Ben Percy’s latest novel, The Unfamiliar Garden, is a sci-fi thriller that really gets under your skin. It features the ultimate creepy villain straight out of my nightmares – a fungus the colonizes people’s bodies and brains, turns them into zombies, and bursts out through their skin. Talk about mycophobia. It takes the notion of an invasive species to an intense level. So gross but when it comes to fiction, so very good. Percy’s multilayered book is also a crime fiction story with poignant family drama and a heavy dose of the supernatural.
Percy took some time to discuss his book with SCINQ.
The Unfamiliar Garden is the second installment in your Comet Cycle. Comets have been sources of wonderment, awe, and mystery. They’ve also had their dark sides as inspiration for death cults. What attracted you to comets as an overarching symbol in the cycle?
I’ve been writing for DC and Marvel Comics since 2014. Drawing off that experience, I wanted to create my own shared universe, a new world within this one. I knew that meant I needed a hell of a trigger event. Enter, comet.
This fire in the sky is the inciting incident for all of the stories. And it makes for an easy transition, because historically and artistically, we’ve been trained to associate comets with disaster.
In 44 BC, many believed that Caesar’s soul soared away with the comet burning overhead. In 684 AD, the Black Death broke out and some pinned the cause on Halley’s comet.
Some of my favorite narratives—including John Carpenter’s The Thing and HP Lovecraft’s The Colour out of Space and George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—rely on comets as a supernatural device, an instigator of change.
So I’m taking this age-old symbol of collective fear and using it as a foundation for the new dawn of stories in the Comet Cycle
Where did the idea for The Unfamiliar Garden come from? Specifically, why did you choose meteorites as seeds for a parasitic fungus?
So the comet streaks through our solar system, and the planet spins through the debris field, and new elements are introduced to our world. These elements disrupt the laws of physics, geology, biology; they shake up the energy and weapons sectors; they create chaos in the geopolitical theater.
Each book in the series is a standalone novel; they can be read in any order. And each book takes place in a different part of the world and focuses on a different element.
The Ninth Metal takes place in northern Minnesota and has to do with something called omnimetal, which absorbs energy on a quantum level. So it’s about that. But it’s also about bigger issues that we face as a society. I’m using science fiction to fantastically magnify our anxieties. In this case, I’m talking about rapacious energy consumption and the destructive synergy of business and politics.
The Unfamiliar Garden takes place in Seattle, Puget Sound, and the Olympics–and it concerns the growth of alien fungus. That idea first seeded in my head a few years ago when I read an article that suggested the origin of fungus might be extraterrestrial. So I amplified that possibility and built a story and some characters around it. But to circle back to what I was saying before: I wanted to make this a story about right now, about the cultural moment. If you think about alien spores riding the air and a contagion that invisibly rides the air we breathe…yeah…I’m not writing about today’s headlines, but I’m dipping my bucket into the same well of nerves.
The science sections really stand out. You’re very specific with your mycology. How much research did you do before you started actually writing your manuscript?
Every book involves a marathon of research. In this case, there’s some accidental and some intentional research involved. The accidental research is that my mother is educated as a botanist and worked for the Forest Service and is a master gardener and master naturalist. So I’ve spent my whole life seeing the world through her floronic gaze, I guess you could say.
Then there’s the intentional research I do. I read scientific articles. I watch documentaries (Fantastic Fungi is so, so good). I sat down with a biology professor at Carleton College. And I took a class on fungi at an environmental center.
I’m trying to channel some slippery science on the page in order to authenticate the rather wild stuff I’m writing about.
Was there a specific fungus that inspired the great parasite? You mention the ant fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and I’ll admit that was the first thing that came to mind as I read The Unfamiliar Garden.
I was talking about accidental research before. Maybe ten years ago, I taught at a writers’ conference in Joseph, Oregon. I brought my family, and we were exploring the area. It was then that I was introduced to a monster. The pathogenic fungus that takes up an estimated three thousand acres and is estimated to be over eight thousand years old. It secrets a digestive enzyme that kills conifers and I remember distinctly standing in a skeletal forest and knowing this thing was feeding beneath my feet and thinking: I gotta find a way to use this.
You’ve written novels, short stories, essays, screenplays, graphic novels, and comics. Are there any similarities in the processes of writing them? Are there notable differences in your process?
Novels and screenplays and comics require planning. Blueprinting. You don’t endeavor to build something big — whether it’s a 400-page book or a 4,000 square foot house — without a plan in place. But with short stories and essays, for me anyway, the process is much more organic and impressionistic.
In book writing, where do you begin? Do you start with an idea? A scene? A sentence? An image?
Usually it’s the overall concept. Like: post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga (that’s my novel, The Dead Lands). Then I tack up a scroll of paper on the wall and start to figure out the characters who would best serve the world I’m building. As soon as I know who they are, I figure out what they want; and when I know what they want, I can plant obstacles in the way of their desire. And that’s where I find the first stirrings of plot.
When does the final installment of the Comet Cycle drop and what are you working on now?
I won’t call it the final installment — because the Comet Cycle will hopefully continue to grow — but the third novel should release at some point in the next year. I’m almost finished with it now. So I’m busy with that, along with several TV projects and my work at Marvel on titles like Wolverine and Ghost Rider.