Book Review: The Children of Old Leech

Published by Word Horde; Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele

Review by Michael Bryant

We are all food. From our birth to well after our death, we serve to nourish other life forms. We who hold ourselves the supreme rulers of this planet—and the only known “intelligent” life form in the universe—are merely food and spawning grounds for the “lower” and older organisms.

This is the truth of Old Leech, Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris (“the pestilence that walketh in darkness”), who loves you.

Such is the nature of the work of Laird Barron, who focuses the template of cosmic horror through a lens of carnivorous savagery. If you have never read Barron’s’ writing, you most certainly should; however, familiarity with his mythos is not required to read the tribute anthology The Children of Old Leech edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele.

The book features numerous authors skilled in the art of the weird. While each tale offers a standalone testimony to the love of Leech, together they form a colloquy on the carnivorous cosmos and the terrible beauty of unbridled nature. Think Blackwood with teeth, Lovecraft with brutality, the monstrous and the godly indivisible.

I have dubbed this anthology an “album” for just as music decorates time and stimulates passion, so does this collection paint the temporal cortex with original artwork. Through this beautiful thing, we come to know Old Leech and his love, and move to the warm embrace of his jaws.

Justin Steele sets the tone in the introduction with a desperate yet pointless warning against reading this, the New Testament of Leech. The fool still harbors the delusion of hope, although he seems to know his place and role in service to Leech, but does not yet accept or understand it. No matter, his troubles are over now.

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Gemma Files contemplates the underworld and deceit of the light in “The Harrow”. T. E Grau gives us an account of pilgrimage to the fossil ossuary under the mountain in “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox”. We take communion alongside Richard Gavin in “The Old Pageant”, and rejoice of a young man’s coming to Leech at the end of his quest in Paul Tremblay’s “Notes for The Barn in the Wild”. Daniel Mills thrills us with the opulence of temptation and ultimately seduction, and sends us dancing in Lilith’s embrace in “The Women in the Wood”.

To hear more of the good word, you’ll have to read the book, available in paperback and in e-book formats. Elevations of the spirit and metamorphoses of the flesh will not be possible without the knowledge contained therein, and brother, you’ll need it on the Day of His Coming. So come with me into the deep wood, ascend the mountain to the caverns, and enter to pray before the broken circle. Let us go to find the beautiful thing that awaits us all.

5/5 Infectious Worm Gods

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Book Review: Resonator – New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond

Edited by Scott R. Jones; Published by Martian Migraine Press

Available for pre-order now

“From Beyond” is a Lovecraft story that, while lacking the elegance and polish of some of his other works, is effective precisely because it presses the right buttons in very few words. It’s profoundly Lovecraftian in the hidden-world-higher-dark-power aspect. Human beings stumble blindly through magic and forbidden science to open up a dangerous and increasingly hostile new world that is always just out of sight. It’s only a few pages long, with most of the terrors generated by the reader’s mind. Lovecraft supplies us with just enough details to stoke the fires of imagination.

The film From Beyond, conversely, shows quite a bit—and liberally dumps buckets of slime and blood everywhere—while also under-explaining the true nature of the creepy-crawlies that float, bite, suck, consume, and ultimately corrupt and metamorphize the humans who come in contact with the infamous Resonator. Or, is it the bodies of that characters themselves that cause the corruption? Does the pineal gland, once stimulated, assume a life of its own, pushing the characters into new states of abominable evolution?

Martian Migraine Press has assembled an all-star team of horror writers who tackle these themes. In Resonator -New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, these writers pick up where Lovecraft and Gordon left off, tracking the fate of the Tillinghast family and the Resonator technology through a variety of weird and slimy tales of lurid erotica, old-fashioned splatterpunk, and paranoid science fiction-horror.

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I feared that the collection would at one point run out of steam—after all, how many different ways can you rebuild and re-frame a concept like the Resonator technology? The writers of this collection—expertly assembled by Scott R. Jones—managed to write stories with common themes and gross-outs, but that stand on their own in setting, characterization, and creativity. None of these stories feel like repeats or filler; each new story has a fresh and viscous take on the terrors that lurk in the branes beyond and within the human heart.

While there are reasons to like every story in this collection, I have a few personal favorites.

“IPO” by Darrin Brightman explores the Post-9/11 commercialization of the Resonator technology. Brightman’s social critique is so on-the-nose it’s easy to miss: the very machines meant to protect us make us see monsters, everywhere.

“Film Maudit” by Christopher Slatsky explores one of my favorite horror tropes: that of a forbidden film and/or a haunted movie theater (see Mer Whinery’s “The Projectionist” in our upcoming High Strange Horror release). A gorehound who has seen it all attends a special screening of a supposedly lost art house/snuff film, with the experience enhanced by the RestoRed Oscillator, an almost-forgotten spookshow gimmick that thrills the audience in new and horrifying ways.

