Rick Claypool’s The Mold Farmer is an imaginatively sinister, outside-the-box, weird little novella, pitched as a story of cosmic claustrophobia and workplace survival horror. It’s the story of Thorner, an everyday family man who finds himself crushed under the weight of an alien occupation, trying to make ends meet for his family in a future where humankind have been reduced to workhorses for an unknowable alien species whose thoughts and motivations they can’t begin to understand. To that end he seeks employment on Weckett’s mould farm, an experience he’ll come to regret.
Weckett is an interesting character. He’s the overseer of the mould farm where Thorner ends up, a snivelling toady of a man who’s sold out his fellow humans for a few extra crumbs off the extra-terrestrial table. We can view Weckett through numerous lenses; as the scab worker who undermines his comrades by sucking up to the boss, or as the snide middle manager or petit bourgeois whose real interests lie with the workers, but through a combination of greed, disdain and an unreciprocated affinity with his rulers, throws his lot in with the oppressor. He epitomises the “anyone can be a billionaire so long as they work hard” mentality seen among the Elon Musk stans of the world – he even says as much to Thorner at one point, while Thorner himself is acutely aware he’s being sold a vial of Grade A snake oil. I appreciate a bit of subtlety and subtext in my stories, and was impressed with how none of these themes were overtly stated or talked about in a crudely obvious way, but how they grew naturally out of the story and the nightmarish society that Claypool imagined into existence.
The world itself is grim and nightmarish; ‘post-apocalyptic’ barely even begins to describe the toil and drudgery that eking out an existence involves for the people left around to serve their new alien masters. Families and kinship groups struggle to feed themselves and many are forced to sell themselves into indentured servitude on the mould farms. It’s not clear what the aliens need the mould for, and that forms one part of the cosmic horror of this sci-fi story. The aliens aren’t simply a human-like species from another planet; their motivations and thought-structure is unknowable to the humans they have enslaved. Claypool doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing them in a lot of physical detail, which adds to their incomprehensible otherworldliness, but we do get told of the ‘masks’ they use, and how they turn humans into empty vessels they use as communication tools, and so we get glimpses of tentacled monsters inserting their cephalopodic limbs into the back of people’s heads and walking them round like puppets.
Chapter one opens with Thorner having just been discovered by Weckett and the aliens, doing something entirely forbidden and, while it’s not exactly clear what taboo or rule he has broken, it’s very obvious the consequences will not be good. As things are about to come to a head we’re wrenched backwards in time, to see Thorner’s life unfold, beginning as a child born into this unforgiving world, through adolescence and right up to the point where he has a family of his own he feels it is absolute duty to provide for, regardless of the things he may be compelled to do to fulfil that social and moral obligation. That hot start, followed by the hop back in time fills the entire story with a sense of looming, foreboding dread that amps all the tension and horror up to eleven. The whole story leads up to that one unavoidable and terrifying moment that we know is coming, but Thorner does not. I found myself yelling at him as the story unfolded and I was forced to watch, helplessly, as every decision he made coalesced to lead to that inevitable moment we see play out in chapter one.
The Mold Farmer is a great book, highly recommend it if you’re looking for something weird and unsettling that blends horror and science fiction in an imaginative and out there kind of way. Long live small press fiction.
Jonothan Pickering is a sporadic writer and editor of dark fiction magazine Seize The Press. He lives in the UK with his partner, where he spends his spare time watching pro wrestling and listening to synthwave playlists on YouTube.