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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

The Children of Old Leech, ed. Ross E. Lockhart & Justin Steele

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The Children of Old Leech:

A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart & Justin Steele

(Word Horde Press, July 2014)

 

"The Harrow" by Gemma Files

"Pale Apostle" by J.T. Buller and Jesse Glovington

"Walpurgisnacht" by Orrin Grey

"Learn to Kill" by Michael Cisco

"Good Lord, Show Me the Way" by Molly Tanzer

"Snake Wine" by Jeffrey Thomas

"Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox" by T.E. Grau

"The Old Pageant" by Richard Gavin

"Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" by Paul Tremblay

"Firedancing" by Michael Griffin

"The Golden Stars at Night" by Allyson Bird

"The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays" by Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

"The Woman in the Woods" by Daniel Mills

"Brushdogs" by Stephen Graham Jones

"Ymir" by John Langan

"Of a Thousand Cuts" by Cody Goodfellow

"Tenebrionidae" by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay

 

Reviewed by Lillian Csernica

You don't have to be familiar with the works of Laird Barron to enjoy the seventeen stories contained in this hefty volume. Among the best included here is some of the finest cross-genre writing I've had the pleasure of discovering. Ross Lockhart's Afterword is a moving description of how the anthology came into being. It would have made a better Introduction, leading the reader into the stories with a sense of respect, admiration, and that precious frisson of fear.

"The Harrow" by Gemma Files

Her husband's job transfer takes Lydie away from the bustle of Toronto and lands her in the suburbs where having her own car is essential. Lacking one, Lydie is bored out of her mind. She recalls her mother's deranged ramblings about the people who live in the upside down world of the dark. She's out in her backyard trying to cope with the frustration of getting nowhere with signing up for Adult Driving Lessons when she stumbles across a little stone figure sticking up out of the grass. Neolithic, yes, but this is no Venus of Willenburg. It's something like a cockroach with a triangular face on the belly. That leads to digging up most of the backyard as she acquires more and more of these figures in various sizes along with animal skulls and some bones. In the midst of this project, Lydie has a visit from Paula Neath, an environmental activist with a hidden agenda. She claims she's part of a group asking the neighbors to set up bat houses to help environmental concerns in the area. What Paula is really hoping Lydia will agree to is a whole lot creepier than that.

A writer always hopes the reader will identify with and feel sympathy for the protagonist of the story. Oddly enough, I happen to be a married woman living in a rural area who does not own a car. (Lucky for me, my mother doesn't suffer delusions similar to Lydie's mother.) I mention this because the cause and effect in the plot doesn't work for me. One weird stone figure would not prompt me to dig up my backyard looking for more. An environmental activist who showed up asking to see my earthworks and later my garden shed would prompt me to call the police. A bat house? Really? Lydie is far too passive, too introverted, too submissive. There's no real goal, no real character arc. Lydie takes action only when she keeps her husband and his mother from discovering her Neolithic obsession. The ending is messy, convenient, and contrived.

"Pale Apostle" by J. T. Buller and Jesse Glovington

Wah Sung is minding her father's import store one dark and stormy night while he's out. An old white man who claims to be a missionary offers Wah a lot of money to accept delivery of a certain package in order to get it past Customs. After this visit Wah takes sick so badly she's in mortal danger. The family Doctor recognizes the true cause of her symptoms and makes sure she has what she needs against the time when the missionary returns to collect his package.

This is definitely a weird story, one worth reading. The contrast of Chinese culture with who and what the missionary really is makes for suspenseful reading. The Doctor tells Wah a myth or parable about a horse's hide that doesn't make much sense to me, but that's a minor part of the overall story. My one serious complaint is the deliberate and obvious withholding of information from the reader when the Doctor gives Wah what she needs for protection against the missionary and when she uses it.

"Walpurgisnacht" by Orrin Grey

The nameless protagonist travels with his photographer friend Nicky to the latest "revel" of Nicky's patron Henri. It is indeed Walpurgisnacht, and the decadent occultist circle is gathering to celebrate it with Henri as host. Henri has a sister who may or may not be real. She keeps popping up and freaking out the protagonist. The main entertainment of the revel is a forbidden film by Edweard Muybridge, the man who did a lot of work toward the invention of motion pictures. The film shows occult rites that for the time must have been hugely scandalous. The underlying tension of the story breaks loose at this point, resulting in panic. The darkness is punctuated by flashes from Nicky's camera, which illuminate moments the protagonist does not want to see. He looks back on the events of the evening and comes to some unpleasant conclusions about the true relationships between those events and the people involved in them.

