Happy October 32nd everyone! With October still chugging along I am excited to bring you another great horror pick. What did you say? It’s not October anymore? Get back in your cage you silly dissenter! Everyone knows October is forever. I don’t have time to argue with you, a person who is clearly wrong about the date, as I have a book to talk about. An incredible new debut by Hiron Ennes, titled Leech. It has everything everyone wants in a gothic horror, from spooky haunted castles to dissolving identities. It is an absolute blast and if you’re still looking for something to close out the spooky season 2022, I highly recommend it.
Leech is definitely one of the hardest novels I have ever tried to explain, so take my synthesis with a grain of salt. In the realm of Verdira, the InterProvincial Medical Institute (the Institute for short) has lost one of its doctors. Their replacement arrives at the scene of a crime, and discovers a parasite living within the body’s eye. Alarmed, the replacement immediately begins to search the grounds for evidence of the parasite and how to destroy it. The Institute cannot abide a competitor that has the power to use its bodies against it. You see, the Institute is a sort of gestalt consciousness that tries to aid humanity through its parasitism, and the doctor is just one of its many appendages.Throughout this mad dash, the doctor encounters the inertia of the baron’s estate and the various people that enable its crushing status quo, all the while questioning their own place within the system. On top of that, winter has settled in and the Institute’s means of travel into Verdira has been compromised, leaving the doctor to their own devices. Will they rid the realm of the new parasite before spring thaws? Or will they succumb to the dark heart that lies below the surface of the castle?
Okay folks, now that you’re well and confused, let’s get into why the hell you should read this book. Firstly, Ennes has compelling and tonally perfect prose. I know that’s a big statement, but I can’t tell you how much this matters for a story of Leech’s nature. It is hard to describe Ennes’ writing without mentioning Edgar Allen Poe. I only mention him because Ennes creates a detached feeling that slowly starts to unravel. Upswells of emotion increasingly populate the sterilized empathetic landscape of the narrator’s mind. This is especially stark when the narrator “communicates” between minds as the brief flashes of other parts of the world seep in. I will say that they do feel a bit confusing at first but Ennes does a good job of easing the reader in after the initial shock. A library is always within reach for the doctor as they just access another part of their winding body. As the narrator slowly loses connection through the course of the book, this ability to ground themselves is lost and their behavior grows increasingly erratic. They begin to question their own abilities and the fight or flight mechanisms begin to kick in. Ennes demonstrates the wild swings in their behavior beautifully as you can feel the narrator’s desperation build when they have no one to turn to. Not to mention, there are just some insanely juicy sentences in this book that have wormed their way into my brain.
Ennes’ worldbuilding is particularly revelatory, considering how little coagulates into a coherent whole. It’s not that bits are negatively missing, it feels very deliberate and follows the limited perspective of the narrator. There are splotches of detail that slowly get drawn together through gravity, and clumping in ways both confusing and revealing. Ennis captures the slow consolidation of information that doesn’t quite fit together and sometimes leads to poor conclusions. It creates a frantic energy for the narrator and avoids falling into contrived red herring territory. Logically, everything makes sense until it no longer does and Ennes handles the pacing of this information astoundingly well. Obviously a vague “this doesn’t feel right” pervades the whole story, but it never wormed its way to questioning the curtain of fiction.
The setting is complex and constantly changing, morphing several times through the story lending it an air of “the world is never truly knowable.” Ennes uses new words and names to describe things that feel both familiar and completely alien. The language in the dialogue also carries the same uncanny glamor, giving the distorted French a vagueness that feels not quite right. I constantly debated with myself what the hell “wheatrock” is and even after finishing the book, I still don’t know exactly, and I find it incredibly charming. Ennes mixes together a weird feudal Europe, steampunk fantasy and post apocalypse dissolution into a living and breathing alien world. It’s an intricate system that feels organic without well defined rules for how things work. And though it feels alien, it fits together in a way that allows Ennes to explore familiar themes of power, identity and human nature.
I will say upfront, Leech is a novel that makes me want to be a better reader. Ennes packs so much into a three hundred page novel I’m surprised it works as well as it does, especially within the genre mashup the book falls into. They use the tropes I’ve come to expect from gothic horror in exciting ways that regrounds them. Ennes doesn’t rely on the nature of tropes to hold it together, instead they reform the connective tissue in imaginative ways that breathes life into them. Oh, the castle has some deep dark secret that manifests itself physically in a way that symbolizes the rot at the heart of everything? Make it a parasite that holds up a mirror to everything trying to investigate it, and how the act of investigation also leads to a form of dehumanization of both subject and object.
Where I fail as a reader is understanding the gender dynamics that run through some of the narrators’ internal journey. There is of course plenty to dissect when it comes to the nature of the baron and his family and their relationship to Verdira, but the more personally unreachable themes lie within the narrator. It’s all laid out in fun ways that isn’t just the author whispering “do you get it?” Everything feels organic as if they want you to do the work yourself in figuring out what it all means. And I cannot overstate how much I appreciate authors trusting their readers.
Leech is everything I’ve wanted in gothic horror and more. It weaves a compelling tale that utilizes the genres to their fullest extent. Ennes builds on tropes in exciting ways using the characters strengths and realms of expertise to pick apart the mystery at the heart of the story. The perspective and its rare shifts are unique, giving the narration a zing that feels just right. All pulled together by admirable prose that is reminiscent of Poe. If you feel you’ve missed out on the spookies this year in your reading, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to this wonderful debut.
Rating: Leech 9.0/10