"The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Word Horde
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele
2014, 344 pages, Fiction
Released on July 15th, 2014
Want some brutal honesty? I don't believe the perfect anthology exists. There are too many elements at play, and that tends to keep most anthologies in the space between horrible and pretty decent. Luckily, once or twice a year an anthology comes along that makes me abandon eloquence momentarily and utter something along the lines of "Holy shit, this is almost perfect!" The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron, an anthology honoring dark fiction maestro Laird Barron, is such a book. Packed with tales from some of the most talented and multidimensional scribes in contemporary horror literature, The Children of Old Leech is as far removed from pastiche as an anthology can get while working in the universe created by a single author.
With names like Cody Goodfellow, Stephen Graham Jones, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., and Jeffrey Thomas appearing in the table of contents, and Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, both of whom have superb taste and know their business, taking over editorial duties, I was expecting The Children of Old Leech to be great, but it surpassed my expectations. Besides having each author put a very unique spin on Barron's universe/tone/atmosphere, each short narrative is good enough to stand by itself and testify to its author's chops. A good anthology is one that contains no throwaways, but what's truly rare is to find one like The Children of Old Leech; a collection in which every story is a standout.
The Children of Old Leech comes in at well over 300 pages, so offering a synopsis of each story would be a waste of time and, what's worse, would probably deprive some readers of the pleasure that comes from discovering some of its gems without previous knowledge of what they're about to encounter. Instead of doing that, I'll discuss a handful of personal favorites.
The first story that blew me away because it was unique and unexpected was Molly Tanzer's "Good Lord, Show Me the Way." Tanzer blends horror and academic research and then delivers her narrative through the use of emails. Wildly entertaining and with great humorous touches that make the dark implications of what's happening seem even darker, this short story proves that Tanzer is one of the most exciting voices in the game. Word Horde just released her novel Vermilion, and you should really check it out.
Jeffrey Thomas's "Snake Wine" brings together fear of the unknown and Otherness and then sprinkles in a healthy dose of weirdness to create a superb tale of rituals and things that should not be. Set in Vietnam and laden with the same mysterious/oppressive/bizarre atmosphere that has made Barron's work so memorable, this story also shows that pure talent and gorgeous prose make Thomas a great author who's a regular in top-notch anthologies:
"The horizon was punctuated by a number of silhouetted metal ships—or the resonance of ships that had occupied those spots eons ago, or would occupy those spots in some far future epoch—in this realm where Gorch sense steel as transient as shadows. Hordes of dragonflies dangled above their heads, their wings a chorus of low humming."
The third story that stuck with me also happens to follow the two discussed above. T.E. Grau's "Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox" is what you'd get if you threw Barron, H.P. Lovecraft, and William S. Burroughs in a blender with LSD-laced blades and mixed them all into a magic, bloody pulp. From the vibe to the slang and rhythm, Grau nails 1950's beatdom and delivers a surprising tale that left me wishing it was only the first third of novel, and placed him high on my list of authors whose new work I'll be eagerly waiting for:
"What we think we know is BULLSHIT, and what we don't know is our salvation. The West ain't the best. The West is a gerbil wheel. Knowledge from the older places is what we need right now. I'll be good goddamned if we scorch ourselves off this marble and leave only a black smudge with nothing underneath. I want to go deeper, find out how to rise above."
Two other tales that deserve attention for more or less the same reasons are Paul Tremblay's "Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" and Daniel Mills' "The Woman in the Wood." I love tales of found journals and notebooks, and both of these satisfied that voyeuristic, horror-obsessed part of my psyche. Also, both tales are packed with creepy imagery and great pacing.
The last story I'll shine a light on is Cody Goodfellow's "Of a Thousand Cuts." Goodfellow is a masterful storyteller who can always be counted on to bring a superb mix of bizarre, poetry, and horror to the table, and he does it here with a strange tale of fighting, dying, and resurrecting. Film connoisseurs often refer to the work of David Cronenberg whenever the meeting point of horror and the body is discussed. I feel anyone who doesn't bring up Goodfellow's name before Cronenberg in said conversation fails to do so only because they're unaware of his work. If you've never read him, this is a great place to start.
The Children of Old Leech is about paying tribute to a man who has made us be afraid of what lives in the woods in new and terrifying ways, but it also ends up being an outstanding collection of short fiction by some of the best authors out there. Throw in an introduction by Justin Steele and an afterword by Ross E. Lockhart, undoubtedly two of the best dark fiction editors and anthologists, and what you get is a book worthy of being followed into the woods on a dark, moonless night.