“Bug Zapper” by Richard Lee Byers follows a scientist and a team of Army Rangers—wearing armor and popping pills to keep them motivated—as they try to destroy a special tower the government built to keep the invisible monsters away. Turns out, we are far more connected to that invisible ecosystem than even Tillinghast could have imagined, and mucking around in t-space wasn’t the best idea after all.

“Parasitosis” by Lyndsey Holder is about a man with unexplained psychological issues—including the ability to see emotions and psychological states—exploring the meaning of memory and current experiential reality, one moment at a time. This story is disorienting as it is frightening.

“The Wizard of OK” by Scott Nicolay shows us an Aleister Crowley devotee as he uses an unspeakable mix of technology and blood sorcery to explore space and time, at the expense of one very lost and damaged woman and her son. There’s a demon-thing-god-worm-creature that defies the imagination, with a psychic and physical presence that preys upon our unsympathetic characters, resonating with both physical and emotional fear.

“The Divide” by Damir Salkovic is the soul-scarring final piece. It’s more of a science fiction sequel to the original story, with a near-utopian future consisting of a wealthy elite seeking greater and greater thrills and experiences that lead them all the way to the center of creation. There they encounter a fate—and a truth—far worse than they could possibly have imagined.

There’s plenty more to like. This is a creative exploration of form and content around the shared conceit of technology/sorcery and third-eye truth. In case you missed the original story, it’s included at the beginning of the collection, so don’t worry about being lost in the shuffle. Each author takes those primordial ideas and conjures up terrors both immediate and existential. In Resonator, merely getting eaten alive by unseen monsters from outside time and space is the least of your concerns, and one of the more noble fates the hapless characters end up suffering.

This book comes with my strongest recommendation for fans of both science fiction-horror and body-horror.

5/5 Resonance Waves

Book Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu, volumes I-III, edited by S.T. Joshi

Review by Michael Bryant

S.T. Joshi is the foremost literary scholar on the life and labor of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who is considered by many to be the father of modern horror. In his Black Wings of Cthulhu series, Joshi brings us  stories from many authors, all of which pay tribute to and emulate the thematic achievements of one of the genre’s most significant patriarchs.

If you’re reading this review, you are almost undoubtedly familiar with the early twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft and his work, if not directly then at least indirectly (oh yeah, that book from the Bruce Campbell movies!).  For those of you who don’t know his story, allow me to indulge my biographer’s streak.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Boston in 1890 and spent most of his life as a son and resident of Providence, Rhode Island. He demonstrated a voracious literary appetite from an early age, and began publishing his own amateur newsletters as a child. His tastes settled on weird fiction.

Lovecraft’s first professed love affair with literature was with The Arabian Nights which would influence the development of his alter ego, Abdul Al-Hazred.  His biggest overall influence was inarguably Edgar A. Poe, but he also became obsessive over the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He cites Machen as one of his greatest thematic influences and calls Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” the greatest work of weird fiction of all time. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is another clearly influential work, published when Lovecraft was about five years old. However, it is not clear at what point in his life that he read it.

As Lovecraft matured, he devoted himself exclusively to the weird or horror genre. Lovecraft would go on to create such modern horror icons as the nefarious book of the dead known as the Necronomicon, as well as the tentacled god from the stars who lurks beneath the sea–not dead, but dreaming–Cthulhu.

Lovecraft’s stories fused the atmosphere and gothic sensibilities of Poe with the cosmic themes of Blackwood, Chambers, and Machen. He structured his own Mythos in the pantheonic tradition of Lord Dunsany, while pushing horror out of the traditional gothic trappings. His work—and his extensive correspondence with his fans–galvanized a generation of fanboy writers such as Robert Bloch, R. H. Barlow, and Robert E. Howard, who would go on to write some of the most popular weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. His influence only continues to increase in the modern age, reaching to film (Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon),  music (Gwar, Metallica), board and video games (Call of Cthulhu, Arkham Horror), plush toys, and of course, contemporary horror literature.

Joshi’s editorial series Black Wings of Cthulhu showcases some of the best literary short works in the Lovecraft spirit. I say “in spirit” because these stories do not adhere exclusively to the Lovecraft Mythos—that is, they do not all take place within the same world as Lovecraft’s famous gods, monsters, and doomed cosmos.  Although many of the stories do incorporate monsters and characters taken directly from Lovecraft’s stories, others exclude the Mythos entirely and take an original approach to the cosmic horror theme.

Still others put Lovecraft in the story as a central character, subject to the horrors of his own demented fantasies. The series is home to stories by noted horror authors such as Caitlin R. Kiernan, W. H. Pugmire, Laird Barron, and Ramsey Campbell.

