibly non-fiction account of one family's obsession with mushroom hunting; Lisa M. Bradley's "The Pearl in the Oyster and the Oyster Under Glass" takes the idea of bio-remediation** and all the hope and promise it embodies and runs with it as it tells the story of the ursine-in-spirit loner Art and his efforts to restore at least small parts of his planet; Lavie Tidhar's "White Hands" is a nifty salute to Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings -- call it the fungal edition.
Every time I come across a collection like this, I get to wondering why I don't read more short fiction than I do, and can't account for it aside from just not having made a special effort to do so. I've come up with a new idea for changing all of that, and that is why there is now a content tag for this blog "bedtime stories." Short fiction and anthologies are perfect for reading before bed, if you're the type of person who likes to do that, and even more perfect if you are also the type of person who has accidentally stayed up way too late engrossed in a novel.
Therefore, expect more explorations of this kind, here. But first, go grab Fungi and have some fungal fun. You'll probably like different stories than I did; you really owe it to yourself to find out!
*Actually, I think slime molds do, too, but I'm too lazy to look it up right now and this is SO not a science blog. Except when it is. Ish.
**Using organisms -- usually micro-organisms, bio-engineered or naturally occurring -- and subtly tweaked natural processes to reclaim polluted or damaged land and seascapes.