TEXT prose


Julie Vulcan


Dark Arts: Keeping Company with Witch’s Eggs and Devil’s Fingers



Remember Sarlacc, the tentacled alien beast inhabiting the Great Pit of Carkoon on the desert planet Tatooine? You do need to be a Star Wars fan to know it made its debut in the third film of the trilogy Return of the Jedi. The point is, something like its monstrous spawn has appeared in your well manicured and freshly wood chipped garden. The stench is malodorous and beckons a frenzy of pestilent flies eagerly jostling for purchase. The ‘thing’ in question may equally have issued forth, overnight, from a sulfurous chink in the earth. The first of an army of aberrant creatures surfacing from an imaginary hell captured by the Dutch Renaissance painter Heironymus Bosch.

She lands on the doorstep with fungi in one hand and darkness in the other.
She frets about the structure and the rules.
She worries about the tracings she might be obliged to retrace.
What she thought meant exploring between spaces, comes with conditions.
Conflicting messages are received.
It really doesn’t bode well.

Sarlaac’s offspring in this case is a member of a distinguished lineage representing the fungi order Phallales in the family commonly referred to as stinkhorns. In 1792 Aseroë rubra was the first fungi to be formally described within Western taxonomy by the French botanist Jacques Labillardière. Scouring the Australian shores of Recherche Bay in southern Tasmania, Labillardière stumbled across the most unusual fungi. Resembling a washed up crimson starfish and accompanied by a rank sticky ooze, Jacques assigned it a taxonomical name roughly translating to red disgusting juice. [1]

There are boundaries.
Boundaries are policed.
Boundaries are busted.
Boundaries surround fields.
Fields shift and change.
Know your fields.
Know your subfields, is this where the fungi sprawl?

Alien forms and unholy odors are qualities fascinating and repellent to humans. To encounter the fleshy protuberance of a stinkhorn fungi is to be faced with a curious carnality. To inhale its perfume is to impress mortality on your tastebuds. As a literal and metaphorical interface between life and death, these strangely attractive oddities are crucial disruptors within a deeper ecology on which all species are dependent.

It is confusing.
She tries to trace but keeps adding to her map.
She does find “kin” within the strange compartments they are situated in.
She laughs to find they all share the same aversion to tracing.

If we spend time to get to know Aseroë rubra we might consider it in a different light. Its common name, the anemone stinkhorn, alludes to the radiating tendrils that are its feature. Rather than a denizen from the depths it resembles a stranded sea creature. For some nonhumans it is a most enticing crimson lollypop, the central sticky mass sweet and delicious. However our anemone is a trickster and its carrion perfume a foil for the beguiled fly. Intoxicated, the dipterous ones enter a deceptive pop-up candy shop trading a sugar high over the promise of a larval brooding site. The syrupy brown glob at the centre of the anemone’s structure is called the gleba. Unlike some fungi whose habit is to propel their spores, the gleba is the stinkhorn’s sticky magic. After gorging, the fly departs naïve to the fact their belly is full of ecstatic spores anticipating new territories.

Her travelling companion is a stinkhorn fungi.
Her journey, like any good map, has multiple lines on which to travel.
It has no standpoint because the vision maps of feminists require too many dimensions. [2]

Stinkhorns disturb our habitual view. Simultaneously intrigued and repulsed, the encounter affectively disrupts our sense of self. There is an oft-cited anecdote about stinkhorns and Charles Darwin’s daughter Henrietta. Arising early, she would remove all trace of the rude and distracting fungi from the environs and secretly burn them on the fire. The alleged effort was in order to avoid over exciting the senses of young ladies. The offending fungi were most probably Phallus impudicus or shameless phallus, described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Similar family members are variously associated with a colourful array of suggestive names such as dog’s penis, devil’s dipstick and deadman’s cock. Add devil’s fingers, stinky squid, veiled lady, and witch’s eggs to this list and you have a most lurid chthonic inventory. The Western imaginary has a long history of naming unseemly things after the imagined denizens of a dark other world. Anything living amidst the earthy detritus, squirmy and multi-legged, is doomed to be associated with devilry and its cohorts. Included in this infernal classification is the artful stinkhorn. Misunderstood and much maligned it takes its place alongside the women who practiced mushroom medicine. Concurrently the stinkhorn was secretly consumed as an aphrodisiac.

It is a humorous world and a humus world.
“What is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposed.” [3]
Fungi abound here with their saprotrophic ways.
A world of a “coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse.” [4]
Some evoke the Coyote.
A coyote laughed in the dark. [5]
She evokes the stinky squid.
She listens to the ones speaking from the edges, “the unruly edges.” [6]
The ones surprising in both context and encounter.
The ones offering options and potential deviations.

Fungi are “world builders shaping environments for themselves and others.”[7] The Stinkhorn is sapromyiophilic, it is a decomposer, and you will find it amidst plant matter and mulch quietly going about its business in the loamy darkness. As decomposers and recyclers fungi produce and release highly specialised enzymes and organic acids. Similar to the predigestive qualities of yeasts, these break down tough organic materials and lignin found in wood and bark. They make accessible compounds for absorption by the fungi and the plants. A returning within the mycobiome.

