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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Ymir,” by John Langan

In Norse mythology, Ymir was a being born from primordial frost and poison, who became ancestor to all jötnar, or giants. In the realm of weird fiction, John Langan is also a titan with a penchant for birthing ettins from his armpits and monsters from his feet. What follows is an excerpt from Langan’s story “Ymir,” from The Children of Old Leech.

Never trust anything that comes out of a hole.

III

The Eckhard Diamond Mine was a collection of Quonset huts set back from the rim of a titanic hole in the endless white. Barry leaned forward for a better view of it, whistling appreciatively. “Isn’t that something? How far across would you say that is?”

“A quarter-mile,” Marissa said.

“I expect you’re right.”

She stopped the Hummer at the front door of the metal shed closest to the pit. The light green paint that had coated the structure was visible only in scattered flakes and scabs. She left the motor running: the digital thermometer on the dash measured the outside temperature at forty below, and she didn’t want to risk the engine not starting. For the same reason, she was carrying the heavily oiled .38 revolver in a shoulder holster under her coat. She zipped and buttoned the coat, pulled on the ski mask and shooting mittens lying on the passenger’s seat, and tugged her hood up. She half-turned to the back seat. “You ready, Barry?”

He had encased his bulk in a coat made of a glossy black material that made her think of seal skin. The gloves on his large hands were of the same substance. He drew a ski mask in the gray and electric green of the Seattle Seahawks down over his broad, bland face. “Ready,” he said. “Let’s go look at my new investment.”

Marissa had expected their arrival to draw some kind of reception from whoever was inside the hut. The moment she stepped outside, however, into cold that shocked the air from her lungs, that she felt crystallizing the surfaces of her eyes, she understood why those inside and warm might prefer to reserve their greetings for her and Barry joining them. The cold seemed to take her out of herself; it was all she could do to keep track of Barry as he lumbered the fifteen feet to the hut’s entrance. Without bothering to knock, he wrenched the door open and squeezed through the frame. Marissa followed, giving the area surrounding this end of the building a quick once-over. She wasn’t expecting to see anything besides the Hummer with its schoolbus yellow paint, a steady cloud of exhaust tumbling from its tailpipe, the great hole in the earth in the background. Nor did she.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Brushdogs,” by Stephen Graham Jones

In today’s The Children of Old Leech excerpt, we’re going hunting (for bear?), with a taste of Stephen Graham Jones‘ “Brushdogs.”

Junior wasn’t even forty-five minutes into the trees when his son Denny called him on the walkie, to meet back at the truck. Denny was twelve, and Junior could tell he’d got spooked again.

He wasn’t going to get any less spooked if Junior called him on it, though.

So, instead of staking out a north-facing meadow like he’d been intending, waiting for the sun to glint off some elk horn, Junior tracked himself back, stepping in his own boot prints when he could. And it’s not that he didn’t understand: coming out an hour before dawn, walking blind into the blue-black cold, some of the drifts swallowing you up to the hip, it wasn’t the same as watching football on the couch.

The bear tracks they’d seen yesterday hadn’t helped either, he supposed.

Since then, Junior was pretty sure Denny wasn’t so much watching the trees for elk anymore, but for teeth.

He was right to be scared, too. Junior was pretty sure he had been, at that age. But at some point you have to just decide that if a bear’s going to eat you, a bear’s going to eat you, and then you go about your day.

One thing Junior knew for sure was that if he’d been in walkie contact with his dad, then there wouldn’t have been any meets at the truck.

Junior was doing better, though. It was one of his promises.

So he eased up to the truck, waiting for Denny to spot him in the mirror. When Denny didn’t, Junior knocked on the side window, and Denny led him fifteen minutes up a forgotten logging road to a thick patch of trees he’d probably stepped into for the windbreak, to pee.

“Whoah,” Junior said.

It was a massacre. The bear’s dining room. At least two winters of horse bones, some of them bleached white, some of them still stringy with black meat.

Junior had to admit it: this probably would have spooked him, twenty years ago.

Hell, it kind of did now.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “The Woman in the Wood,” by Daniel Mills

Today’s The Children of Old Leech excerpt comes from Daniel Mills’s epistolary story about a young man who has traveled north, after troubles at home, “The Woman in the Wood.”

leechwoods

From the diary of James Addison Thorndike II (1828-1843?)

