I approach most multiple-author anthologies skeptically, because more often than not, they turn out to be a mixed bag. This doesn’t necessarily mean they turn out to be bags full of crap—only that some of the stories may be good (or even great), and others—not so much. Co-edited by anthology wizard Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele (who conceived of this anthology), The Children of Old Leech is unfortunately no exception to the mixed-bag phenomenon, but it’s an unusual one in that all of its stories are set in (or are otherwise inspired by) the terrifying worlds penned by the author Laird Barron.
If you don’t know the works of Barron, I highly recommend you change that right now, and not just for the sake of this review. He’s an amazing writer, perfectly fluent in the language of nightmare, as well as of English. The world he sees and describes is, as the subtitle to this anthology suggests, a “carnivorous” one, wherein malignant forces aren’t merely waiting to creep into our collective consciousness and bring darkness over us all—such forces are already here, gleefully watching humankind blithely walk about in this illusion of light, sanity, and safety, just waiting for us to stumble into the dark that’s always all around us. When you read Barron, you discover that holes in trees and basement doors left ajar are doorways into the howling, bloody voids. Dark forces seem drawn to the Broadsword Hotel, set in Barron’s hometown-cum-playground of the Pacific Northwest. Copies of a mysterious book, Moderor de Caliginis, “Black Guide,” a sort of unholy travel guide to these dark places, frequently pop up in his tales. And just how well, a character in one of his stories may ask you, do you really know that friend of yours, or even your loved one? Does that scar on their neck almost appear like a seam in a flesh-mask? Ah, but perhaps it is, and perhaps they are in fact a Child of the Old Leech themselves—but don’t worry, for they love you…
So what of the seventeen authors’ respective tales in The Children of Old Leech, then? What else of Barron’s nightmarish world could be explored? Could there possibly be anybody but Mr. Barron himself whom could properly observe and tell tales of his “Pacific Northwest Mythos?” The answer, judging from this collection, is in fact largely a yes—and sometimes, a no.
First of all, there are a bunch of solidly written stories that rightfully belong here, even if they aren’t immediately obvious in their inclusion. For instance, the opening tale, “The Harrow,” by Gemma Files, is a fine tale of building madness as a woman starts digging up strange artifacts from her backyard. Orrin Grey’s “Walpurgisnacht,” while reminiscent of the works of Klein, Brite, and even good ol’ Lovecraft in narrative, felt like a tale that would make Barron proud. And “Pale Apostle,” by J.T. Glover and Jesse Bullington, is a pulpy tale set in a Chinatown gift shop, with the “Barron-ian” vibes hovering just outside its closed windows.
Then there are many stories that are far more obvious in their complements, and although not all of them worked (T.E. Grau’s “Love Songs From the Hydrogen Jukebox” was a little overlong in its buildup, and Michael Griffin’s “Firedancing” kind of lost its steam toward the end), some of them really nailed their tribute to Barron and neatly earn their places in this book.
There were also a number of tales that made spins on traditional narrative. The mercurial prose of Jeffrey Thomas’s “Snake Wine” and Stephen Graham Jones’ “Brushdogs” made for reads that were every bit as hypnotic as they were eerie. Two tales even took a straight-up epistolary approach: “Good Lord, Show Me the Way,” by Molly Tanzer, which neatly wove a three-person e-mail conversation regarding a grad student’s questionable dissertation (and its mysterious aspects thereof), and Paul Tremblay’s “Notes For ‘The Barn In the Wild,’” a series of notes (and footnotes!) written by an ambitious explorer looking to make a new account of his excursions into nature, and the strange discovery he makes in the woods. Both of these tales were as psychologically engaging as they were creepy, and were among my favorites out of the whole collection.
The story by Cody Goodfellow, “Of a Thousand Cuts,” is also of particular note, for the sheer fact that it is a spin on Barron’s often-overlooked short novel, The Light Is the Darkness. If you haven’t read that novel, I’d highly recommend you do so before jumping into this punchy tale.
And then there was John Langan’s “Ymir.” The only thing I could say after I finished reading that one was “Wow.” The amount of locations and even subgenres that it dexterously navigated was almost dizzying—and it was a short story, for crying out loud! And like the other tales I most enjoyed here, while I seriously didn’t quite understand what I experienced in its hallucinatory whorls of mesmerizing prose, I got enough out of it to know it was one hell of a cool ride. (Points also to one of its key characters being named Barry.)
Ultimately, these seventeen tales were mere candles held up in the middle of yawning, pitch-black caverns, catching mere outlines and glimpses of that “Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.” Laird Barron will return with a new, definitive tale (or collection of tales) of madness soon enough, I’m sure—but in the meantime, this is a nice appetizer from fans and for fans of the master navigator of our blackened world.