LEECH by Hiron Ennes (BOOK REVIEW)
“Many patients, in times of stress, will recount dreams haunted by images of their bodies falling apart. Sometimes they tell me stories of paralysis, or rotten extremities dangling by thin skeins of flesh. Most commonly, they talk about their teeth, painlessly and inexplicably falling from their gums. These dreams never fail to horrify their dreamers, and I can understand the discomfort in watching one’s parts detach. But never do these dreamers experience what it’s like to be the limb that rots away, to be the tooth that falls from the mouth.”
Hiron Ennes’ debut novel Leech (2022) is a remarkable and original work of speculative horror. Essentially a novel about a mind-controlling parasite from the point of view of the parasite, Leech successfully combines elements of the gothic, body horror and post-apocalyptic science fiction to create something strange and new. Ennes’s creation draws from the New Weird of works like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014), and from the post-New Weird experimentation of works like Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (2016) and Aliya Whitely’s The Beauty (2014), in how its experimental narrative decentres the human experience, opening up a wider posthuman alien perspective. Ennes also effectively integrates traditional gothic motifs, given new and disturbing twists by dint of their strange context and Ennes’ febrile imaginings. Beyond all the possible comparisons though, Leech is striking for its stark originality, its willingness to use science fiction and horror to explore the very fringes of what the genre can do. I doubt I will read anything quite like it anytime soon.
Leech is told from the perspective of the Interprovincial Medical Institute, its bland corporate name hiding that it is a hive mind parasite that has spent generations infecting young humans, controlling their brains and replacing all human physicians so that in return for providing medical care for humanity it will not be detected or fought against. When one of its bodies dies in mysterious circumstances, the Institute sends one of its bodies on the train from Inultus, the metropolis that houses its vast libraries, up to the frozen northern wastes of Verdira and the Baron’s forbidding castle to investigate. Once there, they discover that their predecessor succumbed to another parasite, a mass of black fungal tendrils enmeshed in the old doctor’s orbital socket which they name Pseudomycota emilia. Incubated in the wheatrock mines, the new parasite has been released and is spreading through Verdira, moving in on the Institute’s territory. As the winter grows ever more harsh and the inhabitants of the castle are isolated by the storms, the Institute’s body finds itself alone for the first time, fighting an implacable enemy as the web of lies and deceit holding the Baron’s family together begins to warp under the pressure. Soon they find themselves haunted by memories of their previous life as an individual human as the castle around them collapses into chaos.
The mind-infecting parasite is an old science fiction trope, dating back at least as far as 1950s invasion narratives like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955). In these works, the parasites are a mysterious and threatening alien Other, something to be feared and destroyed. Ennes’ remarkable innovation in Leech is to write from the parasite’s perspective, giving the reader the inner thoughts and motivations of a terrifying hive-mind brain-controlling entity, and thus allowing us to think of it as a person. Ennes has clearly thought very deeply about how a multi-bodied hive mind organism would think and operate, and the Institute’s perspective is a fascinating one, able to converse with its various bodies in different parts of the world. Although it is a parasite, because we get its perspective we come to understand its concern for its own survival and evolution, and the strange affection it shows its patients and victims. This is contrasted with its body’s emerging memories of growing up as a young girl called Simone, suffering from epilepsy in the working class environs of Satgarden, before she was accepted into the Institute as payment for medical treatment. Ann Leckie similarly explored the hive mind Ancillaries in Ancillary Justice (2014), and protagonist Breq discovering their own individuality after existing as part of a hive mind, but Leech goes further, both in its depiction of hive consciousness and in the split between the Institute’s body and Simone as an individual. This dual perspective, with the Institute and Simone in conflict with each other throughout the novel, opens up a more-than-human perspective whilst celebrating the individual fragility of humanity.
Leech is told from the perspective of an organism entrenched in that world, and as a result the reader is expertly fed pieces of information organically as they encounter them. As the novel progresses, you slowly build up a picture of this incredible, far-future post-apocalyptic world, in which human civilisation has collapsed following various disasters, including alien spaceships crashing from the sky, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves in a world populated by horrors like the Institute and Pseudomycota, as well as the wrecks of autonomous machines, still carrying out their mysterious purposes long after whoever programmed them has gone, and mythical nightmares like the ventigeaux that stalk the Verdiran wastes. The origins of the catastrophe and all the weirdness that has emerged as a side effect are obscured in time, resulting in myths and legends arising to explain them. Ennes expertly shows us this strange and frightening world through the eyes of the people who inhabit it and the stories they tell each other to make sense of their surroundings.
Leech is also full of memorable characters, from the Institute and Simone through the Baron and his horrendous family to the inhabitants of Verdira who get caught up in the crossfire. The novel draws heavily on the gothic, particularly in the Baron’s haunted castle and his creepy granddaughters who can speak to the ghosts. The castle is haunted by the atrocities perpetrated by the Baron and his family in order to maintain control over the dangerous but profitable wheatrock mines, the various forms of coercive control they have exercised over generations to keep the people of Verdira risking life and limb in dangerous mines to increase their own personal wealth. In their own way, the Baron and his family are as much parasites as the Institute or Pseudomycota, without the surface gentility of the Institute’s medical expertise. Ennes brilliantly ties together these different forms of parasitism, colonialism and stealing of agency, using the Weird to tease out profound and uncomfortable parallels. Leech is a brilliant and uncompromising novel, one that heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in speculative fiction. I very much look forward to seeing what Ennes does next.