15th July. Friday.

I found it in the fields near the pine-wood.

The beast was lying on its side & I thought perhaps it was sick. But I smelled the rot as I drew near & saw its blood splashed through the grass—

This morning it rained, though the skies were clear by noon. The day was hot so I wore my linen shirt & trousers. I ate sparingly of the dinner my Aunt had prepared (mutton roasted & charred) and afterward announced my intention to walk outside on my own as Father would never have permitted in Boston.

I walked the fields for the best part of an hour without seeing man or beast. Then I came over a rise & saw the great herd of them before me. They were grazing at the end of the stony pasture: dumb & grunting & caked in their own filth.

I went eastwards & climbed over a wall to the adjoining field where the land slopes down to the neighbors’ property & the pine-wood, which lies in a depression between so that none know for certain who owns it (or so my Uncle says).

The grass is higher there & that is where I found the ewe.

Uncle Timothy was at work in the pastures to the south. I ran toward him, waving & shouting & he came to meet me at a sprint. I told him what I had found & he sent me back to the house. Then he called to Auguste, one of the hired men.

Come, he said. And bring your gun.

I went back to the house & told Aunt Sarah that I had found a dead sheep. She said it was probably dogs or a wolf, but Uncle Timothy returned to the house at dusk & said it was likely a wildcat, though he hadn’t heard of them coming so far south, especially in the summer.

Supper was strained & silent. Aunt Sarah was quiet where she sat opposite me & I could not meet her eye without thinking of the pasture & what I had found there.

I had no appetite. I asked my Uncle if I might be excused & he nodded.

So I came upstairs, thinking I might read Wieland, which had been Father’s gift to me before leaving. But I could not touch my books & I passed the evening by the window, watching the clouds as they covered the moon & the stars.

***

without thinking of the beast where it lay in the grass with its mouth forced open, the jaws broken & the organs wrenched from out the shattered mouth: its heart & lungs & the ropes of its intestines, spread out on a slick of blood & the stench of shit coming from the mass of them where the sun’s shone down through the day

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays,” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

This week’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech comes from a story about monsters–human and otherwise–and books of magic, and blood and ashes: Joseph S. Pulver’s “The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays.”

To and fro. Rocking. Slow.

Slow.

Measured, not sluggish. Predator readying true for ignorant prey.

To…

and back again. His grip not far from the shotgun.

The old man sipped his sweetened coffee from an old porcelain mug. From his hillside porch he stared into the night-darkened forest toward what was no longer the Hambly property. Old discomforts and slowmotion anger was a butchering quicksand that was bringing on tears. Kellerman put the filtered-tip cigarette to his lips and inhaled. Took the smoke deep. Held it. Exhaled. “Ruined, Zina… Bastards have ruined it.”

“—against the horde of insidious parasites.”

“You are the White… American… Dream. You are the defenders of White European culture and heritage. Your commitment and actions preserve what Our American Fathers—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and John Adams—shed blood to establish and protect… our Great White Nation. You are America’s true patriots.”

Pride-roasted cheers and a vigorous round of applause billow through the compound carved-out of the darksome forest of rugged pine.

“WAR DAY.” The voice of the Allfather or a blood-and-fire Jehovah at 110 decibels thunders from the loudspeakers and echoes in the hills. “Is a HOLY DAY!”

Another explosive burst of applause followed by a chain reaction of Nazi salutes expressing their pathological eagerness. Amens dash like snarls. Three semiautomatic handguns bark and send their payloads skyward. Two sisters, paleskinned twins married to paleskinned brothers, rise from their seats and begin singing a bastardization of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Their enflamed voices are joined by ten and ten and ten and ten. Fifty-strong becomes nearly one hundred.

Once Metzger disciple, before the riff became a chasm, Walter Warren smiles on the crowd. “In a week this compound, the new home of the White Liberation Alliance, will be completed. God is pleased with your work, brothers and sisters. God is pleased.”

Not enough miles away, or countries for that matter, Kellerman caught the amplified words. He’d heard the raised voices sing and the gunfire. Heard them last Saturday night, and too many times in the last months.

“Nazis.”

Zina sat up. Growled.

The old man shivered.

Zina stood, faced the black woods, offered the thunder her teeth and an unsheathed promise steeled with Till-Death-Do-Us-Part loyal.

