Last summer saw the publication of Benjamin Percy’s novel The Ninth Metal, the first book in an ongoing series called The Comet Cycle. Percy has touched on science fiction and horror in his fiction, and has written comics set in a shared universe for Marvel and DC; here, he seems to have found a way to bring all of these skills together. I quite liked The Ninth Metal, which essentially took a crime novel template and added an uncanny element — the metal of the title, which falls to earth in the wake of a comet passing by the planet.
The Unfamiliar Garden shifts locations a few states to the west; whereas before, we were in Minnesota, this new novel is set in the Pacific Northwest. Tonally speaking, the two are also broadly different, and focus on very different extraterrestrial materials. Or, to put it more bluntly, this one’s got space fungi.
Like its predecessor, The Unfamiliar Garden opens with a scene set when the comet’s debris fall to earth, then jumps to five years later. When the novel opens, Jack and Nora Abernathy are raising their daughter Mia. There are some suggestions that all isn’t perfect — notably, allusions to Nora dealing with clinical depression. Jack, an expert in fungi, takes Mia out with him to search for mushrooms. She notices something strange when they’re out and, a short time later, disappears.
When the narrative picks back up five years later, the two have since divorced. In the wake of the first serious rainfall in the region since the comet made its presence known, the region abounds with fungi — and that affects Jack and Nora professionally. Her police work finds her investigating a series of murders that look like uncanny echoes of the work of a serial killer, while Jack discovers rapidly-growing fungi behaving in a way that no terrestrial fungi has before.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Jack and Nora’s professional interests eventually converge, nor is it much more of one to say that the question of what happened to Mia is answered before the novel reaches its conclusion. There’s also plenty of worldbuilding happening here, though perhaps a bit less than what Percy put on display in The Ninth Metal. Instead, the narrative feels intentionally pared-down, alternating Jack’s perspective with Nora’s, and sometimes adding the viewpoint of a government agency that’s monitoring the situation into the mix.
There’s also no small amount of phantasmagorical descriptions to be found here. Here’s Percy’s description of a fungus-infested room:
The fungus has grown thickly over every surface. There are fruiting bulges and hyphae strands. THere are gray fibrous striations that look like muscle tissue or the twisted grain of an old tree. Finding anything in this room will require slicing and digging. An autopsy.
In the book’s waning chapters, Percy reveals just what the fungus has been up to, and what it’s capable of. And if The Ninth Metal included one way in which the comet’s effects transformed some of humanity, this novel offers a very different method — one that feels less physical and more psychological.
I sat with this book’s ending for a while, mulling over how I felt about it. It seems very much in keeping with what’s come before, but the note on which it ends could be interpreted as hopeful or sinister, depending on your point of view. At first, that threw me; eventually, it clicked for me. Given that Percy is someone who doesn’t shy away from the horrific and the monstrous, the latter possibility seemed eminently plausible. And while these books are intended as standalone works, it also seems more and more likely that Percy is seeding something deeper over the course of them. And if the ending of this book means what I think it does, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of where all of this might be headed — and the alarming implications of what that means.
The Unfamiliar Garden
by Benjamin Percy
Mariner Books; 208 p.