Today is July 15th, and it marks the official release date for The Children of Old Leech. If you’ve been thinking of picking up a copy, what better time? The editors, Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, mailed the contributors last week, suggesting we all raise a glass in toast to Old Leech. They also suggested we caption the photo with our thoughts on the anthology, but I have a few more words to offer than will fit in a caption, as you’ll see below.
Here’s a mug of the first and truest drink of the day, in honor of co-editors Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, my co-author, Jesse Bullington, all the rest of the authors in this volume, and most of all to Laird Barron, without whom there would be fewer terrors from beyond the darkest rim of space, and certainly no Old Leech. Cheers!
I’ve previously waxed enthusiastic about The Children of Old Leech, and about how excited I was when my co-author, Jesse Bullington, asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with him on a contribution for the anthology, given our past mutual appreciation of Laird Barron’s fiction. The opportunity to “play in his sandbox,” as the kids say these days, was enticing. Just as exciting as that, however, was the idea that I’d get the opportunity to see what other authors would turn in for a Laird Barron tribute anthology, and, having read the book, I can say that I’m delighted to be in such good company.
How to talk about the stories in The Children of Old Leech? They don’t all bunch neatly into sections because we all nibbled on a different part of Laird’s cosmos, and in different ways. The roads you can take in a tribute story include imitation, some form of pastiche, or doing something essentially alien to the original. I think it’s fair to say that we all aimed to do something a little different, even as we used material that we love. There are shout-outs to names, places, and a few reused settings, but nobody would mistake any of these stories for Laird Barron stories. The same church, perhaps, but decidedly different pews.
Many of us went the epistolary route. Not unusual for horror and the Weird, from Dracula to Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House,” but not really what I associate with Laird Barron. And yet, it works. Used in the broadest sense of the word, “epistolary” describes Paul Tremblay’s story, about which more later. Likewise, Daniel Mills’ “The Woman in the Wood” plays with written narrative, splicing two narratives into a frightening tale about a young boy gone north to Canada to take the country air after some trouble back home. A genuinely creepy story, made all the more disturbing by what we never learn explicitly. Molly Tanzer’s “Good Lord, Show Me the Way” is told over e-mail, centering on the academic trials of a graduate student researching contemporary cults. As a long-term resident of academia, I have a hard time telling whether her story is intended as a satire, because it rings very, very true as the story unfolds. Justin Steele’s story takes the form of an “introduction,” but it has to be said that his is actually the meta-narrative framing the entire collection. Whiskey and firearms appear therein, as they do in various of Laird’s stories, but Justin is simply telling what happened. Plain and horrifying truth.
Two short, claustrophobic pieces that rely very much on their narrators’ interior experience of the horrors of the carnivorous cosmos are Allyson Bird’s “The Golden Stars at Night” and Michael Cisco’s “Learn to Kill.” Allyson’s story focuses on a young archer, a storm, and a looming sense of dread. Laird’s protagonists generally get some spark of knowledge about what consumes their lives before it does, but it’s unclear whether Allyson’s does, and the onrushing sense of dread perfectly characterizes what an unknowing person might find before Old Leech’s servitors and handmaidens come crawling along. “Learn to Kill” comes from the perspective of someone most definitely not intended to survive his encounter with Old Leech, and I can honestly say that I don’t understand everything that happens to him, but I understand his experience of it, which Michael depicts with verve that smack to me as much of the pinnacles of Modernism as anything else.
Cody Goodfellow’s story, “Of a Thousand Cuts,” alone among its fellows draws on The Light Is the Darkness, Laird’s novel that revolves around an underground fighting match and endless, horrific surgeries in support of same. I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say how closely it does or doesn’t hew, but I have to thank Cody for inspiring me to seek out the original. He tells a good and absolutely horrifying story. I’d heard of Cody before, and seen his name around the internets, but after this one, I’ll be on the lookout for more from him.