Twenty years since he’d briefly lived in Olympia, in the distance below. Twenty years since he’d come west to these hills and hollows, hoping to find balm. There were small moments when he could pretend (if the sky was soft summer blue and the sun warm and the blooms gave off sweet scents) the beauty it held helped. Kellerman was an old man now, felt it when the cold ruled muscle and mind mercilessly, saw it sear the tired face the mirror slapped him with. The nightmares and wounds (still a bullet to heart and mind no prayer could moderate) of the small boy he’d been, the boy the Americans liberated from Buchenwald, now fully reawakened by the hate that had invaded his property, were, these last few months, as loud and haunting as the last breath of his cancer-ridden wife.

Kellerman’s right hand stroked Zina between her ears. “Yes, girl, I know.”

He stood and stubbed out his cigarette on the porch boards, picked up his mug, his shotgun, and turned to go inside. “Little good it will do, but we will try the Authorities again tomorrow, girl.”

Zina, ninety pounds of unwavering attentiveness, settled at the foot of his bed. His Mossberg rested against the nightstand. Kellerman’s hands were trembling fists as he fell asleep.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech – Excerpt – “The Golden Stars at Night,” by Allyson Bird

For today’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech, we travel to New Zealand in order to bring you a taste of Allyson Bird‘s “The Golden Stars at Night,” a story that explores the fragility–and uncertainty–of life within a carnivorous cosmos, where horrors unknown wait beyond the safety of firelight.

The Golden Stars at Night

Her name was Rawlie. She chose the name, obviously not at her birth but later—not gender specific and that empowered her for a good reason. She’d need to be strong. Rawlie had seen the world change. Sitting on the stile near the stream bank amongst the manuka trees she tied her brown hair back and shielded her grey eyes from the winter sun. It was still strong. All year round they had to be wary of it in New Zealand. It wasn’t uncommon for many newcomers to fold with the heat and humidity. She was the first to rise too—just a quarter hour before the others but with enough time to grab a mug of coffee and wrap up warm against the cold. The mountains were visible today, still tipped with snow and rosy in the dawn light. Some days were better than others. The worst days started with her father sending a couple of ranch hands down to the main gate. They would wave a rifle in the air. Nobody set a foot on Campbell land without prior permission.

The day on the station would be a long one and she was always the first to go to bed each evening—exhausted from trying to be as good as or rather better than others. That was what she wanted. What she needed was to stay alive, eat, sleep and fuck. Her mind nowadays was closed off pretty much—kept apart from most others in some cosmic shadow of itself. She wondered what lay in—within the darkness whilst she tried to sleep. Not really of this world perhaps? Or a forgotten part of it? They seemed ever closer now.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Firedancing,” by Michael Griffin

Today’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech comes from Michael Griffin‘s “Firedancing,” a tale of haunted people, haunted places, and haunting actions. So pour yourself a dram of the good stuff, sit back, and enjoy…

Photo by Michael Griffin

“Thoughtful of you.” Bay tips back the Jim Beam fifth. The bottle knocks the ceiling inside Petersson’s posh gentleman’s pickup. “I was gone just a few hours. She managed to empty the place. Must’ve hired—”

“I said, don’t talk about that. Don’t think about that.” Petersson’s driving, I5 South. Three hours to Roseburg. “Lesson I learned after Minerva skipped. Obsessively sifting back, through everything, that ain’t what you need.”

“What do I need?”

“Mental reboot.” He grins. “Puke your troubles away at a two-day party.”

“So this Mallard Hill place, it’s where Erik and Minerva grew up?”

“Mmm. Fifteen miles outside Roseburg.”

“Speaking of Minerva.”

Petersson’s grip flexes on the wheel.

Bay tries again. “The worst thing about Annie leaving, I finally did what she wanted. Took a commission, murals for Cinema 21, that’s an art theater in Northwest.”

“I know, dummy. Film major, remember? You took us there.” He exhales. “Seven Samurai. Me and Minerva.”

“Lumber baron with a film degree, that’s funny. Most of us liberal arts guys…” Bay stops. Another swig. “Annie set it up, knew the owner. They kept showing up, checking on me. Arrive together, leave together.”

“We weren’t going to talk about that.”

Bay thinks, What else? “So Erik grew up on this hill, but won’t attend the big drunk-fest?”

