The fungus among us
VanderMeer's spore noir has legs
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer, in the anthology New Weird, defined the 21st century’s first major literary movement.
“New Weird is a type of urban … fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing … complex real-world models … that may combine elements of science fiction and fantasy. [It] has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects.”
As the subgenre’s standard-bearer, VanderMeer has created an intriguing vision that successfully incorporates the seemingly disparate elements of fantasy and gritty reality.
The first two volumes of The Ambergris Cycle, City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword, introduced a fascinating story sequence centered on the city-state Ambergris and its unusual inhabitants and happenings. Typifying the uniqueness of VanderMeer’s world, fungoid creatures of unknown origin, dubbed the gray caps, occupy the city’s extensive underworld catacombs and drive many of the stories. Finch, the third and climactic volume, returns to VanderMeer’s singular creation some 100 years after the events recounted in Shriek. The book opens with homicide detective John Finch investigating the mysterious deaths of a human and a gray cap.
No obvious bullet or stab wounds. No tattoos or other marks. Grunting with the effort, Finch turned the man over for a second. He seemed heavier than he should be. Skin warm, the flesh solid. From the position of the arms, Finch thought they might be broken. A discoloration at the edge of the man’s mouth. Dried blood? When Finch was done, the man settled back into position as if he’d been there a hundred years.
No point checking the gray cap. Their skin didn’t retain marks or burns or stab wounds. Anything like that sealed over. Besides, the cause of the gray cap’s death was obvious. Wasn’t it? Still, he didn’t want to assume murder. Yet.
Out of the four “murders” in his sector over the past year, two had been suicides and one had been natural causes. The fourth solved in a day.
Disappearances were another subject altogether.
The gray caps now rule Ambergris. They oversee all aspects of city life, though they delegate daytime duties to humans. Once a bright and hopeful place, occupied Ambergris has transformed into a diseased, totalitarian nightmare.
Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing. The first thing the gray caps did when they rose, flooding Ambergris and killing thousands. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface.
In the foreground of the bay stands the scaffolding for the two tall towers still being built by the gray caps. A rough pontoon bridge reaches out to them, an artificial island surrounding the base. The scaffolding rises twenty feet above the highest tower. Hard to know if they are almost complete or will take a hundred years more. Great masses of green fungus cling to the tops. It makes the towers look shaggy, almost as if they had fur, were flesh and blood. A smell like oil and sawdust and frying meat. At dusk each day the gray caps lead a work force from the camps south of the city. All night, the sounds of hammering and construction. Emerald lights moving like slow stars. Screams of injury or punishment. To what purpose? No one knows. While along the lip of the bay, monstrous fungal cathedrals rise under cover of darkness, replacing the old, familiar architecture. Skyline like a jagged wound.
Finch’s weeklong investigation unveils a seedy underworld littered with revolutionaries, hustlers, femme fatales, and characters from his own questionable past. Cataloging this novel’s strata, twists, and feints will occupy fans and critics for years. All aspects of the story interact with elements of the prior Ambergris adventures, though Finch stands entirely on its own merits; the three books of the cycle can be enjoyed in any order.
Yet in Finch, VanderMeer departs from the style and tone of previous Ambergris books. For his previous tale, Shriek, VanderMeer relied on long, elegant sentences while telling the decades-spanning story of Ambergris’s most notorious historian and gray-cap apologist. In Finch, he employs a short, choppy manner reminiscent of noir fiction.
In another shift from his previous novels, VanderMeer amps up the violence, especially during interrogation scenes. While arguably necessary for the story, his graphic descriptions could lead to reader desensitization and eventually dampen the impact of other events. VanderMeer begins each book section, save the last, with dialogue between Finch and an interrogator.
Interrogator: What did you see then?
Finch: Nothing. I couldn’t see anything.
I: Wrong answer.
[howls and screams and sobbing]
I: Had you ever met the Lady in Blue
F: No, but I’d heard her before.
I: Heard her where?
F: On the fucking radio station, that’s where.
[garbled comment, not picked up]
F: It’s her voice. Coming up from the underground. People say.
I: So what did you see, Finch?
F: Just the stars. Stars. It was night.
I: I can ask you this same question for hours, Finch.
F: You wanted me to say I saw her. I said I saw her! I said it, damn you.
I: There is no Lady in Blue. She’s just a propaganda myth from the rebels.
F: I saw her. On the hill. Under the stars.
I: What did this apparition say to you, Finch? What did this vision say?
The violence is but a minor distraction in this excellent book. As with all of VanderMeer’s works, this layered tale ultimately satisfies as it barrels to a momentous conclusion. If Finch is indeed the final Ambergris story, and I have my doubts that it is, VanderMeer left his creation with an extraordinary novel — one of the finest of his young career — and completed a cycle that encapsulates the very best of the New Weird. •