Fear of Fungi: From William Hope Hodgson to The Last of Us, and Vice-Versa

By | September 25, 2023

Guest post by Timothy S. Murphy

We can probably all agree to call 2020 and 2021 the “COVID years,” but what to call 2022 and 2023 remains an open question. I’ve got no favorite for 2022, but although 2023 is not yet over, I’m leaning toward calling it the Year of the Fungi. The first nudge in that direction came with the premiere, on January 15, of the HBO Max television series The Last of Us, created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann and starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. The Last of Us is based on the 2013 video game of the same title, which is set in the near future, during a long-term pandemic of fungal infections that transforms humans into deadly zombie-like monsters and leads to the collapse of global civilization. Both a critical and a popular success, the series has already been renewed for a second season.

Since the premiere of The Last of Us, and possibly because of it, the news has been filled with fungi stories, a few of which offer a positive spin on these unusual lifeforms and their relationship to us: some species of fungi eat plastic, and may help to reduce the amount of waste generated by modern commodity production, while other species absorb tremendous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and so may slow the rate of global climate change. However, many more news stories seem to resonate with the fears that drive The Last of Us: an Indian mycologist has been diagnosed with the first recorded case of a human infection by a fungus that has only ever attacked plants; fungi that have always infected humans are now becoming resistant to previously effective antibiotic and antimicrobial treatment; a papermill in Michigan was shut down because of a rash of fungal infections among its workers; fungal infections related to medical procedures are on the rise.

Although such widespread awareness and alarm may be a new development, fear of fungi actually has a history going back more than a century in the narrative genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. English author William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) may not have been the very first storyteller to make fungi into the villains of his tales, but he was undoubtedly the first to do so effectively enough for his work to influence later writers, artists, and filmmakers. My new book from Bloomsbury, William Hope Hodgson and the Rise of the Weird: Possibilities of the Dark, is the first comprehensive study of his fiction in any language.

Hodgson’ first novel The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907) includes a brief encounter with strange fungal growths, as large as trees, that absorb human bodies into their surfaces, but his main contribution to the literature of fungal fear lies in two short stories, “The Voice in the Night” (1907) and “The Derelict” (1912). The former, which is Hodgson’s most often anthologized tale, concerns a couple marooned on a remote island that is completely covered with fungal growths of all sizes and shapes. Try as they might to avoid infection by the fungi, they eventually succumb, and their physical transformation into human mushrooms is the ultimate literary origin of the pandemic in The Last of Us.

The game’s creators may have found more direct inspiration in one of the cinematic adaptations of Hodgson’s story, though. The first of these was made for Alfred Hitchcock’s television anthology series Suspicion in 1958, and starred James Coburn and Patrick Macnee (John Steed in The Avengers); however, it’s unlikely to be the inspiration for The Last of Us because it’s never been released on video, DVD, or streaming, and only a very dark and low-resolution version has been posted to YouTube. A more likely source is Japanese director Ishiro Honda’s feature film version, Matango (1963), titled Attack of the Mushroom People or Fungus of Terror in some markets. Best known as the director responsible for the original 1954 film Gojira (Godzilla in the US and Europe), Honda turns Hodgson’s story into a parable on the self-destructive self-indulgence of contemporary Japanese society, and the climactic appearance of shambling, distorted, horribly laughing “mushroom people” directly prefigures the clickers and bloaters of The Last of Us.

In contrast to the almost contemplative focus on slow human mutation in “The Voice in the Night,” the more action-oriented story “The Derelict” asks readers to imagine fungi transforming dead organic matter, specifically the wooden hull and decks of a drifting cargo ship, into a huge, malevolent organism that tries, with some success, to capture and eat the human sailors who investigate it. Despite its screen-ready dynamism, this story has never been adapted for film, though perhaps now that The Last of Us and other fungal stories of the fantastic such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series (2001-2009) have achieved commercial and critical success, we may see more such stories both in print and on screen.

Check out William Hope Hodgson and the Rise of the Weird for more information and insight regarding the grandfather of fungal fiction!

Timothy S. Murphy, author of William Hope Hodgson and the Rise of the Weird: Possibilities of the Dark, is Houston-Truax-Wentz Professor & Regents Professor of English at Oklahoma State University, USA. He is author of Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (1998), Antonio Negri: Modernity and the Multitude (2012), and over 30 scholarly articles on H.P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, William Morris, and a wide variety of other subjects. General editor of the scholarly journal Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture from 2000 to 2013, he is also editor of The Philosophy of Antonio Negri (2 volumes, 2005-2007) as well as seven special journal issues for AngelakiGenreSub-Stance, and Theory and Event.

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