“Nah, he stopped that recovery shit. After he withdrew from us, his sponsor tried to make him cut off Minerva.” Petersson shrugs. “Erik only drinks beer now. Lives on the edge of the Mallard tract, a cabin overlooking the South Umpqua. Started some river guide thing. Fishing, rafting.” His face clouds. “Minerva’s in the main house. Stopover from the endless touring.”

“So much land, Erik gets his own corner.” Bay resists redirecting toward Minerva. Petersson’s breakup makes him feel less awful.

“Might be the most impressive parcel in Douglas County. Everyone thinks Old Mallard got rich in lumber, but Minerva let slip he returned from the Merchant Marines, World War II, a millionaire at nineteen.”

“Merchant Marines, is that still a thing? Maybe they’d let me—”

“He climbs aboard the post-war lumber boom, builds Mallard Hill. Meets a woman up in Washington, on business near Olympic Forest. This first wife starts him jetting around, blowing millions in Mexico. Spends the sixties and seventies financing films, legendary stuff by Buñuel and Jodorowsky.”

“Lest I forget that film degree.”

Petersson makes an undignified snort. “Always trekking the wilds of Mexico, South America, Antarctica, returning rejuvenated, trailing new wives to replace ones who die of typhus or malaria. Finally disappears, the Chilean Andes. Erik and Minerva, living under Old Mallard’s tutors and housekeepers, assume they’re orphaned a second time. Everyone gives up hope.”

“But…”

“He reappears, head shaved, silent as a mystic. No explanation where he’s been ten months, what happened to wife number six, seven, whatever. Thereafter, no more film production or travel. Grabs another wife to replace the one rumored frozen to death. Further expands the house. His only indulgences are these parties, and the visiting artists, visionaries and occult weirdos. Some remain months, years at a time. Old Mallard, he’s like fucking Tom Bombadil. Erik grew up thinking the man’s his grandfather, later learns, no, it’s great-grandfather.”

Bay stifles envy at such a life. “One part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, one part Kwai Chang Caine.”

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild,'” by Paul Tremblay

Today’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech comes from Paul Tremblay‘s “Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild.'” Paul initially submitted his story as both typewritten text and as a hand-written manuscript. The typeset text appears in the final book; the facsimile pages became the basis of our sold-out chapbook, Notes for “The Barn in the Wild.” This is the first time anyone who doesn’t have the chapbook has seen these pages. But no matter how you read it, Paul’s story is sure to elicit a chill.

Exam Book

Tommy’s body was found by Antoine and Brandon LaForge (father and son snowmobilers) on March 24th. Stephens presented me a photo of the body. Tommy’s all curled up in a tight ball, lost inside his puffy anorak. Adjacent to him are the dead coals and black ash of a spent fire pit. Tommy likely died of starvation sometime during the previous fall. Five fingers on his right hand were missing. The coroner was unable to determine if fingers were removed by critters post-mortem because of the advanced state of decay of the body.

Were any other body parts missing?

“No.”

Isn’t it odd that animals didn’t take anything else?

“Who knows why animals do anything they do?”

Tommy’s hands look to be hidden tight into that ball of rigor mortis. Stephens agreed. There was evidence of frostbite in Tommy’s toes and Stephens suggested (admitted it wasn’t likely), that perhaps Tommy cut his fingers off himself after suffering from severe frostbite(7). Next an itemized list of the meager supplies found in Tommy’s possession, including a camera. They were only able to produce a handful of pictures from the film in his pack and in his camera, the rest were washouts: one photo of a woman in a small apartment kitchen, hiding her face behind a dish towel(8); three photos of woods, the hiking trails nearly indecipherable in the brush; an open field with the barn as a dot in the far background; the last picture is a self-portrait of Tommy sitting up against the barn, his hair wild, baby face tufted with facial hair, gaunt and emaciated, facial fat and muscles melting away, replaced by the hard angles of what lies beneath(9), but he doesn’t look like he’s suffering or in pain, but with the content, wild, ecstatic look of a zealot. He sits with his back up against the side of the barn but toward the front. Above his head, and in the upper right hand corner protruding out from the front of the barn, is an ornamental structure, like a deer’s head in profile, and I do think it’s some sort of animalistic avatar or totem, only the neck is elongated, but the head has no antlers, or ears, or much of a snout, it’s oval, tapers to a rounded point at the bottom, human?

