This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Cage”, Jeff VanderMeer, 2001.
Fungi and weird fiction have a long history together. And why not? Fungi are strange and correctly associated with rot, disease, and death.
Vandermeer’s Ambergis Cycle, from which this story is taken is, I gather from secondhand sources, heavily invested in that association.
Ambergis is a city threatened by lethal fungi outbreaks. City patrols look for outbreaks. People check their home fungal guards. Those who fall victim to the “gray caps” have their houses bordered up and bodies burned.
Protagonist Robert Hoegbottom sells second hand goods and sometimes bribes the soldiers standing guard over such houses and see if the quarantined survivors want to sell any part of their estate.
The story opens with an inventory of one such estate. Presiding over the sale is a black dressed solicitor, his face masked like “those who believed in the dangers of the ‘Invisible World’ newly mapped by the Kalif’s scientists”. There is also the widow dressed in white with her hands recently hacked off and bandaged. Presumably she has picked up some fungal infection. And there is a small boy, the only one of the four children that survived the visitation.
We learn that the grey caps appear suddenly from underground and disappear just as quickly.
But, despite the impressive collection of odd curios including many stuffed animals, Hoegbottom doesn’t really see much of resale value. The solicitor impatiently asks how much Hoegbottom is offering and tells him to make haste. He seems to be sickening given his increasingly green pallor.
Hoegbottom says he won’t be rushed. The solicitor says he’ll just call Hoegbottom’s competitors, Slatterly and Ungdom. Hoegbottom calls his bluff knowing that those two are too fearful to go to a house recently visited by the gray caps. He is about to go when he notes the boy keeps looking at a cage hanging on the wall.
It’s nothing unusual, three feet tall, shaped like a “squat mortar shell”, and with a green cover. It’s hanging on a wall.
Hoegbottom asks about the cage and if it’s for sale. The woman tells him their family had a bird. After the gray caps came, no one could find it. But the boy says they never had a bird, “They left it here. They left it.”
This is our first clue that the gray caps may not be mindless fungi but intelligent invaders. Hoegbottom is now very inerested in an artifact “they had left behind”. It might be risky. While he has entered three homes visited by the the gray caps in the last nine months, his luck may run out even if he takes precaution and knows the history of the gray caps.
Hoegbottom has heard the details of the carnage that was recently in the house,
arms and legs had been stuck into the walls between specimen jars, arranged in intricate poses that displayed a perverse sense of humor.
Hoegbottom gives a price that doesn’t impress. The solicitor sighs and crumples. The woman gazes at Hoegbottom with hatred, the stumps at her wrists getting paler. He offers a higher price which they accept.
Hoegbottom gets a ladder to get the cage which has fine engraving on it making it more valueable than expected. Under the cover is nothing except some glass eyes which belong to a stuffed bird in the room.
When he returns to the bottom of the ladder, he sees things have changed in the short time it took to get the cage. Mushrooms are growing up through the wooden furniture now. Hoegbottom says he will have papers drawn up and sent around to complete the sale.
But he knows that’s not going to happen and slowly heads for door. The solicitor is just giggling, his face now “as green and wrinkly as lizard skin”. The woman’s stumps have sprouted white tendrils. The boy’s arms are now green and fuzzy. He’s being consumed by a fungus emanating from a suitcase he holds.
Hoegbottom is transfixed until a clock – thought broken – chimes and the solicitor’s head explodes like a puffball.
But Hoegbottom escapes outside with the cage, sickened and shaken. He’s never come so close to death before. He knows the soldiers now boarding up the mansion to possibly burn it later and would have nailed him inside too if not for his “continual bribes and uncabby ability (in their view) to avoid contamination”.
He has to go home before the curfew states. Ambergis is rather like a city beseiged by rain and fungi. It now plays
host to an unnerving amount of debauchery. Days of wholesome trade and other industrious activity became the mirror opposite after dusk, as if the gray caps’ presence had had other effects. Orgies had been reported in abandoned churches. Grotesque and lewd water puppet shows were staged down by the docks. Weekly, the merchant quarter held midnight auctions of paintings that could only be termed obscene.
Hoegbottom goes home with the cage. At his rented lodgings, he displays some items not in his store for the amusement of his blind wife with her oddly iridescent eyes and black scar that brightens when she has sex with him. The pair is childless with Rebecca, the wife, not quite ready to have some.
The next morning, she asks what kind of animal is in the cage: a lizard or a bird? He has lied to her about the circumstances he got the cage under, so he continues the falsehood by claiming a lizard though he sees nothing.
In his introductory blurb for the store, Vandermeer says this is a story about the “dangerous impulse to deliberate seek out the weird”. We see such an impulse has long been part of Hoegbottom’s life.
He moved to Ambergis from Morrow to find out what exactly happened to his great-great grandfather who also moved there and disappeared in the Silence with his wife and daughter. Despite the Silence and its mass disappearances seeming resemblance to the current gray cap manifestation, it is a resemblance rarely brought up and then often denied.
In the past, Hoegbottom even found the old, sealed residence those long dead relatives lived at. He examined the odd tableau at their dining table, its oddly positioned silverware perhaps a sign of sudden diseappearance mid-meal, or, perhaps, some kind of message.
As the story proceeds, mushrooms begin to manifest in the cage when Hoegbottom takes it to his store, and then he sees white hands. Are they the ghostly remenants of the woman’s hands? Or the creature in the cage? And Hoegbottom knows there is something in the cage sometimes because it weight varies.
Eventually, he goes home to see that mushrooms have blossomed everywhere and the creature from the cage on the balcony with his wife. The creature is now visible because its chameloen powers to impersonate its surroundings can’t compensate for the rain.
The revealed creature has a single eye very much like Rachel’s iridescent eyes. It has a mouth full of knives.
At story’s end, it puts out its hand for Hoegbottom, and he takes it. Hoegbottom, it seems, will go all the way in leaving his own life for the fascination of the weird.
Still, we don’t really know what it’s going on in this long, descriptive story. The ultimate mystery of what happened to people in the Silence isn’t answered. Were they consumed? Transformed? Taken somewhere?)
I don’t know if VanderMeer answers any of these questions in his City of Saints & Madmen from which this story is excerpted or in other books in the Ambergis Cycle. I have read only one other story by VanderMeer, also fungal weirdness, and didn’t like it, but maybe I’ll have to give him a second look.