Reading, not Red Bull as the company would have us all believe, gives you wings. It’s a fact that may seem horribly obvious, but for many, reading simply is the method you take to vacate the real world and be transported into something powerfully foreign. If it’s good fiction, our perceptions are twisted and changed.
I expect much from books. I expect to be dazzled. I expect to be wrapped up in a story, in characters I either love or loathe. What I don’t normally expect, is to be overwhelmed and awed by what I read. Sure, there are works that have changed my thinking. There are writers whose talent and ability are so awe-inspiring that I feel somehow pathetic by comparison. But reading a collection about relationships shouldn’t have left me gobsmacked. It shouldn’t have left me thinking for days afterward about how these relationships, in their own unimaginable way, shifted my awareness of what fiction should be.
Fungus of the Heart, a vivid, wildly artistic collection by Jeremy C. Shipp, did just that. I sat down and read, watching through lenses contorted to reveal things I could not imagine. I saw through his eyes and the view was distorted and beautiful. It’s a collection about relationships. Full stop. There is no other way to explain it. Now, these aren’t relationships you’re going to hear about on Oprah or hovering around the coffeemaker at work. These relationships run the gamut from misogynistic men and the females they ‘own’ to sprites who think they are jack-o-lanterns and the creatures of death and violence that love them.
In Shipp’s world, we are introduced to characters full of discord, full of self-loathing and the connections they make and are forced into with the world around them. And those worlds? Disturbing, frightening and absolutely infectious. We are drawn in by the conflicts they face, by the horrible sensibilities of each villain and victim and their ultimate desire to bond, to forgive or simply survive. Shipp creates universes where ghosts act as therapists, where an Oak tree makes her daughter promise to save a world she cannot connect with; where vampires take on many identities, but mainly those of, “boy bands and idol singers.”
Shipp told me that Fungus of the Heart was a map to his values— the respect he has for relationships and the importance of those relationships in his own life. But his characters are beyond flawed. They do their best to disrespect the relationships they have and the result is disastrous. He says his characters, “have emotional, physical, spiritual needs, but are often screwed up in one way or another, and so they don’t know how to get their needs met in a healthy way.”
The beauty in all these flawed characters is the way in which their journeys are chronicled. It isn’t alliteration or some sad attempt of using plot devices that gets these stories across. Shipp’s above that. But he has a inimitable voice and that voice comes alive, is made real with every harrowing misadventure his characters take. In all honesty, I’ve never read anything like this. Not ever, and that’s saying a lot. I read far more than I should. But, I was swept up in every war-ravaged landscape, in each village, in every hut I traveled to in this collection. I cared about these haunting characters, wanted to reach out and connect, wanted, sometimes, to give them a smack across the head. Ultimately, however, I know it was Shipp’s very clever, astonishing voice that drew me in, that made me think, made me keep thinking.
When you read this collection, bear in mind that you’re not in for horror stories or stories drawn in a manner you’ve ever read. You’re in for a something surreal, something beautifully fantastic and I promise you, you won’t be bothered by the battle scars you walk away with. You’ll be grateful, satisfied that you bear those marks, proud that you took the journey right along with these misguided, damaged characters.