7) I’ve had frostbite, and I’ve had it at 20,000 feet, but didn’t cut off my fingers. I’m partial to them. Do people do that? Apparently yes: see, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
8) Nadia?
9) Unfortunately, I’ve seen that face before. You will see it again.

Notes for The Barn in the Wild - Page 5

Notes from The Barn in the Wild - Page 6

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “The Old Pageant,” by Richard Gavin

Today’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech comes to us courtesy of Richard Gavin, an author who knows a thing or two about the carnivorous nature of the cosmos. So let’s head out to the woods with this sample of “The Old Pageant.”

A toast to Old Leech

He didn’t want her to know how physically taxing he’d found the long drive to the woods, how tedious the prospect of unpacking seemed, or how repugnantly primitive he found their accommodations to be upon their arrival. The holiday had the potential to be far too special an occasion for him to sour it by sulking.

The cabin had been in her family for decades, though the moment he spied it—an oblong box slumped between leprous-looking birch trees—he wondered why she didn’t regard the cabin as a skeleton from her family’s closet instead of a prideful heirloom.

After an anxious struggle to fit the copper key inside the ancient lock, the door gave, allowing the pair of them to be assaulted by the stench of long-trapped air. The dark had evidently grown so accustomed to the cabin’s interior that it stubbornly refused to part for the sunbeams that the man and woman ushered in.

Shutters were peeled back, windows were pried ajar. She stripped the ancient white sheets from the beds and took them outside and hung them from the birch limbs so that the breezes might push out their mustiness.

They cleaned and unpacked and traded off-colour wisecracks. The supper they cooked together was hearty and its aroma managed to mask a bit of the cabin’s cloying staleness.

After eating he delighted her by finding the detached footboard that had once braced the lower bunk bed she’d slept on as a girl. It had been wound in a shower drape of translucent plastic and stored behind her grandmother’s dormant sewing desk.

Her grandfather had carved (with visible skill and obvious love) an inscription into the footboard:

Here lies Donna Hammill
Each and every summer
Dreaming…

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox,” by T.E. Grau

Yesterday was the official release date for The Children of Old Leech, and many of you were able to join us online for our virtual release party and toast to Old Leech. Many a libation was poured in the name of cosmic horror. But a day-long celebration can make the next morning one for sober reflection and deep spiritual contemplation. So let’s go to church, and get a little bit of that old-time religion with T.E. Grau and this excerpt from his “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox.”

leechflag

Thousands of people stood patiently in a queue that spiraled around the structure, looking inside the doorway, hoping to get a glimpse of what lay beyond. As they waited to reach the door, men and women, nearly indistinguishable from each other due to the lack of facial and cranial hair, walked up and down the line holding bins labeled “DONATIONS TO THE FATHER” in pink, bouncy letters. As each pilgrim walked past, they dropped in wallets, watches, jewelry. Some even tossed in their clothes, returning to the line in various stages of undress as the shadows of trees and peaks cut slowly across the clearing.

I walked past the line with Doyle, heading toward the entrance. Just like with every joint on the Hill, Doyle never stood in line. VIP all the way, regardless of the geography. “Why are they doing that?” I asked, motioning to the rapidly filling bins, trying to avoid the sporadic nakedness, as my blush would surely out me as a prude.

“You can’t enter the temple burdened by the outside world,” Doyle said. “Cuts down on the transmission, like lead between an X-ray. But aside from all that,” he added, shooting me a mischievous grin, “everything’s better when you’re naked.”

I looked around at the variety of mostly unclothed flesh, noting the variety in shape and size and skin tone and hair density. “I don’t know about that.”

Doyle laughed and threw his arm around my shoulders, kissing me on the side of the head. “You’re a real peach, you know that, Barnacles? If I didn’t like pussy so much I’d marry you tomorrow.”

We walked to the front of the line and passed through the wide doorway. The side of my head where Doyle’s lips touched it throbbed with a liquid warmth. Neither of us had removed any clothing, but I felt more naked than I’d ever felt in my life.

Inside, people were seated on a dirt floor in evenly spaced lines, just inches apart from each other, like a mosaic of humanity. The air was heavy with burning incense that billowed from giant copper braziers hanging from thick chains bolted to the vaulted ceiling of the dome, that wasn’t as naturally sloping as one would expect from the outside, but possessed a hyperboloid geometry that made me dizzy. Or maybe it was the smoke, which smelled just like Doyle’s strange little cigarettes.

