6 Fungal Horror Books to Read After ‘The Last of Us’
Giant monsters? Passe. Slashers? Yawn. Zombies? Cliche. You know what is actually scary? Mushrooms. Fungus. Mycelium. The one lifeform that completely outnumbers everything else, contains vast and complex networks that can communicate and share, and has the ability to use anything it wants as a host. Once they figure out how to use living human tissue, we’re totally screwed. The Last of Us is currently captivating us every week with a fictitious take on a parasitic fungus upending the world as we know it (in addition to keeping us supplied with delicious Daddy Pedro Pascal content). While the Cordyceps of the show can’t quite turn people into clicking, snarling, decapitating hordes, it’s not too impossible of an idea.
Mushrooms have really been enjoying their moment in pop culture (the queers already been like that, though). Scroll Instagram and count the number of tattoos of mushrooms with tiddies and dump truck asses. There’s #mushroomcore on TikTok. I know way too many clothing brands with mushroom art, and while there is that wonderful feature-length documentary Fantastic Fungi, there are hordes of informational video content. While The Last of Us is the latest and greatest, it follows in the footsteps of its fictional fungal forefathers.
Here’s a fung-guide (ugh, I’m so sorry) of horror books featuring malicious mushrooms, scary spores, and paralyzing parasites to fill the void after The Last of Us has its season finale. I mean, there’s always playing the games again, but there’s only so much pain you can inflict before your therapist gives up.
What Moves The Dead by T. Kingfisher
This retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher gives us a gothic horror take on a fungus wreaking havoc. A retired soldier (who also happens to be Trans) goes to visit the decaying estate of their childhood friend, whose sister is at death’s door from a mysterious illness. Things are unnerving from the get-go, as the sister makes creepy midnight strolls while speaking in odd voices, the nearby lake appears to be pulsing, and there’s something decidedly off-putting about the local hares. There’s also a MILF-y mycologist on site who certainly has portentous things to say about it all— because, spoiler alert, there’s fungus amongus!
This book had me on the edge of my seat, full of creeps and icks. Even if you’re at all familiar with the original Poe story, there’s so much liberty taken that you’ll be more surprised than anything. It’s also easily the most terrified I’ve ever been of bunnies since Watership Down.
Leech by Hiron Ennes
This is not only one helluva parasitic horror story, it’s flat-out one of the most interesting books I’ve come across. Set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic future, but more gothic than sci-fi, we follow a doctor who is actually host to a hive-mind entity trying to overtake our medical systems as they are sent to an old chateau to determine the cause of a recent death. What they find leads them to a horrifying and easily spreadable wormlike organism recently unearthed from a nearby mine, and only they can figure out how to stop this monster from infecting and overtaking all life on the planet. If you’re a fan of The Thing as well as movies like Crimson Peak, this is going to be a treat. There’s also killer kaiju snow deer (or something?? This book uses ambiguity to perfection).
The Seep by Chana Porter
An organism, simply known as The Seep, has come to invade Earth, but instead of causing a horrifying apocalypse, it more or less creates a utopia for us (all together now: “But at what cost??”). All of humanity becomes interconnected because of The Seep, eliminating class hierarchies, doing away with wars and economic exploitation, and even managing to both extend life and hit reset. We follow Trina (who also happens to be Trans) as her wife has decided to be reborn as a baby. In the wake of her grief, Trina ends up going on a journey that will make her question The Seep, as well as confront her inner turmoil. While fitting into the fungal horror category perhaps only tangentially, I felt it was too unique and beautiful to not include.
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Body horror and misogyny blossom like the cap of Amanita. Despite releasing in 2014, it feels very second-wave feminist in its approach to gender and sex, but it’s still a worthy read for the unusual and terrifying imagery it evokes. In a world where all women have died from a pandemic (and mushrooms notably growing from their graves), a group of men living in a remote place called the Valley of the Rocks stumbles across feminine-shaped mushrooms that don’t have faces but certainly have curves and fuckable holes. I mean, who sees a mushroom and DOESN’T immediately think “could I have sex with that?” The men end up pairing off into monogamous couples with this group of lady-shrooms. But as you can probably guess, things develop in weird and grotesque ways.
The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
This one might belong more in the ‘literary horror’ category than straight genre horror (call it the A24 of fungal spooks), but it is a stunning novella. Here, the apocalypse has been wrought not by an unstoppable contagion, but by an unsettlingly sentient parasite that more or less chooses when and who it infects. Though that didn’t hinder it from bringing humanity to its knees!
We follow Reid, an infected woman who has been accepted into a university where supposedly none of the ravages of the downfall touched. She’s grappling with the choice of possibly leading a better life or staying to care for her ailing mother and support her community. It’s less an action-packed horror book and more human drama, though it definitely doesn’t shy away from getting bloody. The writing is, in a word, sumptuous. This is a startlingly beautiful, and surprisingly optimistic, take on the apocalypse.
Fruiting Bodies by Kathryn Harlan
While only a single story in this collection of shorts relates to fungal horror, it’s fabulous enough to warrant inclusion. Plus, the rest of the stories are also unbelievably creepy, audacious, and queer as all heck. The title story follows lovers who feast on one of their bodily-sprouted mushrooms (saving on grocery bills, the dream!). But it all takes a turn when their peace is disturbed by an interloper. Other offerings here include everything from climate disasters to supernatural beings, so there’s bound to be something to tickle your fancy.