I think the idea of labor has become something of a deadening note for today’s fearful public. We are all of us a chorus of the overworked. Forgotten, underfed, middling labor. Beset by hateful prejudices, uncontrolled viruses, deceitful media and neighbors, we drift, aimlessly, from one calling to the next, a cycle of duress begetting fitful sleep after fitful sleep, guessing how our meager indulgences got us here. Pushed totemically across the game board, no amount of training can prepare the worker for the whipcrack of life, the breaking of spirit.
I say this to mean another thing: my dad and I both lost our jobs during the pandemic, as did millions of others; and for the life of me, I couldn’t name a time at which we have been closer, father and son, despite numerous ideological and historical differences. It’s funny how family can become a bit more comforting when suffering is involved. And suffering can be doled out in spades when the text is obsessed with work and the eternal class struggle, such as in the workplace horror. The goal is to survive another day in order to retread the same baseless routine and earn the same keep without ever testing the arbitrary tether linking the two.
The core issues at the heart of a survival workplace horror novel, then, should demonstrate the extremes of society, yes, imagine the unimaginable peril of our times, but they do not wade in the same tedious waters of our own. They exacerbate the fantasy play of our labor, tease that artificial link between demand and supply. Not a triumph of morals for the working man, the workplace horror might reflect burgeoning issues of unchecked privileges pitting people against rule and follow those tensions to their ultimate conclusions. Supervisor standing off against wage slave. Lessons learned about passive living, the resulting madness tugs at a finer emotional heartstring.
It is this complex web of existence, outlandish yet resembling our own, which Rick Claypool, author of Leech Girl Lives, captures so well in his grim novella The Mold Farmer. In the book, a nameless hero must endure lifetimes of horror under alien occupation: the Nglaeylyaethm (mask wearer) race has occupied his homeworld for an uncountable period of years, but the surviving human populations (not plugged into tentacles via the head and paraded around as “pets” or “masks”) have literally made home in the detritus of their upper class monsters, sewing tents from the monsters’ sloughed off skin. Falling from their crystal towers in the sky. This is trickledown economics in full effect, whole barter economies steeped in the skins of their victors:
I spotted the piece of mask wearer flesh I’d remembered, really just a chunk from a part of a tentacle, among the debris. I used a branch to reach through what might have once been a door or a window frame and fished it out. The tentacle material might provide enough material to make a small hat. It was pathetic …
The hero must take diminishing returns from the wrecked world around him, while supporting a family unit, both blood and adopted due to circumstances beyond his control. All around him, we witness pet store owners selling out their fellow man for a leg up in this ruined world, and the extremes to which the hero and his family are paced in order to compromise their morals, how even they will have to sew inescapable bags for this economy of indentured humans.
Claypool’s worldbuilding might be a rich enough narrative detail to point out on its own, but it is the way in which he cleanly authors the environment, meets out vocabulary in mercurial rules and rites alongside our narrator, which enlivens the experience of the novella:
Seasons passed. Very little changed. The community thrived.
Then one summer, slug pigs overran the tuber crop.
There must have been thousands of them lumbering and rooting around.
They devoured everything.
Written in a spare, purposeful prose that doesn’t explain much beyond the obvious horrors, we see fewer emotions in the oppressors as the plot of the book builds. We are not allowed to sympathize with or emotionally interrogate the oppressors. This narrative distance is managed unbelievingly well throughout. Violent actions are consistently rendered in the unfeeling descriptions of the oppressors.
Dulled by temporary happiness while living in an agrarian tentmaking society, then to be besieged by slug pigs, we watch the hero try to find his way out from under the greasy tentacles of his oppressors, only to be struck time and again by the paralyzing fear of this world even in his dreams. Claypool caught me a few times with this simple misleading narrative trick, our hero waking up just as the final blow was about to be set, the death knell complete. But the menacing existence for our hero is so savage that his dreams and waking nightmares impact us like other character decisions. The authorial commitment to those dreams is something of a stunner in The Mold Farmer, nimbly undercutting other authors who unspool dream narratives in bigger, well reviewed tomes.
Still, our wayward hero stays flawed in the face of multiple, combustive tragedies: he harbors a shard addiction, which encroaches on his options and finances daily as he tries to hold his family unit together in a ravaged world. He accidentally sells his in-law to a pet store owner, putting up no fight to the contrary, accepting the sacrifice as it happens. He takes a job as a laborer to scrape the mold that feeds the crystal towers for the mask wearers, a gig he will have to work for years to settled an unfortunate debt, vying (or not vying) for the attention of the mechanoids that daily select the crew. The action happens so fast it is blinding, dumbfounded, unreasoned—but also it is true.
This may not be the book for a person who has recently suffered loss, or trauma, to embark on. But it is a deeply moving and empathetic portrait as any to wrestle with. How do we persevere in a world where the odds are stacked against us? Does passive living invite madness? Is there value in madness, submission? What then is the precise aggression that might make us lash out at the imaginary tether which binds us? These are spacious and necessary questions to untangle. Statements made by a confident and assured novella, an imaginative and gracious voice writing and struggling with the contradictions of our times. Long live The Mold Farmer in our pantheon of sci-fi horror classics.
The Mold Farmer
by Rick Claypool
Six Gallery Press; 132 p.
Jason Teal is the author of We Were Called Specimens (KERNPUNKT Press, 2020). He editors Heavy Feather Review.