Fiction Reviews


(2023) Matt Hill, Dead Ink Books, £9.99, pbk, 285pp, ISBN 978-1-915-36804-1


‘Fungus fiction’ is now a well-established sub-genre that can be traced back through Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts and VanderMeer’s Annihilation (and its film adaptation), to give just two recent examples, before arriving at, of course, Hodgson’s classic The Voice in the Night.&nsbp; What Matt Hill brings to the body horror party is a sweet dollop of compassion, as personified in Boyd, the young man who is the central character of this story.

It opens, however, with his dad, Dougie, a lorry driver, driving his truck at top speed into the headquarters of the company that has just made him redundant. Fortunately, and coincidentally, this happens during a fire drill so only Dougie is killed, with a wrap of sheet moss found taped to his left palm. With just the two of them now, united in grief, Boyd’s relationship with his mother, Maureen, spirals into strangeness, as the sense of something gone deeply awry is exacerbated by the damp and mould that spreads inexorably across the ceiling and walls. Abruptly, Maureen decides they must relocate to a small market town in the Pennines, where Boyd struggles to maintain a normal routine of schoolwork and supermarket shopping. However, despite his best efforts to keep the new house clean and dry, the mould and moss and vegetative tendrils still encroach, as Maureen withdraws even further into herself. Things finally come to a head when, following a terrifying confrontation with a pair of local bullies, Boyd discovers his mum has disappeared and he walks away from home to end up at the local tip.

There he encounters Leigh, a young woman he had previously bumped into outside the supermarket. She’s a scavenger, working for a local scrap merchant, and more or less takes Boyd under her skinny wing. Together they sift through the waste, looking for items that can be resold and especially for sought-after hard drives laden with forgotten bitcoin. This new routine is then disrupted in turn by the sudden appearance, in the middle of the tip no less, of a baby, who Boyd names Lamb. Now they’re a family and Boyd and Leigh must deal with all the usual parental ups and downs while slowly realising that Lamb isn’t like other kids – she grows too fast and, just as with Maureen, disquieting events occur around her.

At this point the narrative shifts back in time to Maureen’s childhood, cloistered away as it is with her mum, Joan, in a cottage in the Cotswolds. As with the future-child, Lamb, Maureen’s development is accelerated, and while she grows taller and stronger, Joan becomes ever more weak and frail. Eventually, after the second unexplained miscarriage of a ‘bad copy’, which she buries in the vegetable bed, Maureen, desperate for answers as to who or what she is, sneaks out one night and meets Dougie, working at a local warehouse. As love blooms, Maureen leaves home and sets in train subsequent events.

The story then returns to Boyd, Leigh and Lamb. Motivated by the feeling that he left something behind in the house, something that his mum wanted him to have, Boyd goes back to find, under all the rot and decay, a suitcase, packed by Maureen, with a photograph hidden away and an address on its back. That sets things up for the finale as the trio head off across country in a knackered old van to uncover Lamb’s, Boyd’s and Maureen’s true origins. And although the core revelation is not so novel, or fully illuminative, it does bring a sense of closure, with the ending carrying a clean note of optimism.

What I’ve presented here is only the stem of the story and Hill’s narrative is so much richer and more fibrous than this. He captures beautifully, and scarily, Boyd’s sense of bewilderment, his alienation, and his love, for his mum and Leigh and, of course, for Lamb. The book is also very much of its time, as mould and rot infect the UK’s rented housing stock, and the sense of a society barely held together by the frayed tendrils of communal obligation is powerfully and lyrically conveyed. Nevertheless, it is Hill’s sympathetic depiction of Boyd’s and Leigh’s humanity that lifts this work beyond the standard fungoid tradition.

Steven French


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