Fungi in Fiction: The Fungus (1985)
Book Review: The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight (1985)
Though the structure of this novel is confusing and some of the story-telling strategies distracting, the science (IE mycology) is surprisingly well-informed for a story reminiscent of 1950s pulp sf.
The many species of fungi featured are described and named correctly as far as I can tell. Fungal processes such as mycelial growth are up to date (to 1985) and for the sake of those surprises, The Fungus is quite an interesting read.
The first four chapters are pure pulp, describing the spread of a mysterious fungal plague in lurid detail, with each chapter following an unfortunate human to his or her end.
Chapter five is the beginning proper, and skips back in time to before the spread of the plague described previously, leaving a reader to wonder how these previous chapters are involved.
Jane Wilson, mycologist, cradles the result of her experimentation, a giant Agaricus bisporus. Quote: “For one thing its pileus, or cap – which was resting against her left breast – was over a foot in diameter, and the stipe, or stalk was over two feet long and seven inches long. Altogether it weighed nearly four pounds.”
She is disappointed to discover that there are no spores, no sexual reproduction.
Towards the end of nearly every chapter, the author finds it necessary to step out of the character’s viewpoint to explain something that happens outside the knowledge of the chapter’s character. Reader, in this case me, trips out of the story every time. In this chapter: Quote: “Unknown to her, several thousand microscopic mushroom cells still remained in the cut and under her fingernail.”
The next chapter continues with the effects of the unstoppable spread of the fungal plague, this time as related by a medical doctor, Bruce Carter, the strategy I feel to seed in that character for his role at the end of the story.
Part II, titled the Journey, concerns Jane Wilson’s ex-partner living and writing in Ireland who, after being forced to volunteer to travel to London to find Jane’s notes about her experiments, is sent on a violent journey accompanied by an obstreperous soldier to protect him and to get him there, and a sexually hungry doctor to administer anti-fungal drugs to herself and them.
After many of the sort of adventures we have become familiar with in modern filmic adventure/thrillers, Wilson succeeds in discovering the tower where Jane is working around the clock to find the processes needed to promote spore production.
Wilson, accompanied now by Dr Carter, cuts a swath through the women guarding Jane with his flame-thrower after overcoming his earlier horror at using the device. It’s a matter of survival after all.
Since Jane has also used their children as guinea pigs for her research, and they are both consumed by fungi, Wilson feels justified burning Jane. The fungus infecting her makes it easy. He and Doctor Carter, who happens to be a radio geek, manage to broadcast Jane’s research to enable scientists outside the area of infection to control the outbreak.