Leech, the stunning debut novel by Hiron Ennes, seems to inhabit half a dozen genres at once, much the way its 500-year-old narrator inhabits human bodies. It’s gothic fiction, body horror, and postapocalyptic SF. It’s a frostbitten nightmare about the dissolution of the self, à la John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Like the eponymous Thing, it shapeshifts, sidling up to us in the guise of a squicky medical mystery, something to set the flesh pleasantly crawling; then, when it’s too late to get away, Leech reveals its true form. It’s a coldly furious indictment of our present, howled back from one possible future. Bitter as a winter storm, sharp as a scalpel. Without mercy, it diagnoses. It cuts.
Our principal character, the Interprovincial Medical Institute, is a parasitic hivemind masquerading as a collective of human doctors. (“Leech”, Ennes reminds us, is both a type of parasite and a slang term for a physician.) Over centuries, the Institute has cultivated medical knowledge, collected host bodies, and established a monopoly on healthcare, ministering to the remnants of humanity on a disaster-ridden Earth of the future. The oceans are acid. The moon has shattered. Feral machines prowl rivers of mud.
The novel opens with a train journey into the frigid, mountainous north. (In an interview, Ennes cites the Canadian Rockies as inspiration for the setting, the Brontë sisters as inspiration for the atmosphere.) The Institute, which consists in meatspace of a series of flesh-and-blood avatars, is sending a new body to the mining town of Verdira, there to serve as doctor to its ailing baron, his family, and the villagers. This new body has a second, secret mission: investigate what happened to the last doctor. The Institute remembers its old body’s years of residence in the baron’s château, but it has no memory of that body’s final days, or the cause of death. A quick autopsy of the old doctor reveals a self-inflicted neck wound and, nestled behind the corpse’s left eye, a twitching mass of tendrils resembling a clot of black hairs: a rival parasite, poised to infect.
The Institute’s efforts to investigate and stop the spread of this rival (soon dubbed Pseudomycota) also introduce us to Verdira’s crumbling château, the beleaguered mining community outside it, and the splendidly Gothic inhabitants of both. The elderly baron is an invective-spewing tyrant, kept alive by arcane machinery and ill will. His son, Didier, is besotted with drink and with visions of the town’s former glory, an idealized past that he still hopes to rebuild. Didier’s wife, Hélène, wracked by a series of stillbirths, drinks through her latest pregnancy and flirts openly with the new doctor. The duty to produce a male heir has made a prison of her own body. Hélène’s only surviving progeny are a pair of girls, spooky twins who consort with specters and poltergeists that may or may not be real. And there is Émile, the houseboy, the apparent last survivor of a genocide against the indigenous inhabitants of the mountains and caves. Émile assists the doctor and haunts the kennels, preferring the company of dogs to the ruling family. He cannot speak but communicates in gestures and notes.
While the family have their share of tics and terrible secrets in the Gothic tradition, it is the Institute, with its legion of bodies and its frosty, paternalistic attitude towards its human patients, that remains the novel’s most morbidly fascinating character. Ennes’s prose is both lyrical and meticulous, the better to depict the Institute’s kaleidoscopic point of view. While the story is anchored by the observations of the body sent to Verdira, other bodies chime in, sharing thoughts, sensations, and images from hundreds of miles away. This could easily result in a disorienting mess of viewpoints, but Ennes makes the hivemind narration both easy to follow and delectable to read. Here’s a representative description of the Institute’s medical library in the sunlit city of Inultus, over three hundred miles from snowbound Verdira, where the Institute’s northernmost body has just uncovered Pseudomycota:
As I stand petrified in the iceroom of the Château de Verdira, staring at the motionless contents of the phial in the houseboy’s hands, the library is alive with noise. Shoes click across the moonlit marble; the spines of books unopened for centuries creak in pain as their pages are revealed once more; the timbres of a hundred worried voices billow out the windows into the warm air. The dry, electric pulse of the city carries a jolt of panic from the Interprovincial Medical Institute, conducts it over tiled rooftops, between tall bursts of reddish fronds, and across the rattling paths of trolleys that howl like tomcats in the night. Confusion diffuses across the city, sweeping into every physician in Inultus within a fraction of a second.
