Horror takes many forms: from the terror of losing control of one’s mind to another entity, to the fear of things that move around unseen in the night, to the inescapable certainty that one day we all must meet our ends. Each of these stories features a different kind of horror, making for a perfect sampler platter for anyone wanting to dip their toes in the murky depths of dread.
In the far reaches of the North, in a chateau abutting a frozen forest and a forbidding mine, a doctor has died. For the powerful Interprovincial Medical Institute, the worrying thing is not the doctor’s death; the Institute’s bodies die all the time. An ancient parasitic life form, the Institute takes over promising young minds and guides them into the field of medicine; all of the unsuspecting human race’s doctors are being controlled by the Institute. What is worrying is that the Institute isn’t sure how the body stationed in the chateau died. To find out exactly what happened, the Institute sends a new body to investigate the chateau and its denizens. That doctor soon discovers another parasite that could upend life as they know it, threatening both the Institute’s supremacy and the humans it seeks to protect.
Hiron Ennes’ debut novel, Leech, is a chilling study in the the loss of bodily autonomy, the terrors of a frigid winter wood and the undeniable creepiness of ancient homes that have long since fallen into disrepair. Set thousands of years after an apocalypse, Leech is decidedly a gothic novel, complete with seemingly cursed family homes, the dark consequences of human progress and unknown dangers lurking in every crevice and icy forest. Tantalizing references to the monsters of humanity’s past, chiefly destructive airships and killer biological agents, feel almost mythic as they fill readers’ imaginations with possible explanations for what exactly went wrong. Full of trepidation and mystery, Leech is perfect for readers who wished that Wuthering Heights had been just a little more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
Young adult author Ainslie Hogarth’s first novel for adults, Motherthing, opens in the waiting room of an intensive care unit, and it doesn’t get less stressful from there. Ralph and Abby Lamb have moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, to help care for her. Plagued by her rocky relationship with her own mother, Abby had hoped to kindle a better relationship with her mother-in-law but was instead met with distrust and cold condescension for being the woman who ‘took” Laura’s son from her. After Laura dies by suicide at the beginning of Motherthing, Abby thinks that her and Ralph’s obligation is over; they will sell the house and move away, free to start the perfect family that they deserve. But when Laura’s spirit begins to haunt the couple, driving Ralph into a pit of depression and tormenting Abby night after night, it is clear that Abby will have to dig deep if she is going to wrest the life of her dreams from the nightmare that her home life has become.
Deeply dark and often funny, Motherthing explores the contours of what it means to be in a relationship with a mother (or mother-in-law) figure and the porous boundaries among grief, anger and the supernatural. Motherthing can be a difficult book to read on an emotional level, given Abby’s frustratingly optimistic “I can fix him/it/this” attitude, but its scares and surprises are well worth the discomfort it causes—as well as the sleepless nights it will engender.
The eponymous island of Lute by Jennifer Thorne stands apart from the modern world. Even as war lingers on their doorstep and climate change and water shortages ravage the lands around them, the islanders are sheltered and seemingly immune to the turmoil. In exchange for these blessings, the island extracts a tithe: Every seven midsummers, exactly seven of the people of Lute die on what is referred to as “The Day.” Nina Treadway, a transplant to Lute and lady of the island by virtue of her marriage to Lord Hugh Treadway, doesn’t believe in the fairy tale, chalking it up to the superstitions of a quaint and isolated island. But as The Day dawns and brings a series of waking nightmares, Nina must accept her duties as the Lady of Lute in order to preserve the stability of the island she has come to love.
Part idyllic fantasy and part Final Destination, Lute asks a question that harks back to works like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: What is the price of prosperity? While Lute’s citizens have willingly agreed to that price, it is steep and horrific. The novel’s pages are dotted with gore and loss, sure to pull on the heartstrings—and occasionally the stomachs—of even the most stoic of readers. However, despite the bloodshed and tension, Lute is a story of the creation of a haven away from the pressures of the modern world. More cynical readers might balk at the story’s hopeful tone and occasionally predictable plot turns. However, for those looking for a thriller replete with both terror and fantasy, Lute delivers in spades.
Led by Hiron Ennes' chilling debut novel, Leech, these thoughtful, well-crafted frights will scare you on multiple levels.
The Interprovincial Medical Institute is the sole provider of medicine in a post-apocalyptic world. But unbeknownst to anyone, the Institute is a hive mind, a parasite living within, controlling and training the world’s doctors. When one of the Institute’s bodies dies, it sends a new doctor to investigate—and discovers it isn’t the only parasite interested in the human race. We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
Parasites aren’t new to speculative fiction and horror, but your choice to tell this story from the perspective of the Institute, a hive mind that is both a medical professional and a parasite, is extremely original. What did writing from that point of view allow you to do as an author? Building a narrator out of a many-minded parasite was not easy, but it let me take advantage of a sort of pseudo-omniscience, which was such a boon for world building. Writing from the Institute’s point of view was also an opportunity to delve into the threat a microscopic antagonist might pose. We all get it, parasites are spooky. That isn’t saying much at all. Where the true intrigue lies, I think, is in the mechanism of infection and the cellular changes that take place in a host. A protagonist needs to be proficient in microscopy to see the terrifying devil in those details.
