by Alexander Pyles
Some stories are able to describe our cultural malaise better than news reports and, in many ways, Rick Claypool’s THE MOLD FARMER does exactly that. Part post-apocalyptic narrative and part science fiction, we follow orphan Thorner as he attempts to survive in a world annihilated by an alien invasion. Thorner tries to carve out a place for himself, his wife, Shully, and their daughter, Pixa, in this hellscape.
Melding body horror with existential economic terror, this post alien invasion world is fraught with frightening creatures like the slug pig and the hygienic void. Yet, the alien occupiers, the nglaeylyaethm, might be the most terrifying of them all. Made up of various tentacles and appendages, they shed husks periodically and use human “pets” to converse with traders who are greedy enough to work with them
There isn’t much information as to why Earth fell. Thorner doesn’t know, he simply accepts his place – “all that could be done was to adapt and accommodate to their presence.” The nglaeylyaethm do not live on Earth proper either, they actually inhabit giant crystal cities that float high in the atmosphere and rain detritus and other garbage down on the dwindling human inhabitants
Claypool’s prose is clipped, but also has a propensity to merely hint at what’s going on in the background. This is done to great effect, when his words urge the reader to read between the lines. Thorner eventually establishes himself as a tentmaker, a respectable profession, even if it stains his hands gray from the husks that they sew together to make their tents.
He does not wish to accept a job from a fellow entrepreneur, Jolm, who sells slaves to the aliens, also known as a “pet store owner.” Thorner has a crisis of conscious. “I understood and didn’t want to do it. I wanted to refuse…But with Pixa now two years old and growing hungrier every day, we needed the tokens.”
This is where the real genius of Claypool’s narrative comes out. The underpinnings of this narrative link directly to our current predicament of late-stage capitalism and the commodifying of everything, even our lives.
The cruelty that is inherent in Jolm’s work is simply accepted if not also seen as monstrous, but what can Thorner do? We too are often left with our hands tied, because we often cannot figure out a way to change our conditions in order to make for a fairer society.
Scattered throughout the story, Thorner has various dreams or even nightmares about what could happen to him and his family, borne out of anxious feelings and maybe foolish hopes. The one that stuck with me was the one where their encampment rose up against the aliens, were able to establish an uneasy truce with them and were left alone.
“Pixa’s hands were never stained gray like her father’s and mother’s, she didn’t have to survive by making tens out of the nglaeylyaethm’s shedded skin. And then I was awake.” Aside, from the crushing reality, this echoes Mark Fisher’s concept of “lost futures” and what could have been, if things were different. If humanity was different.
The fraught nature of Thorner’s journey to provide for his family, willing to perform any job in order to provide for his family, cuts so close to what we often find ourselves questioning or compromising in order to survive in this world. How culpable are we if we order from corporations, who pillage and rape the planet, even if we are just trying to skate by meager salaries and poor living conditions?
The fact that Claypool turns houses into mold farms, where Thorner describes them “Maybe they were always full of mold…Maybe they weren’t great for living in anyway,” should not be lost on the reader. Underneath the slime and spores is a cutting critique of our own society as much as a startlingly brilliant story about a man, just trying to have a life that he can call his own.
Upon finishing this story, I was left angry. Angry that such a good book could incorporate so much in so few pages. Angry for the world we live in to have nursed such a narrative. Angry for the raw deal Thorner was given. Do not turn away from the brutality or the surreal of humanity dealing with slug pigs, this is a story of our day and age and THE MOLD FARMER needs to be read.
Originally appeared in Three Crows Magazine Issue #9