The silent shock propagates unseen by the majority of the city—at most, a patient might look on his doctor’s face and mistake the frown for a poor prognosis, or a surgeon’s hand might pause before resuming its impeccable cut. Though most of my hearts have risen to my throats in palpitating unison, my stethoscopes do not stray from rib cages, my eyes do not leave my books. (p. 12)
The chilly, contraction-free, tightly controlled narration keeps us in the Institute’s mindset even as the story jumps three hundred miles south in mid-sentence. The lushness and specificity of the sensory details—the moonlit marble, the creaking books, the rattling trolleys—convey the sights and sounds of distant Inultus as surely as if we’re part of the hivemind ourselves.
Ennes also mines the multifaceted weirdness of this POV for comedy, as in the passage below, in which the Institute’s new body in Verdira observes the cremation of the old body:
The sun creeps across the western peaks, and the chimneys of the château spill smoke into the clouds. At the base of one of those stacks, in a powerful furnace, the diced remains of my corpse burn. I tell myself that I cannot possibly smell whatever bodily particulates float in that low, gray sky, but that does not quell the bubbling rancidity at the back of my throat. In a sunny examining room on the western coast, a host that once had the habit of chewing and swallowing its fingernails says aloud, two knuckles deep in a man’s rectum, that to absentmindedly ingest one’s own dead flesh is not terribly abnormal. Not without some amusement, I feel the patient’s sphincter tighten at the words. (p. 50)
The book is shot through with gunpowder-dry humor of this sort, jokes that accentuate a mood of deep sadness and alienation rather than clashing with it.
Ennes is also a student of medicine, and the Institute’s vocabulary bristles with medical terminology, rendering the meat and bone of the human body both omnipresent and alien. A nipple is a mamilla. Childbirth is parturition. An eyeball is dissected by the language itself, divided into conjunctiva, sclera, cornea. An early description of the Institute’s dead host body is characteristically ornate and strange:
I had spent fifty years dancing along those veins, seeing through those eyes, riding the tides of emotion and logic contained in those wonderful networks of axons. I had inhabited that body as thoroughly and faithfully as any tenant, sharing it with billions of other occupants, with kingdoms and communes of delicate flagellates and sturdy rods, outposts of mites and protists, trading, talking, battling. But now I feel as if I am walking through a house I once knew well, only to discover the halls and staircases have rearranged themselves in my absence. (pp. 24-25)
The comparison above is reversed during frequent passages in which the Institute describes the château with language befitting a living organism. Like all the best nonhuman narration in SFF, this point of view invokes wonder and unease because there’s a grain of truth to it. If a setting can be a character, then a character’s body can be a setting. If a parasite can play the protagonist, so too can characters prove parasitic. The baron’s family, which extracts ore from the mountains at the cost of genocide, mining disasters, and the massacre of workers, is a parasitic organism. In Leech’s less-than-rosy depiction of our spiraling civilization, humanity too is a parasite, and the Earth our sickly host.
While Ennes layers these comparisons with care and consistency, the Institute is eager to convince us, and itself, that it’s no mere parasite, that it has become something more. Pseudomycota, the tendril-waggling rival parasite, isn’t just a competitor for host bodies. It’s also an inconvenient mirror image that underscores the true source of the Institute’s unease: cognitive dissonance.
“I am not Pseudomycota,” the Institute insists. “I cannot simply gorge myself on whatever is lying around. I cannot survive alone, without an intelligent mind—I am social, ethical, dependent and depended on, a symbiote. I am something that brutish little parasite cannot understand.” (p. 144)
Symbiote is a key word here; the Institute thinks of itself as an entity that helps humanity, never mind that the help is entirely on the Institute’s terms, carried out with stolen bodies, and contingent on the elimination of all rival helpers. No wonder Pseudomycota’s appearance rattles the Institute more than any other terror in this fallen world. There’s no one you hate more than the person you wish you weren’t.
