Leech – In Verdira, a brutal winter encroaches as a replacement arrives for a doctor who just died. Both the dead doctor and the replacement are part of The Institute, where doctors are trained; they also both share the same hive-mind. Trained doctors are almost exclusively from The Institute, and the entity inside can take over as many bodies as it believes it needs. But the fact that the replacement has no idea how the original doctor died is cause for concern—what could have happened that the hive mind wasn’t aware of?
This is the premise of Hiron Ennes’ debut novel Leech, a book that uses The Thing as a starting point—a cold, isolated setting with a parasitic organism. (There’s even an escaped dog being a major contamination risk.) However, the story runs in some very different directions with it. The hive-mind nature of the protagonist makes it not man against alien organism, but two different organisms combating each other.
The success of any parasite is proportional to its harmlessness. Some are intelligent; they avoid detection, allowing their carriers to lead healthy lives until obsolescence. Fewer, in brilliant acts of symbiosis, foster dependence in the host. But too many are loudmouths and fools, instigating aches, diarrhea, fatigue, bleeding, or other braggadocious symptoms. Most parasites cannot think far enough ahead to maintain the well-being of their host, much less their host’s entire species. Usually, such foresight is not necessary, unless humans are involved. They tend to hold grudges.
Leech’s protagonist as a hive-mind is a great idea, and well-executed. The name the entity gives in the few times in the book it’s asked is Service Before Self though it also becomes clear that that answer isn’t quite the real name. Some of my favorite scenes were as the various incarnations discussed a problem across different parts of the world, describing numerous settings quickly and making it clear that as odd as Verdira is, it’s hardly the strangest part of the world.
The setting of Verdira is great, answering most of the questions a reader might ask in such a way that still leaves plenty open to the imagination. Everything we see is from the point of view of the outsider, so the gaps in information make sense. It lends the book a sense of uncanniness that I really enjoyed. There’s also a detached matter-of-factness, especially when it came to the medical oddities, that reinforced that eeriness. That’s just part of the protagonist’s scientific detachment. For instance, as the protagonist documents information on a parasite it’s found:
Reacts favorably to a nutrient bath of wheat rock, though no notici noticeable growth to date. Specimen is 5 cem, four mims long. Survives at subfreezing temps equally well as at institute standard…
Exposure to animal tissue elicits no response. Porcine and ovine tissue: no response. Canine tissue: no response mild aversion, otherwise no response. Exposure to 0.5 mil of unseparated human blood, courtesy of the Baron: no response. Intensified light: no response.
The mansion itself and its occupants showed that Leech was also inspired by Gothic fiction. An old building with a stern, ill baron who replaces body parts as needed, his cowed but business-like son, the son’s aggressive wife who has birthed mostly normal twins along with a host of oddities, the twins who the Montish believe are the only normal ones there, and the staff. The baron oversees wheatrock mines, which has made him the wealthiest person in the region. They all have strong personalities that clash with each other and the relationship dynamics feel lived-in and realistic.
As Leech continues, the paranoia ramps up as nearly every character displays something that could suggest infection. It comes to a head in one of the creepiest, most unnerving scenes I’ve read. It’s a bloody mix of body horror and vile character dynamics. As the climax hits, paranoia falls away for something both stranger and stronger. It’s a great ending to this fantastic, weird, unsettling novel.