“The Fungal Strain”

This week’s weird fiction story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Fungal Strain”, W. H. Pugmire, 2006.

Cover by Rafael Tavares

This is an oblique takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” using the “Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey” mentioned in passing in that story. 

Pugmire’s prose is lush and filled with vivid incident.

Our narrator is a sometime poet though he claims he’s just interested in the craft of poetry.

The story opens with him seeing, in the fog outside a bookstore, a woman of somewhat bestial face. She comes inside while he looks through a volume of Geoffrey’s works. 

It turns out the woman – whose name we never get — can quote his favorite poet. But the narrator is a loner and somewhat antisocial and isn’t interested in making friends with her. After her opening conversational gambit, she hums an odd song. 

When he leaves the bookstore, the woman follows him, humming a beguiling tune. He begins to “creep” towards her, but she walks into the Kingsport fog.

Next our narrator goes to a Poetry Night.  He reads one of his poems.  The woman goes up and reads from a book, seemingly of Geoffrey’s. We hear a poem about “Yuggoth’s hoary sod” and black stones on it under black stars where the “mirthless chortle of some raving god” can be heard. The narrator finds himself mentally taking in the imagery almost as if he is at the described scene.

He also feels bumps start to grow on his face. 

Going outside, he meets the woman again. They have a smoke. The narrator thinks she is “like one of Wilde’s alluring panthers”. Her hips convey a “bestial appetite”. 

They hear music and see two odd street performers: an old gentleman playing an accordion and a dwarf wearing a mask – and missing several fingers and seemingly parts of his legs. He is drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. As he plays, bumps seem to be growing from the accordion player’s head. 

The woman kisses the dwarf’s palm. He shudders at her touch. The woman then kisses the accordion player and then kisses an “ugly growth” on his cheek. When she is done, blood oozes from it. 

Returning home to his roommate Winfield Scot, the two discuss the woman. 

The roommate, who we are told is probably not as drunk as he likes to seem most of the time, asks if the narrator was reading Geoffrey’s People of the Monolith when he saw the woman.  And was he reading it aloud? In fact, he was.

Scott fills out some of the details about Geoffrey’s that Lovecraft’s story doesn’t have. Geoffrey visited the black monolith in Stregoicavar, Hungary. Scott tells him that Kingsport is full of outside influences, an alchemy fraught with energy to be tapped by language. In other words, he summoned the “woman” by reading that book aloud. 

The roommate hands him a stone knife with symbols on it. Geoffrey had it made out of the stone fragments beneath the black monolith. 

In the final scene of the story, the narrator visits Enoch, an old fisherman. 

On the walls of his shack are a bunch of masks. Enoch says they are “aspects of she and her kindred. They like their false faces”. Enoch then sings a song about black gulfs moving towards us as they dance and “mock our insignificance”. 

Then the narrator hears music. The dwarf appears in the room as does the woman. 

She kisses the narrator, and he knows it is not her tongue tickling him. He can feel fungus on his face. She kisses him again, and he brings the stone knife out. He stabs her in the face, her flesh tearing like a mushroom’s. 

Going into the fog, fleeing that “haunted place”, the woman follows him.

The sound of rustling leaves is heard, but it’s made by the “soft hollow faces” of those masks. Then he sees and hears again the accordion player and dwarf, the woman behind them in spreading darkness. She grabs one of the masks blowing in the wind that has come up. 

The narrator mumbles some verses that come into his mind; he uses that alchemy of Kingsport.

But the fungus staining his hand and forehead begins to expand “as drops of moisture dripped from behind the black cosmos”. 

The story concludes

Baptized, I gazed once more at the daemon that swam toward me through the liquid air; and then I shut my eyes and awaited her final kiss. 

It’s a simple story whose strength is the strange atmosphere of Kingsport and Pugmire’s prose.  The motif of fungal infection from Yuggoth is well done as is the idea that the woman is fatal but not at all sexy and her danger is realized early by the narrator. I also liked the idea of a certain portion of people (or, perhaps, they are not in our world all the time) walking about with the fungal strain and recognizing the woman, an intelligent fungus from Yuggoth, These fungi don’t merely infect the walls of our homes. They infect us. 

Pugmire also nicely uses an aside in a Lovecraft story to bring in a major Lovecraftian motif: dimensional gateway to terrors outside the cosmos.

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