Volume I is one of the strongest anthologies I have ever read. I would encourage any horror fan looking to discover new writers to read it for its broad sampling of contributors. Each of the included stories is engaging and imaginative, and I would not consider any of them to be “filler”.

“Pickman’s Other Model” by Caitlin R. Kiernan opens for the collection, giving us a familiar footing in the ghoul-metamorphosis arena. Kiernan writes in a poetic and engaging style, and loves to make the reader squirm at times, although not with blatant gore/sex shock tactics, but through awkward nuance. Kiernan centers in on an element that is present in Lovecraft’s original work in mere suggestion only–sexuality. Kiernan does not, however, adopt such lazy, insulting critical theory as “Cthulhu equals vaginal horror”, but instead integrates the erotic with the cosmic in a sensually alluring yet grotesquely repugnant atmosphere.

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas features an appearance by Lovecraft’s ghost, or what the narrator perceives as the writer’s ghost, only to find it a luring semblance for a predator with a three-lobed burning eye. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge explores the human coping mechanisms for dealing with the unnamable in an apocalyptic setting, providing a fresh take on a supernatural-influenced collapse of civilization in a genre oversaturated with zombies. “Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford plunges the reader into horrible melancholy as we experience the hallucinations of the narrator’s diseased and dying mind, and come to the brutal truth at the center of cosmic horror: life is pointless and the universe is an uncaring void which we are destined to return to as ignorant dust.

I would suggest reading some of Lovecraft’s more popular works, especially the stories that referenced by the authors in this anthology, but one can still enjoy this collection without having read much, if any, of his work.

Black Wings of Cthulhu Volume I – 5/5 Nameless Horrors

Volume II of Black Wings continues with the thematic and literary standards set down in Volume I, although this is definitely the “B” version. Many of the authors from the first volume return alongside some fresh faces. While every story in Volume I left an impression on me, upon revisiting Volume II I had to jog my memory on many of the tales. A couple are below par. That said, there are still some fantastic stories in this volume.

My favorite is “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson. An archeological expedition in the Gobi Desert unearths a desecrated idol from a lost civilization. Using computer graphing, the team reconstructs a digital image of the smashed idol’s face. Beholding the face of this forgotten god spells doom for the expedition, and possibly the world. “The Skinless Face” is a fresh, original concept in the tradition of cosmic horror and, as a character-driven story, is the stand out of the collection.

“Bloom” by John Langan is a biological horror piece in which a couple happen upon a genetic abomination that brings about mutations in the doomed protagonists. “The King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas features a sorcerer of the Cthulhu Cult who brings about his own distinct form of vengeance on the new inhabitants of his old haunt.  “Appointed” by Chet Williamson features a demon in the semblance of “The King in Yellow” who bargains renewed life and vitality to aging, washed-up inhabitants of celebrity zoos at horror conventions.

Black Wings Volume II – 4.5/5 Insanity-Inducing Stone Idols

In Volume III, we start to see some more “filler” stories. “Hotel Del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson reads more as a template example of how to write a horror tale in the Lovecraftian style, rather than a real story. It has the classic traveler meets ghosts in a ghost town approach, with the addition of a ghost lake behind the ghost hotel where robed cultists summon a large and mysterious creature from the depths. The protagonist flees the scene in the night and makes it to the next town, where he is told that there is no such place that he describes. He returns the next day, and lo and behold, it’s a vacated ruin with a dried-up lake bed. Nothing original or new, just a classic format with a couple of cultists and tentacles sprinkled in for flavor.

I bought the Kindle Version of these books, and Volume III is put together with far less care than its predecessors, with numerous typographical errors throughout the anthology. It’s also rather sloppy in the layout. I’m not sure if these format problems extend to the print edition or to other e-formats.

In spite of these problems, Volume III is still a must-read in my opinion. “Spiderwebs In the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer follows two companions flying through space and time on the cosmic strands of ethereal webs—or perhaps they’re both suffering from delusional insanity.  “Waller” by Donald Tyson explores parallel realities as our protagonist falls through the planes of existence and meets the Gods who demand our cancerous fruit. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb goes for a bit of the “high strange” treatment with a nod to Lovecraft, and “China Holiday” by Peter Cannon exposes the forces behind China’s recent economic explosion and secretive police state.

Black Wings Volume III – 4.5/5 Cancerous Life Seeds

There isn’t much more I can say about these anthologies without spoiling the fun. So treat yourself and pick up the Black Wings of Cthulhu series, grab a stiff drink, turn down the lights, and settle in for some not-so-comforting tales of cosmic horror.

The collections are available through all major online retailers.