These returnings, are what she finds compelling.
Shifting away from progression as forward motion.
Looping back, and through, and inbetween.
Returning to remember.
Returning and diverging anew.
Prying open alert to something missed.
Hijacking the habit of making sense to elude death. [8]

Like most fungi, stinkhorns send out tendril-like hyphae to form interconnected networks. From this underground web a whitish “witch’s egg” forms at the end of a mycelial cord when it is time to find new ground. The process is generally quick with the lurid sporebody emerging from the egg during the ‘witching hours’ of the night. By morning the acrid odour has already summoned its consorts and by evening the stinkhorn starts to droop and fall back into the ground.

They tell her their secret words.
Functional concepts on pulsating plateaus. [9]
Her words: Dark. Mutual. Queer. Mutation. 
Her words as a sentence. Mutually mutating queerly in the dark.
“Like the body, language is a desiring machine.
The possibilities of pollution is its only life.
Having invented an infinitely recombinant language,
we can’t prevent it from forming improper alliances.”[8]
The flagrant association of queer fungi with internal fleshy passages.

Fungi are “mycomagicians.” [10] Through their processes they can return basic carbon compounds back to the soil and remove traces of heavy metals. Not only are fungi sustainers, they are remediators. It begs the question – which is the more diabolical, fungi’s extravagant sporebodies or human’s toxic waste?

So here we are. The tentacled stinkhorn and its insect companions invite me to think beyond the familiar. Feeding on detritus; emerging from dark underground networks; exploding from egg like nodes; disrupting the landscape; disseminating spores through insect messengers; starting up new networks in new domains. Reliant on the vagaries of bodies in flight and air currents arising from larger atmospheric effects, Aseroë rubra encourages the non linear, the experimental and the tricky intervention. Through its lens my habitual landscape erupts. My nonhuman companion, with over a millennia of experience, helps me to consider how unexpected encounters interrupt the “charged rhythms of the ordinary.” [11]

She stitched together “relationships, juxtapositions, apparitions and interpolations.” [8]
She is imperfectly stitched.
Languorously extending to the limits required, not the limits prescribed by some thing else. [8] No longer just one story to tell. [7]
So many good stories yet to tell, so many netbags yet to string. [4]

She locates the interstices.
She listens for a momentary hush.
She gathers spores and inserts them in data crevices.
Tumbles them into word streams.
Disperses them in lively detritus.
“Spores are hard to pin down; that is their grace.” [7]
There is nothing inert about an atmosphere.
There is nothing idle about idle chatter (11).
The tentacles are creeping out, and around her.

Walking to the station, I stumble over a page torn from a book (page 17 and 18 to be exact).
I nearly pass it over but K.S. [11] encourages me to return and pick it up from its urban verge.
The running head is titled RUBATO. Short hand for the musical term tempo rubato, it translates from 19th-century Italian as “time stolen”. The action of rubato is expressive. It allows for a temporary deviation from the strict underlying rhythm.

Web weaving. Entanglements. Multiplicities. 
These words remain words without practices and methodologies.
These words remain words without a critical position;
without materials to bring them to life and make them vibrant;
without a stitched temporary body.

I have travelled beside Aseroë rubra as a nonhuman companion to consider how unconventional spaces might offer surprising interconnections; how stories may resist a utopian future and forbid “the god trick” [2]; how creating for futures now is lively; how transecting what we have seen with what we have missed might offer recombinant things we never imagined.

The stitched body steps over the road and crosses into a field.
In the subfield the stinkhorns are stirring.
Most folk are in bed.
It is warm and the stitched body can smell a heady molasses hanging in the sticky night air.
The stitched body arrives at a swamp.
It is sludgy. Some would say toxic, others disgusting.
Others still, would wish it from the map.
It is a riot of calls and clicks and splashes.
The stitched body looks up to the sky and imagines the cold dry inhospitable rocks in orbit.
It imagines the stark metal containers orbiting these grandiose boulders.
The stitched body looks back to the swamp. It laughs.


Reference Points on the Map

[1] Pouliot, Alison 2018 The Allure of Fungi, CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South VIC

[2] Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no 3 (Autumn 1988): 575-599

[3] Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto.” New Literary History 41, no. 3(2010): 471-490

[4] Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press

[5] Dictionary.com. n.d. “Laugh.” Accessed June 14, 2018. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/laugh?s=ts

[6] Tsing, Anna. 2012. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: For Donna Haraway.” Environmental Humanities 1, no.1: 141-154. https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-3610012

[7] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press

[8] Jackson, Shelley. 1998. “Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl.” Transcript of presentation at the Transformations of the Book Conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, October 24-25, 1998. http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/articles/jackson.html

[9] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[10] Stamets, Paul. 2005. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press

[11] Stewart, Kathleen. 2011. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 445-453. https://doi.org/10.1068/d9109.




Julie Vulcan is a research based interdisciplinary artist working across performance, installation, text, and digital media. Her works have been presented in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Italy, NZ, Norway, UK and USA. Julie is a current Masters of Research candidate in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. Her recent works include the flash fictions Going DARK and RIMA designed for social media platforms and the audio nonfiction DARKbody. www.julievulcan.net


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence