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Great Holes Are Dug: a review of “The Children of Old Leech”


I didn’t grow up in the sticks, but I wasn’t an urban kid, either. I guess edge of the sticks might be an appropriate descriptor for my neighbourhood: the outside rings of cheap housing on the borders of a bedroom community which was itself on the outside of a mid-sized Cascadian burg. No sidewalks defined our roads, only aged grey asphalt crumbling at the edges into tarry pebbles, scrub pine needles and the discarded rusty skin of arbutus trees. There was a field bordering a line of warehouses near the railroad tracks on the walk to my grade school: older kids would harvest mushrooms in the fall there, and in the summer you could find hobo campsites. Black rings of sodden ash and garbage, the smell of piss steaming off the grass in the morning and discarded porno mags peeking out from under logs.

Above my school, the Sooke Hills bunched up to the north and west. There was a giant cannibal woodpecker that lived up there, in a gully near a clearing where we’d take our air rifles for target practice. Don’t ask why we called it a cannibal woodpecker; it only ate humans, that we knew of. Legends. A high school girl had died up there, in the gully. Overdose on something, on whatever the scary drug of the moment was. Beyond that gully was a make-out spot and smoke pit, and beyond that a rock outcropping where a slow Jehovah’s Witness kid I knew had caused another kid’s Ouija board to levitate and disintegrate itself in mid-air: a dead-easy thing to do, apparently. Just ask the device the true name of God, natch.

And a little farther on was the lake where the Tree lived. It wasn’t even really a lake, more a dirty pond, but it was narrow and boomerang-shaped, you couldn’t see the opposite end of it, so maybe it felt like a lake. Anyway. The Tree was this mostly-dead yellow cedar, fire-blasted and grey but still managing to green up a little each year, though its core had all rotted away into aromatic mulch. The only fish you could catch in the lake were these anaemic sunfish that seemed to especially go for the thick grey wormy pupae-type things that you could only find in that mulch, in that Tree. And the dare we’d always throw at each other, when fishing wasn’t the reason for being there, when new kids needed initiation, or a spot of cruelty was more entertaining than woodsy adventure, was always “go stand inside the Tree”.

Standing inside the Tree was not pleasant. There was something old about it, older than the Tree itself, the wood and skin of it. Something sick and bad. I don’t recall anyone lasting more than three, maybe five minutes in the Tree. Kids, eh? Who knows why they do anything? But that’s what we did. Whatever it was we knew about the Tree, it was unspoken and it was true on a gut level. Instinctual.

I thought about the Tree while reading The Children of Old Leech, the new Laird Barron tribute anthology from Word Horde. I thought about the Tree a lot. This book really took me back there.

I haven’t read all of Barron’s collected work, but I’ve read enough to dig him, to get where he’s been and where he was at while writing; enough to maybe make a stab at where he’s going, and I’m pleased to report that the authors collected in The Children of Old Leech get him, too, and have riffed on Barron’s grim, muscular worldview with humour, insight, and a great heaving pile of unhealthy shavings from that Tree, or trees like it. This is an anthology to make you squirm, to gasp at the shock of sudden revelation, to think about man’s place in the cosmos (it’s low, so low), and do all this while treating your fiction-appreciation glands to a good massage. It gets right in there, too, and roots around like a sumbitch. Great holes are dug where Earth’s pores ought to suffice, to casually paraphrase old H P. A few highlights, then, since to break down every tale and my reasons for liking them would drag a little…

The Harrow by Gemma Files is the first shot out of the box, and it’s a doozy: poignant and sorrowful before descending to a very dark place, to black spaces in the earth and in the brain. The method of that descent? Oh, just a little bit of auto-surgery the ancients liked to practice. Yeah, trepanning. Goddamn if this isn’t a fascinating subject, with loads of medical, psychological, and spiritual import, and Files uses it to dig deep and deliver some true horror. Loved it. First story, and I was already loving the book.

