“Partridge sat on his high, wooden chair and whimpered in animal terror. In the daydream, he was always very young and powerless. The woman tilted her head. She came near and extended the tarantula in her long, gray hand. “For you,” she said. Sometimes she carried herself more like Father and said in a voice of gravel, “Here is the end of fear.” Sometimes the tarantula was a hissing cockroach of prehistoric girth, or a horned beetle. Sometimes it was a strange, dark flower. Sometimes it was an embryo uncurling to form a miniature adult human that grinned a monkey’s hateful grin.”
Laird Barron – The Forrest
I think it’s fair to say that, up until recently, Laird Barron was mostly admired by a bunch of horror connoisseurs and weird fiction enthusiasts. A number of excellent short stories, a couple of novels and a gradual expansion of his themes outside the confines of the horror field has shifted this perception though. Maybe it’s the accumulation of critical accolades or just good ol’ word of mouth. Or maybe the culture is simply catching on to this kind of thing (True Detective anyone?). In any case, his profile is growing. I mean we ‘ve been Laird’s fans for some years now, but Crows ‘n’ Bones is just a sleazy sex, horror & rock ‘n’ roll webzine. Check this out though:http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/09/laird_barron_s_cosmic_horror_collection_the_beautiful_thing_that_awaits.html. You see what I mean? Recognition baby.
Which brings us to The Children of Old Leech, a themed short story collection where various authors pay tribute to Barron’s fictional universes. Based on all this, it would be tempting to call the man a horror fiction rock star- complete with his own tribute album. But it would be inaccurate and hubristic and it wouldn’t tell you why you should read this book. Barron has been around for a while now, but is he really the kind of writer whose work is rich and whose voice is distinct enough to warrant a themed anthology- the way that, say, a Moorcock or a Lovecraft does?
Well, yeah, he is and the range of the material in the collection demonstrates why. Barron’s work encompasses a wealth of literary traditions and his voice bridges effortlessly the fields of the weird, noir and adventure fiction making such genre boundaries obsolete. In other words, if like me, your sensibilities lean towards the Karl Edward Wagner, Jack London, James Dickey and Robert Howard end of the American literature spectrum- and you tend to focus on the similarities between these authors and not the differences- then this book might be for you. And if for example you happen to get a kick out of the hardboiled narration in Nine Princes In Amber, or the way Hammett randomly inserts a satanic ritual in the middle of The Dain Curse, then this book is DEFINITELY for you. The Children of Old Leech has been assembled by Ross E. Lockhart (editor of the two excellent Book Of Cthulhu anthologies) and Justin Steele (whose Arkham Digest blog is required reading for weird fiction fans) and the level of quality stories is consistently high. Also, the book is filled with demons, ancient cults and black magick; and I’m partial to that sort of thing. So:
The Harrow – Gemma Files
Files’ story is a fitting tribute to the themes of The Croning and an excellent start to the book. Bonus points for the subtle, creepy references to hollow earth- type theories and the use of trepanning as a plot point. Trepanning is gnarly.
Pale Apostle – Jesse Bullington and J. T. Glover
A shop that has fallen on hard times. A sinister benefactor with a mysterious package. Things that wiggle and crawl in the night. Delicious fun.
Walpurgisnacht – Orrin Grey
If this one was a movie, it would be a William Castle / Ray Russell / Vincent Price collaboration, but with existential despair substituting black humour. The basic premise reminded me of Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker. The spectre of Eadweard Muybridge, filmmaker and diabolist who is also mentioned in Barron’s Hand Of Glory is all over the narrative. Hand Of Glory rocks. And so does Walpurgisnacht.
Learn to Kill – Michael Cisco
Oblique and disturbing. Took me a couple of readings to get it. That’s a good thing.
Good Lord, Show Me the Way – Molly Tanzer
A student is gathering information for her PhD thesis. The subject: An enigmatic matriarchal cult whose followers worship an entity known as Old Leech. Anyone who’s read The Croning will know she is in deep trouble. Presented as a series of e- mail exchanges between academics, it’s a story that works as horror in its’ hints of the unspeakable but is also a darkly comic satire of academia in general. In fact, if you’ve ever had to go through the process of defending your PhD thesis in front of your unimpressed supervisors, you’ll find this even funnier.
Snake Wine – Jeffrey Thomas
A dissolute expatriate gets into trouble upon meeting a mysterious, charismatic woman. That’s a pretty universal theme, seeing as it applies for countless of Barron’s stories (not to mention my summer holidays). There is gore, parasitic entities and a lovingly evoked Vietnam setting. The guy should have left the country at the first hint of weirdness, but then, no one ever listens to me.
Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox – T.E. Grau
A beat generation tale of a group of hepcats looking for enlightenment and a mysterious guru who is waaaay more than they can handle. Love Songs… is creepy, fun and has a satisfyingly dark conclusion that Sir James Frazer would find perfectly appropriate. Perhaps my favourite story in the collection.
The Old Pageant – Richard Gavin
A campfire story essentially; and a variation on the old changeling myth. Haunting.
Notes for “The Barn in the Wild” – Paul Tremblay
Old school horror. The story unfolds in a series of entries from the diary of a young man who discovered The Black Guide and went in search of something in the wilderness. Things don’t turn out well for anyone involved.
Firedancing – Michael Griffin
Firedancing is one of the most typically Barronesque (or should that be Barronian?) stories in the collection, complete with an ancient cult and a reclusive millionaire. But what really made the story for me was a ridiculously enjoyable central set piece, a celebration in a remote estate that starts off as a party before turning into something more ritualistic. It’s exactly the sort of party I should be getting invited to more often. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. A vaguely pretentious affair that gradually plunges into a spiral of drink, drugs and orgies. Someone always ends up getting sacrificed in these things. It all goes to Hell eventually but, ah, such good times! Mastodon would be the house band and my highly subjective choices for the playlist would include Sepultura’s Ratamahatta and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Also, these guys:
The Golden Stars at Night – Allyson Bird
Embarrassingly, this is the only story in the book that went right over my head. Mostly because it seems to riff on my least favourite of Barron’s traits- namely his tendency to take a horrific premise and then dissolve it in a series of dreamlike (and occasionally confusing) images (see Shiva, Open Your Eye). Perhaps I am a blood- and- guts kind of guy at heart. Anyway, The Golden Stars at Night is more a tone poem than a story and it’s lyrical and beautifully written. But I need to read it again.
The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays – Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
Nazis make excellent antagonists in any occult story (see The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hellboy, etc.) and they make an appearance in this Olympia- set story (along with mystic tomes and an old man who is more than he seems). But Pulver subverts these tropes by going for a contemplative, mournful tone that takes the narrative beyond pulp into something more human.
The Woman in the Wood – Daniel Mills
A prequel of sorts to the short story Old Virginia. I love that story (I think it’s the first Laird Barron short story I’ve ever read) and this tale does it justice.
Brushdogs – Stephen Graham Jones
A hunter and his son stumble upon a mysterious formation in the woods while hunting for elk. This is the kind of story that succeeds because it doesn’t just go for chills but also for a sense of true loss that is very difficult to pull off. A highlight.
Ymir – John Langan
Stunning. Ymir is a direct sequel to the short story Hallucigenia (from Barron’s collection The Imago Sequence). Those devious bastards, the Choate family make an appearance, as does The Broadsword Hotel, meaning that there is now an explicit connection between the Old Leech Universe and the setting of Barron’s other Pacific Northwest stories. That link may have been there before though, it’s been a while since I read The Imago Sequence. In any case, Ymir is pitch- black, thrilling stuff- an almost euphoric take on horror.
Of a Thousand Cuts – Cody Goodfellow
A modern- day gladiator falls for the wife of his patron, with disastrous results. This is the only story which is set in the world of the novella The Light Is The Darkness and it’s another highlight, clearly showing how expansive and accommodating the Universe of that short book is. Of a Thousand Cuts is bone- crunching, flesh- ripping stuff, but it’s also elegant and smart. The world of The Pageant is gruesome and beautiful and I’d love to read more stories set in it.
Tenebrionidae – Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay
Scott Nicolay’s short story debut Ana Kai Tangata made waves some months ago. Tenebrionidae is a collaboration with his son Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay and is inspired (loosely I hope) on the latter’s experiences while hopping freight trains around New Orleans. It’s a suspenseful and heartbreaking tale and the setting is truly original (again, I could do with more stories in this milieu). Compared to the other stories in this collection it features almost no overt references to Barron’s work. On the other hand, it does feature a smart, resourceful dog and I bet Laird would find this a nice touch.
Thankfully, none of the contributors in The Children of Old Leech tries to mimic Barron’s distinct hardboiled style and there are no bad stories here. This stuff is the product of a very specific worldview and this means that It’s for everyone. You could do worse by starting with Barron’s short story collections first, but it’s not a prerequisite. On the other hand, you could pour yoursef a scotch, sit comfortably and prepare to be creeped out. After all, Halloween is coming.