Pilgrimage, witting or unwitting, was at the heart of several stories in this collection. “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox,” by T.E. Grau, is a tale of trip to see the guru, filtered through the drop-out culture of the 1960s and after. It’s got some of the same feel as Nick Mamatas’ Move Under Ground, though Nick’s story felt a bit more Burroughs, and Ted’s feels a bit more Kerouac. “Firedancing,” by Michael Griffin, centers on one of my favorite kinds of protagonists in horror—the doomed artist. In this case, said artist takes a trip to a more-or-less haunted mansion, with ritual and initiation to spare, and the protagonist’s journey parallels in certain ways that of the protagonist in John Langan’s offering, “Ymir.” John’s story is cleverly simple in its narrative structure, which I won’t reveal for reasons that you’ll get on reading it, but his structure is mythic, as is the protagonist’s experience. One thing that happens relatively often in cosmic horror, so often you could almost call it a trope, is a view of the author’s core mythology seen from a different (typically Eastern/Other/Exotic) mythological perspective. John turns this idea around in depicting a mythological take on the carnivorous cosmos that is based in Europe, not exoticizing, and thereby gives a whole new view of the horror; an excellent story. “The Old Pageant,” by Richard Gavin, is in something the same vein as Stephen Graham Jones’ “Brushdogs,” in that the arboreal horror at its center is not exclusive to Old Leech, but the feel decidedly is, and it shares with Molly Tanzer’s “Good Lord, Show Me the Way” a pleasant, almost light, tone that belies the true horror beneath the surface. In this case, a pilgrimage to a childhood retreat reveals that the fears of youth are thoroughly based in reality.
Orrin Grey’s “Walpurgisnacht” is another singular piece, in that it focuses on Eadweard Muybridge, the famed English photographer whose lesser-known films show up in Laird’s “Hand of Glory” and “666.” It’s a story about a trip to a gathering of sorts, not unlike some of the pilgrimage stories above, but its outwardly less ritualistic goal lends it a different character. I’ve read much of Orrin’s published work, and this story is both deft and a pleasure to read. Barring his stories I haven’t yet read, and on which I cannot comment, it’s his best work to date.
A fair number of stories sunk their teeth into the material by way of an object, some thing, nameless or otherwise, that links in to the Old Leech cosmos. “Brushdogs,” by Stephen Graham Jones, deals in cairns and trees, which are not unique to Laird Barron, but Stephen deals with them in way that feels very much like the way Laird does, and it gets to the question of what experience any given people will have of the same thing or place, and, perhaps, the difference between experience and knowledge. “Tenebrionidae,” by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay, is more explicitly part of the Old Leech world, with the Black Guide putting in an appearance, but it also treats in subjectivity the way that “Brushdogs” does, as the protagonist rides the rails from reality into a strange, plastic landscape that features very human monsters that are well-drawn. Also, there’s a dog, which should make Laird smile. Jeffrey Thomas’ “Snake Wine” transports the reader to Vietnam, where the taste of snake wine sets a series of events in motion that brings the narrator to very strange seaside ritual. Jeffrey so well evokes the setting that you could also class it as a pilgrimage story, perhaps, but the wine seems more the nugget than does Vietnam. “The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays,” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., is a tale of the Black Guide, in part, but so much more. It share, in my mind, pride of place with Cody Goodfellow’s story in being the most horrifying in this book, and I had to put it down twice during my reading of it, so well did he depict the nightmare at its center. In this case, the horrors of Nazism and Neo-Nazism compete with the purer monsters that flourish in their shadows. “Pale Apostle,” by Jesse Bullington and J. T. Glover, probably shouldn’t come in for too much discussion here, but a certain book did inspire us, among other things. Finally among this grouping comes “The Harrow,” Gemma Files’ story of a plucky backyard archaeologist, door-to-door missionaries, and a very old kind of violence. Reader, this story is good, the prose is good, and Gemma welds everything together seamlessly. It’s difficult to rank so many good stories, because this collection is full of them, but “The Harrow” is very, very good, and worth your long consideration.
Now, last but not least, we have to talk about Paul Tremblay’s story. This fucking story. I don’t feel like I read comprehensively enough to know front to back any given year’s worth of horror, Weird, fantasy, etc. so I can’t in good conscience say things like “best story of the year,” but I will be sorely goddamn disappointed in humanity, even more than usual, if “Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild'” doesn’t make at least one award ballot. As C.M. Muller noted in his review, it’s a cross between Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm.” To which I would add, it’s the best thing I’ve seen done yet in writing with the life of Chris McCandless since Into the Wild. I’m still thinking about it, weeks after having read it, and it’s a relief to see that doomed young man’s life put into some other frame than free will versus stupidity.
The Children of Old Leech is now available to from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, indies, etc. and Word Horde has links to your venue of choice. I’m hardly an impartial commentator, but if you like the Weird or cosmic horror, and want to spend a little more time in the lands Laird Barron has made his own, I recommend this book to you wholeheartedly.