A little later on came the epistolary Good Lord, Show Me the Way by the always-wry Molly Tanzer. There’s a thing with Barron’s treatment of bad things in the woods and in the holes, and that’s the kind of oblique way he comes at them: a glancing reference here, a bald but vague statement there. Desperate people attempting to get a bead on the unthinkable and unspeakable, only to see their shots ricochet off in useless, misleading directions. The bad thing is always there, in the center, getting worse and worse, defining its boundaries by what-it-is-not, and that suggestion is what makes Barron’s beasties (both real and metaphorical) terrifying. Tanzer here embodies this aspect of Barron’s fiction through a dry e-mail exchange between the professors, adjuncts, and thesis defenders surrounding a talented student who chooses to investigate and write her paper on a little known forest community, a cult, living in the woods near to where she grew up. Tanzer doesn’t show us what happens to the student, but then, she doesn’t have to: the glib, ivory-towered rhetoric and glazed snappiness of her superiors after the reality of her disappearance sinks in (or doesn’t) is terror enough. Masterful.

T. E. Grau’s Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox telegraphs its punches a bit: before you’re a third of the way in, you can see what’s coming, but the trip there is pure amphetamine-fueled beatnik joy. This isn’t the only story in TCoOL to feature a boundary-busting orgy of weirdness (Michael Griffin’s Firedancing does that better, and weirder) but the energy Grau expends getting his proto-Cassady guru and his nebbish-y protégé out of San Francisco and up to the fateful world-ending party in the mountains, and the crunchy imagery he deploys once they’re there with the Truth and the Horrors, is great stuff. A good ride leading into the book’s very satisfying center.

The Old Pageant is another dark little gem in the crown of Richard Gavin. Barron’s crones and powerful, interesting women with connections are a staple of his world, and here Gavin taps into that deep old double-X chromosomal knowledge for another of his trademarked deft characterizations. Read any story by Gavin, and you will feel for his characters, mourn their losses, their catastrophic decisions in the face of the ineffable and deadly. The Old Pageant is no exception, and though it shares the pages with stories just as chilling or more so, the chill at the end of this one is especially unsettling. There’s trees in this one. There’s trees in most every tale here, but Gavin’s grove is creepy plus.

Paul Tremblay’s Notes for “A Barn in the Wild” is a stand-out for a lot of excellent reasons. I’m a sucker for diarist-as-narrator formats (because it can be flubbed so badly, when it goes well it goes really well), and following Tremblay’s narrator as he tracks down a McCandless-style free-spirit who goes missing in Labrador with the aid of a “Black Guide” (a travelogue listing bizarre and powerful places off the beaten path) is an exercise in literary puzzlin’ I loved. Only knowing what you’re being told, but knowing there’s more, much more? Goddamn delicious. Barn in the Wild feels like the first time you saw The Blair Witch Project, in every way that was good, before its sublime effect was watered-down by a decade-and-change of imitators. (An aside regarding the production of TCoOL: I pre-ordered the book early on, and I’m getting the diary, a Blue Notebook, with the entire text of the story, footnotes and scribbles in the margins and everything, written in Tremblay’s own hand, as a special add-on. How’s that for premium? Bam. I’m learning that with Lockhart’s Word Horde, it’s the little things.)

The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays was the only selection that I just couldn’t get into, but this is my own fault; I’ve been told repeatedly that Joe Pulver is “jazz” and is therefore an acquired taste. I’ve yet to acquire it, I guess. There’s a pack of bohunk neo-Nazis in this, and some kind of golem cobbled together out of blood and the text and paper of another Black Guide, but beyond that I couldn’t pull much from this. It’s atmospheric, for sure, and bops along with a sketchy energy I can appreciate, but I could have used some additional straight-up narrative.