The story is written well enough, but I could not shake the sense of deja vu. When I was a teenager I watched all the Hammer films. Two in particular kept coming to mind, "The Conqueror Worm" and "The Devil Rides Out." If you like this type of Gothic horror, you will enjoy this story. The plot is rather predictable, but there are scenes which bring new approaches to the "classic" material.

"Learn to Kill" by Michael Cisco

There's a tradition in Michael's family of sons killing fathers. In his old age Michael sits and reflects on how this tradition came into being. His thoughts are underscored by the macabre atmosphere as he waits for his two cousins to come home and kill him.

The story left me with several unanswered questions. What's inside the locked rooms? Why aren't the parents allowed to hit the firstborn sons? What's with those dancing flames? A number of strange people and items are shown to the reader, but the implications are not clear. Perhaps if I was more thoroughly familiar with the works of Laird Barron I might have caught the references. Even if I had, the plot is not complex enough nor the details bizarre enough to make this story stand out among the other sixteen.

"Good Lord, Show Me the Way" by Molly Tanzer

Several emails between professors combine to show Jenny's determination to defend her thesis despite being told there was not enough physical evidence to support it. Jenny goes off in a huff to a very strange place to get her hands on said evidence. This is not a good career decision. When Jenny misses an important meeting, the professors investigate.

I couldn't tell if the humor in the professors' letters was deliberate or accidental. I know about the peculiar culture of academia. From the very beginning Jenny's advisors do not take her or her thesis seriously. By the time they finally figure out something is very wrong, it's far too late. They are almost as much to blame for what happens to Jenny as whatever actually does happen to Jenny. I'm none too clear on that either.

"Snake Wine" by Jeffrey Thomas

Australian expatriate Gorch runs a bar in Viet Nam similar to Thai hostess bars. The young and beautiful Hong enters with a fat man who decides to take another girl upstairs. Gorch develops an instant fascination for Hong that leads both of them upstairs where Hong offers Gorch the special gift she was saving for her father. It's a strange local liquor in a dark bottle that allows just a glimpse of the snake coiled inside. Gorch knows taking even a sip of that nasty concoction is the equivalent of going down into the basement with a single candle, but he cannot refuse Hong's gift. When Gorch wakes up, Hong is gone and he's missing his left middle finger. That doesn't slow him down at all now that he's hell bent on catching up with Hong.

This story is everything a weird tale should be. It involves a cultural matrix that's foreign to begin with and then takes it that much further with some bizarre creatures and their rites. Gorch is a straightforward guy. He's not about to let Hong get away with his finger or anything else. The ending is great. Freaky, gross, rough justice, and a strong dash of uncertainty to underline the enduring horror. This is my favorite story in the anthology.

"Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox" by T. E. Grau

A mob of hippies and stoners in San Francisco adore Doyle, who travels the world and seems possessed of some secret higher knowledge. Nelson is that rare member of the mob who owns a car. That wins him the special status of Doyle's driver. On this particular night Doyle leads the way to a gathering where a guru whom even Doyle respects will offer the brave and the willing a special blessing known as The Embrace. Nelson is smart enough to realize Doyle is holding back secrets that could be very dangerous. The ending is a mind bender.

When I see T.E. Grau's byline, I know I'm in for a wild ride. The writing style here is smooth and very readable. I love the title. In some ways the story reminds me of Harlan Ellison's "Shattered Like A Glass Goblin" if that commune had been occupied by a secret cult from Laird Barron's cosmos.

"The Old Pageant" by Richard Gavin

A man takes his girlfriend to the old family cabin where she spent a lot of time with her grandparents. Her memories are not altogether pleasant. No wonder, when the footboard on her bed has been carved to resemble a tombstone. He proposes, she accepts, and rowdy sex follows. Once night falls, she gets nervous, recalling some of the weird games her grandmother insisted on teaching her, games that included "Something Scary" and "The Old Pageant." In the middle of the night, the man hears a strange noise and goes outside to investigate.

There's a lot of story here, but not much plot. In the cosmos celebrated by this anthology, investigating strange noises after dark is not the smart thing to do. While this story does have atmosphere, the real action is all flashback and the climax falls flat.

"Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" by Paul Tremblay

This is told through journal entries that have footnotes, some of which include strikethrough typing. This gives the reader the idea that the protagonist, Nick, argues with himself and sometimes loses. As the story progresses, another voice creeps into Nick's writing. He's trying to retrace the steps of Tommy, whose body was discovered inside the Barn with all the fingers on his left hand missing. Identification of the body is difficult due to the advanced stage of decomposition. Tommy had gotten his hands on a copy of The Black Guide which helped him locate Klein's Barn. Nick digs into the journals of the Rev. Klein and discovers what began as a Protestant settlement degenerated into a cultish setup with bizarre musical rites and some drastic casualties. This makes Nick all the more determined to hike out into the wilderness and find the Barn. Some footnotes and the transcripts of phone calls with Nick's partner Scott reveal Nick is none too stable, having a compulsion for going on long adventures alone.

Nick's voice and depth of character are great. The backstory on Rev. Klein and how his settlement went to hell in more than just a handbasket really adds texture to the story. Tommy's corpse foreshadows what you're led to think will happen to Nick himself. I got a strong, creepy, M.R. James/lost scholar feel. Given the style and tenor of Laird Barron's own work, I would say this story comes closer than most to hitting the homage bullseye.

"Firedancing" by Michael Griffin

Artist Bay is deserted by his wife who cleans out both their house and their bank accounts. In the wake of his life imploding, Bay accepts a ride from his old friend Peterson to a big anything-goes party run by Peterson's ex-wife Minerva, her brother Erik, and Old Mallard, another ancient guru who got his credentials in the Chilean caves. Old Mallard has been waiting for Bay. He wants to show off his impressive house, but beyond that, his wife is dying and Bay has a key role to play in her rather complicated and far-reaching funeral.

Bay starts off in a position of emotional vulnerability that could leave him wide open to all sorts of trouble at the party. There's quite a range of styles and flavors to choose from in terms of pure physical indulgence as well as metaphysical adventure. The firedancing that gives the story its title results in some really spectacular weirdness. The events of the story don't seem to culminate so much as simply stop. I couldn't tell if I was looking at an initiation, a sacrifice, a metamorphosis, all of the above, or none. Again I had to wonder if there were references to Laird Barron's works that I just wasn't picking up on. Even so, tighter story structure would have helped.

"The Golden Stars at Night" by Allyson Bird

Young widow Rawlie shears sheep on a ranch in New Zealand. She trains her apprentice Mysel and keeps an eye on him. From some unknown source packages of classic books arrive. Rawlie reads them to Mysel by firelight after their long days. More details of Rawlie's daily life and her complicated ponderings make up most of the story. Rawlie sees something toward the end that shocks her and causes her to reverse her thinking on several fronts. What she sees holds little or no meaning for me as the reader, so I don't understand her reaction.

This reads more like a character study than a story with an actual plot. The use of language is pleasant, and Rawlie's relationship with Mysel is good for characterization, but there just isn't anything all that scary or even disturbing here.

"The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays" by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

Samuel Kellerman, survivor of the Buchenwald death camp, has new neighbors. The white supremacist survival camp blasts its hate speech over its powerful PA system, leaving Kellerman with the option of trying to ignore the relentless torment or leave the house he shared with his beloved wife Raechel until she passed away. Kellerman has nightmares about the way he was forced to work for the death camp's sadistic doctor who had some really vile hobbies that included perverted occult rituals. (TRIGGER warning.) When two loudmouth thugs from the survival camp discover their next door neighbor is a Jew, they start harassing him to the point where Kellerman abandons the scruples of a lifetime and uses some of the forbidden knowledge found in The Black Guide, which he stole from the doctor when the death camp was liberated by the Allies.

Hard to read, very hard due to the graphic violence and detailed cruelties of the death camp. Even so, by the end of the story I was cheering Kellerman on, which upon reflection I found rather disturbing. I thought I saw the ending coming, but wonder of wonders, it was not predictable. Oh boy, was it not predictable! Excellent research, some huge issues of ethics and morality, and impressive special effects when the time came for payback. This story is an impressive achievement.

"The Woman in the Woods" by Daniel Mills

Another story written in journal entries. James is sent to live with Uncle Timothy and Aunt Sarah on their sheep farm because James is "ill." That illness is never spoken of in more specific terms. James' parents clearly believe being out in the fresh air in a rural setting is just what the boy needs. Too bad they didn't make sure he left his weird books and creepy journals at home. He has brought them all with him, including what appears to be a copy of The Black Guide. James keeps having visions or fantasies about a woman who lifts up her skirt to reveal a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth. Aunt Sarah is very pregnant, so when James starts having visions about her, matters take a very nasty turn. (Another TRIGGER warning.) James starts seeing the woman of his fantasies walking out of or into the woods near the farm. Uncle Timothy tries to prevent James from hearing about anything that might make his "illness" worse, but Aunt Sarah provides the critical information that sends James spiraling down the dark and toothy path toward his doom.