The hushed congregation was facing a low stage built at the front of the cavernous space, backed by heavy curtains of a thick and lustrous fabric. Doyle led me to the far end of the room, just in front of the rise, and squeezed my shoulder. “Wait here,” he said into my ear, “and don’t get on stage, no matter what I say.”

The bell chimed again, startling me, mostly because it seemed to be coming from directly underneath the room, somewhere deep under the mountain, and not from a hidden steeple. This is the church, this is the steeple, open the door, and see all the people… I realized after a few fuzzy moments that I was staring down at my waggling, intertwined fingers. Perhaps I was becoming a child again, as well. I looked up to show Doyle, but he was gone. The recessed lights hidden in a gutter circling the high walls dimmed at that moment, and the tolling of the bell abruptly stopped. I could hear the beating of my heart in my ears. It was a slow, syrupy rhythm. The sound of an organ in mid-dream.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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The Children of Old Leech: Excerpt: “Snake Wine,” by Jeffrey Thomas

Today’s excerpt from The Children of Old Leech leaves the familiar–and frightening–confines of the Pacific Northwest for a locale on the other side of the world: Vietnam. Let’s crack open a bottle of “Snake Wine” with author Jeffrey Thomas.

Snake Wine - Photo by Sam Cowan

In his flat on the third floor of the narrow building he had bought with all his savings, ill-gotten and otherwise, Hong pulled a bottle out of the plastic shopping bag she had fetched from her Honda’s seat compartment. “My father likes to drink this sometimes,” she told Gorch. Smiling with charming if unconvincing coyness, she further explained, “It’s good for a man’s baby.”

“Baby?”

“You know,” she said. She pointed toward his crotch and giggled.

“Ah, I see. Makes baby grow up big and strong, yeah?”

“Yesss.”

“Let’s have a look.” He held out his hand. “I’ve seen these things a million times here but I’ve never really wanted to try it before.”

“Oh, but you will drink this one, won’t you? Because it is from me?” She passed him the bottle.

“For you, and for my baby, I’ll do it.”

It was a bottle of ruou, or rice wine, and he had drunk that on its own. But this type of ruou, which he’d seen sold at gift shops such as those at the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Saigon National Museum, had conspicuous extras stuffed into the bottle. Usually it was a cobra, preserved in the yellowish wine as if pickled in formaldehyde, maybe with a huge black scorpion or a fistful of smaller snakes and some herbs added for good measure. Hong’s gift did have some blanched-looking herbs at the bottom, but no scorpion, and the snake coiled inside wasn’t a cobra, unless its hood was closed.

Gorch turned the bottle around slowly to see it from all angles, and held it up in front of the fluorescent ceiling light. His brows tightened. Definitely not a cobra. And maybe it was a result of the animal’s saturated tissues being distorted, but he almost questioned whether it was even a snake. He was reminded of the animal called a worm lizard, an amphisbaenian, which possessed a long pinkish body that looked segmented like an earthworm, with only a rudimentary pair of forelegs. It almost seemed this creature had such forelimbs, if withered, unless those were just bits of sloughing skin. Its eyes were bleached dull gray. It was looped in on itself within the glass, coiled around and around in a spiral as if chasing itself unto infinity.

“A dragon fetus, perhaps? Ace.” He handed her back the bottle to open. He took down a shot glass. “Are you going to drink it with me?”

“It’s a drink for men,” she told him. “I don’t have a baby.” Her smile was a mixture of carnality and passable innocence that made his stomach squirm with hunger, as if he had his own dragon fetus coiled inside him.

She filled his shot glass, and he took a tentative sip. He tried not to show his disgust lest he insult her. After all, her father had unknowingly sacrificed this elixir for his benefit. It tasted just as he had expected: crude rice wine mixed with the essence of a reptile terrarium.

“Do you like it?”

Gorch didn’t think he’d be stocking this beverage in his pub anytime soon, but he said, “A fine vintage. Cheers.” He took another sip.

The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron may be ordered directly from Word Horde or wherever better books are sold. Ask for The Children of Old Leech and other Word Horde titles at your favorite bookseller.

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