John Langan’s Ymir, however, is a wonderful tribute to and continuation of Barron’s Hallucigenia, following Marissa, a private military contractor suffering from PTSD, who’s hired to guard the body of a classic Barron bad-man-with-money-and-time. This fellow is tracking down the vanished (transformed? transubstantiated? in any case, fucked) Wallace Smith and his wife Helen, not so much out of duty or concern, as for the hints regarding the monstrous geniuses of the Choate clan connected with the case. Their sleuthing takes them north, to the Arctic Circle, and a throbbing sore in the skin of our reality buried at the bottom of a mine. When Barron strikes his cryptogenetics chord, prepare to be disturbed, to feel body-horror deeply: his is the long view, a sere chuckling appraisal of our place in the red-fanged grind of Time. Langan here gets that view, and the ending (is there ever a true ending for a Barron protagonist? no) is perfect.

Of A Thousand Cuts is a killer transhumanist gladiatorial gore-fest from Cody Goodfellow. Honestly, I’ve never read anything like this. It was a revelation. Goodfellow gets down into the meat and viscera of what it means to be human, reshapes what he finds there, augments the weak parts with fierce bionics, overclocks the feed into the strong parts, laces the spastic fibres with nano-wires running molten streams of pure love and despair and consuming hate, and when that surgery is through, he sluices what’s left of the human soul through a dark-side-Zen psychical re-programming algorithm. At the other end of this completely transcendent mind-job is a shining, multi-faceted product, an exquisite artefact of a story that you actually hesitate to return and read again, it’s so goddamn sharp. But it’s the hesitation of a moment only. Want to learn how to kill with a poem? Right here, folks.

So, those are my top picks in The Children of Old Leech, but really, there’s not a dud in the bunch here. Each is a class in storytelling, every one is entertaining, and every other one is thought provoking. Lockhart and Steele have a winner on their hands, I think; this is one I’ll keep coming back to, much as I do with Laird’s work. Reading TCoOL was like standing in that Tree beside that lake in the hills, up to my ankles in smoky rot and grey grubs, unable to move, while the sun dipped down to dusk. Recommended.

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele
Word Horde, (342p) ISBN 978-1-939905-02-4
* * * * *

Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Far Voyages — Lovecraftian Themes in ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’


Director: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Eva Allan, Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands

I first heard of Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow from someone on my twitter feed. I’m sure this happens a lot, with the exchange proceeding along the following lines…

Person A tweets: “Beyond the Black Rainbow… #WTF did I just watch?” Persons B through L then offer up their various fevered interpretations of a film that, thankfully, resists and confounds interpretations as much as it invites them.

The best response I ever read went a little something like this: “Beyond the Black Rainbow is your standard Boy meets Girl, Boy enters the Void and returns with knowledge that cannot be contained by a human mind, Boy rips Girl’s throat out with his teeth, Boy obsesses over Girl’s telekinetic daughter in a Black-Ops MK Ultra-esque research facility with psychic androids. You know, same old, same old.”

The film is deliberately, even meticulously, styled after the straight-to-VHS shock-horror films of the early 80s that graced the shelves of your local video rental joint. You could call it an homage, except that Cosmatos has gone far beyond that call and entered into a realm of deeply realized hyper-nostalgia, insisting upon fully analog period-compatible production methods in both his visuals and the soundtrack (brilliantly executed by Jeremy Schmidt of Vancouver BC’s Black Mountain). The film recalls and references 2001: A Space Odyssey, Altered States, Scanners, and THX 1138, among many others. It genuinely feels like it was made in the year the film is set in, 1983; made and then lost to obscurity, buried in some failed video distributors back-catalogue, only to be exhumed and made available again nearly thirty years later.

And, surging below the obvious cinematic influences of Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Michael Mann is the nighted existentialism of our man Lovecraft.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is Lovecraftian to the core. If we live on the shores of a black sea of infinity, then this film is a primer for what happens when we piece together dissociated knowledge and voyage far, against all reason and rationality, upon those seas.

Dr Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) is the founder and head of the Arboria Institute, a quasi-mystical therapeutic facility utilizing a New Age-y mish-mash of techniques such as neuro-psychology and “energy sculpting”, hypnosis and “benign pharmacology” to help people attain “happiness, contentment, inner peace.” A tone-perfect promotional video for the Institute opens the film and immediately we can smell the hubris coming off the screen: this man, and anyone associated with him, is clearly about to venture into dangerous territories.