Wow. There's nothing like a wet dream crossed with a cosmic-level case of vagina dentata to put a pubescent male on edge. The graphic imagery is intense. Serious Freudian subtext. I have to wonder why, with Sarah on the brink of delivery, nobody is there to help with the toddler and the housework. Surely somebody from their church community would offer to lend a hand, or at least stop by on a regular basis. I'm surprised Uncle Timothy does't lock James up in some kind of shed halfway through the story. Even the most compassionate heart doesn't allow a delusional teenage boy to be alone in the house with a very pregnant woman and a little girl. These weaknesses keep the story from reaching its full potential.

"Brushdogs" by Stephen Graham Jones

Junior and his son Denny go hunting elk on a cold, snowy night. Junior is worried about Denny because of the boy's bad sense of direction. Sure enough, Denny isn't where he's supposed to be, so Junior climbs a small hill to look for him. A cairn sits atop the hill. Junior spots Denny across a strange, wavering patch of distance. Denny is doing a bad job of climbing an identical hill toward another cairn. Junior does his best to shout warnings, but the peculiar quality of the space between them blocks all of Junior's efforts.

Junior's PTSD flashbacks about the injury to his arm don't seem important to the story. Neither does the fact that his wife Deezie is away from home. The forest is big, dark, and full of weird noises. Something left a pile of bones from small animals up to horses' skulls. What happens to Denny remains a mystery despite what Junior thinks he hears at the end. There are some good elements here, but they just don't combine into a unity of horror and suspense.

"Ymir" by John Langan

Marissa is a professional driver who has seen action for the private sector in Iraq and Afghanistan. She takes a dangerous job that pays extremely well for a billionaire wanderer named Barry. Marissa drives him to a former diamond mine. En route she sees the specter of a child she ran down during an attack by insurgents that happened while she was still in the Middle East. Barry and Marissa take an elevator down and down and down. During the ride Barry explains Tyler Choate and his three month rental of the mine. Tyler has a fast and loose relationship with time and space, achieving quite a bit in the outside world while he's supposedly sitting in a supermax prison. The core idea of the story revolves around Ymir, the Titan killed by Odin. A strong idea with a gripping if lengthy story built around it.

Love the premise. Good story structure with some great plot twists. I like Marissa a lot. Tyler and his brother Joshua are uber-freaky, right over the top. There are a few info dumps in the story that slow the pace a little, but they fit into the characterizations of the people who provide them. This is good solid cross-genre writing with horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller well mixed.

"Of a Thousand Cuts" by Cody Goodfellow

Salazar is a cybernetic samurai gladiator who kicks ass on all challengers. He's owned by Lord Sun, head of a multinational business empire/crime syndicate. Something special in Salazar's blood enables Lord Sun's scientists and surgeons to keep putting Salazar back together again after every gladiatorial combat. That's no small task, given how many injuries Salazar can take and still keep fighting. The history behind Lord Sun and Salazar is complex, nasty, and fascinating. Salazar, trapped in a body made essentially immortal, is desperate for escape.

Being a Japanophile, I was very happy to see such effective use of samurai culture in this futuristic setting. Combining hypnotism and haiku for brainwashing is really clever. There's a lot of graphic violence, so be advised. The writing is strong, the plot is not predictable, and the end rocks. Great story.

"Tenebrionidae" by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay

Dumont and his dog Missy are on the run from the Shadow Riders, a violent gang who are the forerunners of trouble much darker and more dangerous. Dumont is a railroad hobo who treasures Missy, having lost his girlfriend to the violent vengeance of Marlo, head of the Shadow Riders. Marlo is sure Dumont has something he wants, something the girlfriend stole from him.

Let's start with the title. I don't get it. Tenebrionidae are Darkling beetles. Neither the monsters nor the Shadow Riders resemble Darkling beetles. There is a whole lot of middle to this story. Dumont hops off one train and onto another, moving farther and farther into a slipstream world being consumed by bizarre and unnatural forces. The few humans Dumont meets have become pallid blobs with mouths that open unnaturally wide like lampreys from hell. There's one good fight scene inside the engine where Dumont takes refuge. The end is satisfying, but it takes way too long to get there.