My progress with the novel slowed during Leech’s middle portion, in part because Ennes’s endgame was not yet clear to me and in part because the bleakness of the world, and the coldness of the Institute’s inner monologue, can be discouraging. Take heart: perseverance will be rewarded. As the novel progresses, along with the Pseudomycota outbreak, the tension surrounding the Institute’s identity mounts and mounts. The seamlessness of the narration belies the book-long magic act Ennes ultimately pulls off, playing with our perspective and allegiance in increasingly inventive ways. The final third of the book barrels with freight-train momentum towards an exhilarating reckoning.
The Institute’s body-snatching is a versatile metaphor for sexual violence, colonialism, capitalism, and the intersection between the three, a point that the back half of the book underlines in bright red pen. I was reminded of “The Things,” Peter Watts’s 2010 short story which revisits Carpenter’s film from the titular Thing’s perspective, drawing parallels to colonialism and sexual violence in the process. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s much-lauded Mexican Gothic (2020) similarly induces many a pleasurable shiver with its crumbling estate, eugenics-crazed aristocrats, and its embodiment of white supremacist patriarchy as a deathless sporulating contagion. But Leech goes further than its predecessors, delving deeper into the metaphor and its implications, to cathartic effect.
The book’s most specific and painful theme is subjugation masquerading as care, administered via a weaponized medical establishment. At the time of this writing, shortly after the US Supreme Court’s monstrous decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ultraconservative legislators, prosecutors, and district attorneys are lining up to force unwanted pregnancies on the most vulnerable, and to ensure that miscarriages or complications are more likely to end in death or imprisonment—particularly for people of color and for people who are poor or have a lower income. Governors and lawmakers are telling children who have survived sexual assault that their bodies are not their own, that they will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term, and that this is all for the greater good and the preservation of life. Sickening as it is to admit, the nightmare depicted in Leech is more true to life now than it was a few months ago.
“The success of any parasite is proportional to its harmlessness,” muses the Institute. “[M]ost parasites cannot think far enough ahead to maintain the well-being of their host, much less their host’s entire species” (p. 77). The Institute values human bodies only as life-sustaining vessels. It sees no value, acknowledges no identity, in the bodies themselves. The Institute horrifies not because it is inhuman, but because it is human in all the worst ways.
As Leech peels away layers of clinical self-justification to reveal the violence underneath, it also examines how that violence manifests in the bodies of survivors. Few characters escape some bodily transformation, some physical memento of this world’s cruelty. Baker, Verdira’s machinist, sports a mechanical heart maintained with salvaged parts; Priest, a traditional healer and wet nurse turned raconteur, carries bullet wounds in his shattered knees, tokens of the baron’s wrath. Hélène’s perpetual, doomed pregnancies remind us that marriage is another weaponized institution, too often employed to force the subject to share her body with another.
Midway through Leech I returned to a question I often ponder when reading postapocalyptic fiction, or reading horror fiction, or, of late, when reading a newspaper. Why, and how, do people in this world keep going? What do they find beautiful and worthwhile about being alive? What do you stand to lose if the monster gets you? Why not simply lie down in the snow and go to sleep?
The answer is a little different for everyone. For Baker, it might be pleasures of the flesh—a smoke and a drink and company at the local pub. For Émile, it might be the courage and warmth of the kennel dogs. For Priest, it might be the caretaking of an oral tradition, fantastic tales of falling skies and men becoming monsters who breathe winter wind. For the Institute, it’s a steady diet of lies. And for Ennes? The book’s concluding chapters lead me to believe that, for Ennes, the ability to fight back is reason enough to keep going. For Leech ends in struggle and gore and uncertainty, in a prolonged fight that is as joyous as it is terrible. Success is far from assured, but the fight is everything.
The cruelties of the past and present continue to shape us, but they are not us. They are a disease, a parasite. A cure may or may not await us in an uncertain future. Clear-eyed, sure-handed SFF like Leech reminds us to fight for it either way.