A note about plot: the same old same old summary above is as succinct as anything I could write here, but if I’m going to claim an HPL influence, some details (which will not spoil the film, guaranteed!) will be necessary. Halfway through the film, we are taken in flashback (using an arresting, visually blown-out photography effect that is migraine-like in its intensity) to the traumatic event that is the source of the later horrors: the young Dr Nyle (Michael Rogers) is Dr Arboria’s test pilot for an experimental drug used in conjunction with a thoroughly unsettling-looking sensory-deprivation tank that is, basically, a circular pool of black muck into which he descends. Dr Arboria, assisted by his young wife, urge Nyle to “bring back the mother lode” and the younger doctor does, in spades.

Using macro-photography techniques, analog smoke and water effects, jarring lighting contrasts and a very effective hollow maquette of the actor’s head, we experience Nyle’s takeover by a hostile, nameless force. The scene is reminiscent of some of the more hallucinatory images from Ken Russel’s Altered States. Scored with a droning, oppressive track that features heavy Mellotron use, the possession is claustrophobic, horrifying, and all the more so for what we imagine is occurring to the victim. Every terrible thing possible pours into his head like sentient smoke and we are sickened as much by the unknowable (by us) terror of it as we are by the aftermath. Nyle emerges from the pool and commits a monstrous act…

The good Dr Arboria, by now at least half-way insane if not fully, seeks to mitigate the awfulness of his loss by baptizing his now motherless infant daughter in the very same pool, believing that she will become the first of a new breed of humanity. She does, after a fashion, but grows to become a captive of the Arboria Institute and the new, power-mad Nyle, who has usurped Dr Arboria as Director, addicting the older man to research-grade opiates. Nyle keeps her powers suppressed with the facilities mysterious machines while he performs his malevolent therapies upon her. The rest of the film is largely Elena’s (Eva Allan) attempts at escape from Arboria.

Something I have always found fascinating about Lovecraft’s characters is their essentially pathetic nature. Despite their hard-won and far-reaching knowledge and their claims to a high level of competence and control over themselves and their world, they find themselves fighting a panicked, rear-guard battle against powerful forces of irrationality that arise just as often from within their own chaotic selves as from their contact with outer realms of being. For the Lovecraftian protagonist, Madness is absolutely certain, even if Death is not. And when Death does arrive, it often does so in a completely banal, pathetic manner: think of Wilbur Whateley’s ignominious passing by, of all things, a guard dog attack.

Nyle here fulfills that type well. By the third act, we learn that his transformation was not only of the mind, but of the body as well. We are witness to a physical transition, which, while understated, is made all the more sickening by our understanding of the twisted mind behind those eyes. Nyle is a man exposed to awful truths from Beyond, a man who has warped and mutated over the years from the constant pressure of hosting those truths within him. Within the stark, well-lit corridors of the Arboria Institute, he could maintain a fetishistic illusion of control over Eva, her father, even himself. But once Eva does escape, and Nyle goes on a violent hunt outside the facility for her, all control is lost, if it was ever there at all. Nyle’s death, when it comes, is sudden, laughable, almost ridiculous. Like many a Lovecraftian protagonist before him, his knowledge, and whatever small but horrific measure of power it gave him over others, has made him a victim.

It should be noted that Beyond the Black Rainbow is a glacially paced film. You have not seen “slow” until you’ve clocked its one hour, forty-five minute run time. Thankfully, it is so well-crafted visually, and the skillful intensity of the actors (who are often subjected to very close-up camera work so that we can see every twitch and anguished micro-expression) makes it a psychedelic slow burn that’s quite enjoyable. And, as mentioned previously, it’s a film that leaves a lot open to interpretation, and provides no easy answers, which as far as I’m concerned is another black feather in it’s Lovecraft cap.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is available from the film’s distributors here (trailer is there as well and worth a look even if you’re not planning to see the film) and it’s streaming on Netflix for the foreseeable future.

(This review written by Martian Migraine Press author S R Jones. It originally appeared on the Lovecraft eZine 12 March 2013)

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