“If you value your health, sanity and general sense of well-being, then you should stop reading this book right now. Close the cover, put it back on the shelf, and head on over to the non-fiction section. Pick up a book on fishing, or pottery — something safe. Anything but this book.”
From the very beginning of Justin Steele’s introduction, “The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron,” its readers are warned that the newly published horror anthology is not for the faint of heart — but for those who are brave enough to continue reading on, a wonderful read is guaranteed.
Since he was a little boy, Steele, a Dagsboro resident, has always enjoyed horror fiction.
“I’ve always been an avid reader. I hadn’t read horror and dark stuff since I was a kid. When I was in college, I discovered the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and ever since then it was kind of like going down the rabbit hole for me,” recalled Steele.
Steele’s love for the genre eventually led to the recent publication of “The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron,” which he co-edited with Ross Lockhart.
“I was talking to Ross Lockhart, who owns Word Horde Press, and pitched him the idea for the book. He liked it. It was kind of shocking, because I know he turns down a lot of pitches,” said Steele. “Making this, I want to do something I would be excited to read. Even to see the excitement of people posting pictures of the book, or saying they’re eagerly awaiting it. It just makes me feel happy, because as a reader that’s how I want to feel when I get a new book.”
The Steele and Lockhart collaboration would never have come to be had Steele not created The Arkham Digest, a horror-weird fiction review blog in October 2012, featuring book reviews and author interviews.
“I started Arkham Digest really just to share my love of it. You read a good book, you want to talk about it,” he said. “Starting that has been one of the best things I’ve done.”
Last August, Steele contacted Lockhart, with whom he had only previously interacted during an interview for his blog. Once Lockhart was on board with the idea for the anthology, the two contacted Barron.
“He was very enthusiastic,” said Steele of Barron. “So far, he said he’s really enjoying [the book].”
The anthology features 17 stories — all based Barron’s fiction — written by 19 authors.
“It’s all original stories written for the book. These are all known authors in the horror community. So it was exciting to be able to work with your favorite authors like that,” said Steele.
“Laird Barron is the premiere horror writer right now. A lot of his work is an intricate web woven together. It’s a very rich playground for these authors to play in. They all very much admire and respect him and his work, so they were very excited. A couple of these guys are good friends with him, as well.”
Gemma Files, Paul Tremblay and Daniel Mills are a few of the authors who contributed to the anthology. Steele said it’s still somewhat surreal that he was able to work with such notable authors.
“It was very interesting to me, and very humbling in a sense, that I got to compile a wish list of authors. These are most of my favorite authors in the horror/weird fiction/dark fiction scene. It was humbling because I got to work with them.”
Steele noted that the stories vary a great deal, even the two stories in the anthology that read as found notebooks.
“It’s such a mixed bag. Even though we have two found-notebook stories, they couldn’t be more different.”
Along with working with the 19 authors who were invited to participate in the project, Steele was also able to work with Australian artist Matthew Revert to design the anthology’s cover.
“One of the recurring things in some of the stories is the Black Guide. It’s never good when it shows up — nothing good comes from it. It’s this mysterious almanac that people add to. Revert does this great worn-in look.”
Both Steele and Lockhart are Barron fans, and Steele said the anthology may be enjoyed by other Barron fans but also those who are unfamiliar with his work.
“We wanted to put out a book that, if you hadn’t read Laird Barron’s fiction, you could pick this up and enjoy it very much. But if you had read his fiction, then you’re going to enjoy it that much more. You’ll notice some references, some hints,” said Steele.
“The goal was to put out a book for anyone who wants to read a book of short stories that are dark and creepy — they can enjoy this. But if they’ve read Laird before, they’ll notice things other readers won’t, and it’ll be that much more enjoyable.”
As for the title, Steele explained that “Old Leech” is a reference to Barron’s fiction.
“Old Leech is kind of like this immense evil — a world-devouring thing that you never see directly; it’s just referenced a lot. The reason we went with this title is Laird Barron is Old Leech, and these authors are like his children. It’s a phrase lifted from his fiction, but it has that meaning for us, as well.”
The book was released on July 15 and can currently be purchased as a hardback or as an e-book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.
“In that whole aspect, it’s still surreal — a guy from little Delaware, but a lot of these people are down-to-earth,” said Steele, who celebrated the book’s release through an online party of authors, editors and readers “toasting” to the book.
To those who have not yet experienced Barron’s fiction, Steele recommends reading “Occultation and Other Stories,” from his second collection, and his story “Jaws of Saturn” from “The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.”
“It’s really, really great stuff,” he said. “I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. I think he’s one of the best ones working right now. His work is amazing; everyone should read it.”
As for Steele’s own reading list, he said he’s catching up on the old run of John Constantine’s “Hellblazer” comics and Ellen Datlow’s “Fearful Symmetries,” another horror anthology.
“The thing with horror authors — they’re not afraid to confront and work out their fears in their fiction. Nothing is better to me than a firestorm outside, a cup of coffee and a horror book.”
Steele said there is something about horror and weird fiction that draws readers in — more so than other genres.
“When you’re in middle school or high school and you have to read in English class a lot of books that I would say students roll their eyes at or dread. But one of the authors that comes to mind that they all seem to be OK with is Edgar Allan Poe. Not as much because of his language, but because it’s darker, it’s scary — they’re a little more entertained by it,” he said.
“I’ve had more books give me the chills far worse than any horror film ever has. A lot of it, especially the weird side of horror, is more literary. It’s for anyone who enjoys reading something good, that doesn’t mind a darker edge.”
When he’s not working in the field of weird fiction, Steele — who received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Delaware, with a concentration in film, and has a master’s degree in counseling — works as a counselor in the Indian River School District.
Although Steele has nothing yet in the works for future projects, he said he does hope to work with Lockhart again in the future.
“I’m excited to see what else we do,” he said. “He’s been a really good mentor. I’m really grateful to Ross for having faith in me, taking me under his wing and being my mentor. He’s taught me so much, and he’s still teaching me.”
Steele said the anthology has been well-received by all who have reviewed it, including Publisher’s Weekly.
“So far, the reception has been positive, and I hope it continues. The book, like many anthologies, serves as a great introduction to many of the best weird-horror authors today. It’s my hope that people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together with Ross,” said Steele. “I hope it keeps people awake at night.”
For more information on “The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron” and giveaways, visit Steele’s blog at www.arkhamdigest.com.