“We shouldn’t become accustomed to anything anymore. We are beginning to live in our own future, and it should feel strange” (p. 309). Jeff VanderMeer‘s Shriek: An Afterword is a lovely rendition of the world’s — which is to say, the future’s — strangeness, and of the ways that people strive either to come to terms with it, or to evade and deny it — and of how people get affected by it, in unforeseen and often unpleasant ways, regardless of their attempts either to embrace it or escape it. VanderMeer’s work, like that of China Mieville and K J Bishop, can be classified under the rubric of the New Weird — although that appellation doesn’t get us very far, since at this point it signifies little more than “fantasy” writing (in contrast to “science fiction” proper), but fantasy that takes its moorings not from Tolkien and similar psuedo-medievalism, but rather from such exemplars as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series. It’s fantasy fiction (with elements of horror) that is dark, baroque, and deeply ambiguous — rather than engaging in Joseph-Campbell-esque Quests or staging the struggle of Good against Evil.
In Shriek, the city of Ambergris is overrun by fungus. Mushrooms and other fungi grow everywhere, insinuating themselves into every nook and cranny. Spores float through the air, depositing themselves everywhere. Everything in the city is dankness and rot, which the fungi convert into new, monstrously throbbing, life. There are psychedelic mushrooms, mushrooms in all colors, poisonous mushrooms, “mushroom bombs” which can rot your body from within in a matter of seconds, and even tiny fungi that function like bugs (surveillance devices, not insects), transmitting sound and vision to distant locations. The fungi seem to have some sort of symbiotic relationship with the Grey Caps, the sentient aboriginal inhabitants of the region, whom the human founders of Ambergris slaughtered and drove underground. But the Grey Caps subsist underground with their fungi, in a vast labyrinth of caves and tunnels, waiting for opportunities to re-emerge and take their revenge…
The narrative voices of Shriek try to come to terms with this madness. The novel presents itself as a memoir written by one Janice Shriek, formerly famous but now fallen upon hard times, about her life and especially that of her brother, Duncan Shriek, once a famous historian but long since relegated to the crackpot lunatic fringe, because the inhabitants of Ambergris are willfully deaf to his warnings about the powers of mushrooms and the threat of the Grey Caps. Janice writes her book as an “afterward” to Duncan’s historical book (which has only been published in mutilated form, and which, for the most part, we never get to see). But Duncan has added his marginal annotations and corrections to Janice’s account, which is then presented to us as edited by a third party, after Janice and Duncan have both disappeared. The novel’s narrative indirection, and cacaphony of voices, are well suited to a tale about “underground” matters — the cryptic codes and incomprehensible motivations of the Grey Caps, the oblique proliferation of the fungi — that cannot be viewed head-on or brought to light.
There is no lack of “human” content to this novel: the difficult relations of brother and sister, and the ways they both embark on self-destructive spirals; Duncan’s obsessive relationship with a woman, Mary Sabon, who betrays and destroys him; the experience of trying to survive the horrors of civil war; the experience of growing old; the rich and decadent roles of art and religion in Ambergris; the torment of trying to tell unpleasant truths to people who will do anything in order to avoid recognizing them. All this makes up the foreground of the novel.
But ultimately, this foreground is swallowed up by the novel’s fungal background, which is inhuman, and therefore difficult of comprehension. Duncan’s genius, and his torment, is a consequence of his journeys underground, his strange commerce (if you can call it that) with the fungi and the Grey Caps. He starts out trying to study them objectively, as an historian, to find out their experiences, and consequently to evaluate the reality, and the severity, of their threat. But he cannot “study” them without being transformed by them, without to a certain extent becoming them. He experiences a strange becoming-mushroom, his body colonized and metamorphosed by strange fungal growths, his mind fractured and multiplied so that he himself speaks in many, not necessarily conciliable voices (see p 303). His transformations are deeply disturbing; but the novel continually suggests that such transformations are the only alternative to the extinction otherwise threatening Ambergris. If you don’t allow yourself to be transformed by the encounter with this otherness, this alienness, this fungal proliferation, then the only alternative is to be broken and destroyed by it. Two refrains haunt the novel, repeated throughout its length like leitmotives. One is: there’s no way out, you are going to die. The other is, enigmatically, “there may be a way” (see p. 325). The latter is not a promise of immortality or transcendence; it is rather a giving way, a giving in to metamorphosis, a becoming (not superhuman, but) less-than-human or inhuman. (Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, and current “transhumanist” projects, are comforting, even self-congratulatory, myths: they pretend that a becoming-other, a becoming-inhuman, really means staying the way we are, only better. VanderMeer allows us, or forces us, to see beyond these puerile fantasies; this is one of the many virtues of his book).
Biologists tell us that fungi are neither animals nor plants; they constitute a separate kingdom of life. They stand outside our customary plant/animal binary. They can reproduce both sexually and asexually; but their sexual reproduction involves multiple sexes, rather than the polarized two that we tend to take for granted. They can survive for long periods as spores, suddenly bursting into life when conditions are favorable; since they are not photosynthetic, they come in an array of strange colors unlike the green of plants. For all these reasons, they are uncanny. Shriek is fantasy/horror, rather than science fiction; but it taps into this uncanniness, explores some of its many odd shapes, and creates a powerful fable of what I can only call the materiality of metamorphosis. By this I mean that metamorphosis is not shorn of wonder, but that is rather stripped of its superhuman pretensions, whether these be “rational” or “mythical” ones. If the 20th century was a time of both mystification (in the fascist exaltation of myth) and demystification (in the humanist exploration of the powers and limits of rationalization), then VanderMeer’s 21st century text refuses both of these gestures. It opposes both the exaltation of myth and unreason, and the exaltation of rationality and demystification. It opposes both Jung and Freud, both myth and science, both the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It gives us, not an ethics of existence, but an aesthetics. While I was reading Shriek, it infiltrated my dreams, something that novels almost never do to me. I would wake up with vague premonitions of fungal extrusions and excresences.