This multifaceted grimoire, and the talent associated with it, is staggering to behold. Its co-editor, Justin Steele, sets the tone in a highly entertaining introduction, one which pits his fictional self against the very “carnivorous cosmos” he so innocently sought to collect. In many like anthologies that focus on the oeuvre of a specific writer, the works themselves rarely rise above pastiche—but this seems to be exactly what the editors wished to avoid when fashioning their tribute to Laird Barron. Steele brings this to the fore when singling out Ellen Datlow’s excellent Lovecraft Unbound as a source of inspiration. Potential readers who are not familiar with Barron’s work need not worry. The tales, while sometimes recalling certain tropes or characters from his fiction, can be enjoyed in their own right; and, I must say, the range of styles on display is consistently impressive. While I could speak to each and every tale, I have selected just a few of the seventeen.
“Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox” by T.E. Grau was an unexpected and wholly original surprise, and lives up to its hip title. The tale is told from the point of view of a card-carrying member of the Beat Generation named Nelson Barnes, who is caught under the spell of a Dean Moriarty-esque vagabond named Doyle. The language and milieu of the 1950s is perfectly captured by Grau, whose writing is muscular, witty and metaphorical in all the right ways. This is a “love song” to a lost generation, and scarier than hell.
“The Old Pageant” by Richard Gavin is a brief, but terrifying tale about suppressed memories. It begins with a couple arriving at the woman’s family cabin. Not long after, she begins recalling her childhood and the strange forest games she used to play with her sister and grandmother (one such game was called “The Old Pageant”, wherein participants attempt to replicate certain aspects of the forest). This is a chilling and atmospheric tale, and one which gives new meaning to “lost youth”.
“Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild’” by Paul Tremblay is a cross between Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm”. It takes the form of a found diary written by a young man named Nick Brach, detailing his search for a young graduate student who has gone missing. Brach eventually discovers “The Barn” in question, and is forever altered by its history and his experience within.
“Firedancing” by Michael Griffin follows a failed artist named Lane who is invited to a fantastic retreat by a friend he hasn’t seen in years. The retreat is hosted by Mallard Hills, who is described as “one part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, one part Kwai Chang Caine”. Hills eventually invites Lane to join him on a tour through his strangely designed pavilion, wherein Lane meets his fate.
“The Woman in the Wood” by Daniel Mills contains some of the most powerful and horrifying imagery I have read in a long time; it is also one of the author’s finest tales to date. The story (circa 1843) takes the form of a diary kept by a sensitive boy named James who is sent to live with his aunt and uncle at their farm in the country, in an attempt to recover from a recent illness. What he discovers soon after his arrival is nothing less than a hellish nightmare.
“Brushdogs” by Stephen Graham Jones was made all the more terrifying by its subtlety. A father and his son, out hunting, discover a series of strange black cairns. The man realizes, after they return home, that his son is no longer who he seems. Jones has a powerful and gripping style which brings to mind Faulkner and McCarthy.
“Ymir” by John Langan tackles the Norse myth of the same name, though only peripherally. The bulk of the story concerns a military contractor named Marissa who is hired, soon after her return from Afghanistan, to accompany a man in his quest to find an elusive figure named Tyler Choate. Langan’s towering narratives never disappoint, and this is no exception. Its denouement was absolutely stunning.
“Of a Thousand Cuts” by Cody Goodfellow went where few authors would dare venture; that of Barron’s short novel “The Light is the Darkness”, featuring at its center a gladiatorial “Pageant” which pits horrifically enhanced competitors against one another. Goodfellow is a wordsmith whose visionary fiction is mind-blowing on so many levels.
“Tenebrionidae” by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay is one of the finest pieces of “rail literature” that I have ever read, every bit as absorbing as Charles Willeford’s I Was Looking For a Street. Rarely does one come across a tale as compelling and immersive as this. Powerful language and imagery, and a spot-on rendering of life on the rails, make this a unique tale that lingers in the mind long after it has been consumed. The mind-numbing denouement was simultaneously touching and terrifying. One can only hope that the authors (father and son) choose to collaborate on future projects.
A final note about the editors, who were kind enough to supply me with an ARC of Old Leech. While Ross E. Lockhart is a name many will recognize (as an established editor, author, and owner of Word Horde), Justin Steele may be new to a lot of folks. He is the sole proprietor of a well-regarded blog (The Arkham Digest), and this is his first big project as an anthologist. Considering the scope and ingenious concept behind Old Leech, he has achieved his first major success. One can only speculate as to where he will take his editorial skills next. If, that is, the “carnivorous cosmos” hasn’t already taken him first.
Available for purchase from Word Horde.