The Institute harks back to classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Were there any particular stories that informed your creation of the doctor? At the moment I can’t think of any fiction that influenced me as much as the stories science can tell us about our own cells. I was particularly taken by the theory of endosymbiosis: Deep in our mitochondria lives a strand of DNA separate from our nuclear chromosomes, an essential piece of our cellular network without which we would die. This strand is circular, like a bacterium’s, leading scientists to propose it is the genome of a foreign organism that hitched a ride inside us back when we were single-celled. It’s been sitting there ever since, perpetuating itself through the maternal line and providing the basis of a fun mind game I like to call “Am I even me?” Is that DNA truly mine? Am I being parasitized by my own genome? Does it care about me, or does it only care about my reproductive success? Is everything I do and think at the behest of a little self-interested string of nucleotides living inside me? You stay awake so many nights thinking about stuff like that, and eventually you write Leech.
Bodily autonomy is always going to be a ripe subject for horror, but it is something particularly terrifying for many people right now. What drew you to writing a book that delved so deeply into body horror and questions of bodily and mental autonomy? I knew autonomy would end up being one of several themes, as a consequence of writing about parasitism, but the narrative quickly shoved autonomy to the forefront seemingly of its own volition. Leech was a demanding animal. It wouldn’t let me stop at the microscopic ecosystems parasites use to commandeer behavior but demanded I touch on the equally parasitic structures of hierarchy, power, abuse and some of the ways these structures rob us of our own bodies.
Despite the fact that Leech epitomizes a gothic novel, it’s also set in a post-apocalyptic world. What led you to marry these two genres? To put it simply, I think they work well together. Gothic literature is usually predicated on the exploration of some sordid past, whether of an individual, a family, an old house or an isolated township—often all of the above. If a single dead child can make for a terrifying poltergeist, what hauntings might manifest from the cruel impulses of a dead society? In what ways will human cycles of exploitation, bigotry and imperialism haunt the future? What monstrous forms might their resurrections take?
There’s a definite shift in the language the doctor uses to talk about humans throughout the book, moving from a clinical analysis, to becoming more familiar, to a sort of horror. Can you talk about this shift in language? Was this a conscious decision, or did it develop organically? The shift in language was a conscious development, and an excruciating one. I can’t count the hours I spent going back and forth, micromanaging colloquialisms, contractions, turns of phrase and intrusive thoughts. At the extreme ends of the story, the narration styles are pretty distinct, but it gets muddy enough in the middle that I’m fairly sure I underwent some sort of ego death while writing it.
There are hints as to what happened to society that caused everything to go wrong. Can you tell us what plunged your world into this dark age and how humanity survived? I don’t think there is any one thing that plunged this world into ruin. The collapse of a society is a slow, mundane and brutal process (a process we are currently witnessing in real time). I don’t know how the world ended, or how many times it ended, but I do know humanity survived by virtue of resilience, ingenuity, mutual aid and cooperation. And trains. I suspect the resurgence of the locomotive was vital to the resurgence of human society. I don’t know why. I just feel it in my heart.
How did your background in medicine inform the writing of Leech? Is there anything that you’ve learned in your studies that you wish you could have included that didn’t quite fit? To be honest, my background when I started Leech was in physics. My background when I finished it was in medicine, which definitely informed some of the details but not the core of the story. There are a few aspects of doctoring I might’ve incorporated if I’d had a more solid grasp of the realities of clinical practice—namely, a deeper exploration of the unique and sometimes mystifying relationships people have to their own bodies. I think I touched on this with Hélene’s (perceived) hypochondria, but I have seen some truly fascinating disconnects between internal and external experiences of disease: Munchausen’s syndrome, functional disorders and one case of a lovely, cheerful patient whose stated history painted a picture of health and who, almost as an afterthought, lifted her sweater to show me a massive open wound she had been nursing for nearly a year.
In gothic literature, deformity and physical differences are often cast as physical manifestations of sin, which is a theme now understood to be ableist at best. You manage to incorporate these bodily differences without that baggage. What drew you to including these elements of the gothic, and how did you navigate including them while avoiding the negative connotations that they usually hold? I won’t claim that Leech is free of ableist baggage; after all, ableism is one of the many flavors in that soup of oppression in which we all grow up swimming. That said, I did consciously set out to subvert traditional, moralistic depictions of deformity. I wanted pretty much every “normal” patient to have some unconventional physical attribute. In a world where everyone has a mechanical limb or a migratory birthmark or a literal doppelganger, it’s hard to view these things as anything but variations of the norm. This allowed the narrative to focus more on the unique roles these attributes play in the characters’ lives and how they might be admired, celebrated, exploited or fetishized on an interpersonal, rather than societal, level.
A few characters speculate about where they think the monstrous, mysterious ventigeaux that stalk the woods near Verdira came from.Do you have an answer, or are they mysterious to you as well? The ventigeaux are a mystery even to me. In the future, if there is an opportunity to dissect them, I might uncover their origins. For now, I share the Institute’s suspicions that they are orphans of biotechnology, but I can’t guess what sort of misguided endeavors led to their creation.
One of your characters tries to make sure that humans don’t regain the ability to make flying machines, believing that they are what caused the apocalypse in the first place. If the denizens of this world recovered lost technologies, do you think they would be doomed to the same self-destruction as their forebears? I’m a utopian at heart, so I genuinely hope not. But I believe that without significantly, consciously dismantling institutions of power, people will end up re-creating the oppressive structures that haunt our past. Not as any function of “human nature” or some such evolutionary psychology nonsense, but by dint of centuries of vicious cultural selection. People tend to emulate their forebears, and the world of Leech is no exception. Fortunately, in that world, as in ours, there are those working to demolish monopolies of power, technology and capital. And in that world, as in ours, there will be monumental successes and devastating failures. Let us hope the former is more frequent than the latter.
Picture of Hiron Ennes courtesy of the author.
We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
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