book club guide – Leech by Hiron Ennes

Image of Leech, by Hiron Ennes book cover. A glass vial with black tendrils extending from the open lid, and the chateau encased within the vial.

Leech by Hiron Ennes is a surprisingly brilliant horror novel from a writer that will go on my “Immediately: Yes” list, for any future books they may publish. If you’ve made it this far, then you clearly are someone who appreciates a good post-apocalyptic haunted alien gothic science fiction folk horror historical fiction piece… just like me! Yay! Leech is one of those books that you will not forget about anytime soon.

Title: Leech

Author(s): Hiron Ennes

Date first published: 27 September 2022

Length: 323 pages

ISBN harmed in the making of this book club offering: 9781250811189 (it doesn’t matter if you use a different version, this just makes it clearer if/when pages/sections don’t perfectly align from whatever version you may be using). Published by Tordotcom.

Book jacket blurb:

IN AN ISOLATED CHATEAU, as far north as north goes, the baron’s doctor has died. The doctor’s replacement has a mystery to solve: discovering how the Institute lost track of one of its many bodies.

For hundreds of years the Interprovincial Medical Institute has grown by taking root in young minds and shaping them into doctors, replacing every human practitioner of medicine. The Institute is here to help humanity, to cure and to cut, to cradle and protect the species from the apocalyptic horrors their ancestors unleashed.

In the frozen north, the Institute’s body will discover a competitor for its rung at the top of the evolutionary ladder. A parasite is spreading through the baron’s castle, already a dark pit of secrets, lies, violence, and fear. The two will make war on the battlefield of the body. Whichever wins, humanity will lose again.

WHO are the main characters? The story is told in the first person by our main character, who is a doctor sent from the “Institute” to replace the old doctor who has passed away. The doctor’s identity is revealed in bits and pieces as the tale unfolds. In this world, “Leech” is a sort of derogatory nickname for physicians. Secondary main characters include Didier – the baron’s son, and Émile, a servant at the château, although neither of these two ever take over the narrative.

WHAT happens (no spoilers)? Oh my gawd, where to start? SO MUCH HAPPENS. A new doctor is taking the train to a remote northern barony called Verdira, where they will assume the care of the baron and his family at their rundown, ancient château. The doctor’s first big job will be to figure out the cause of death of the old doctor, while they try to act like they don’t already know all the weirdos and secrets in the family. Why do they have to pretend? Sorry – that’s a spoiler! So the doctor finds a startling (and horrific) clue to the old doctor’s demise, and sets off to learn more. The hunt leads to a cave where minerals essential to human survival are mined, and a chaotic series of events ensue. We eventually learn who the doctor really was, some of the family’s awful secrets, who is haunting who, and some people get what’s coming to them. There are good dogs, which is nice considering this whole book otherwise feels cold, dark, and grim.

WHEN does the story take place? By my estimation based on the story’s references to familiar-yet-ancient things, Leech takes place at least 1000 years from now, after a breakdown in the earth’s habitability, and a calamitous atmospheric event that drove people into hiding for a couple-few centuries.

WHERE is Leech by Hiron Ennes set? The story is set in a fictional place called Verdira, “as far north as north goes”, as the book blurb says. With its deadly winter and extremely short periods of daylight (but not NO daylight), my guess would be somewhere north of the 60th parallel and south of the 65th. Take your pick for which continent, but assuming it’s North America (familiar-sounding but differently-spelled place names), it could be in Alaska, Québec, or one of the Canadian territories. Since the characters in Leech speak a dialect called “Franco” – a mix of English and muddled French, I am going to go out on a limb and say Verdira is located around an area in northern Québec called Déception, just because I think that shoe fits well enough.

WHY SHOULD YOU READ LEECH by Hiron Ennes? I would recommend this novel for a horror book club looking for something different, where the reader needs to do a little bit of work to figure out what is going on. I chose Leech because it was recommended by many people in the horror community whom I respect, and I was not disappointed! Not simply horror, Leech could maybe be thought of as gothic sci-fi steampunk medical horror… is that a thing? Anyway, Hiron Ennes does not spoon feed us the facts here; rather we have to keep our collective shit together to stay on track or we risk missing something. There are layers of depth and meaning in these pages, and it could lead to some interesting discussions around the various situations, historical recollections, and camouflaged metaphors.

FOOD AND WINE PAIRINGS for Leech by Hiron Ennes:


  • octopus ramen
  • wheatgrass shots

🛑 Once you step past this point, spoilers will be revealed! It is strongly recommended that you read the book before you continue with the conversation guide for your book club. Sections below correspond to chapter groupings, in case your club needs multiple sessions to squeeze out all you can from Leech.

chapters I to IV

  • Immediate plot twist that isn’t really a spoiler because the book blurb alludes to it and it becomes known very early on in the book: the reason why the doctor has to pretend not to know them, is because the Institute has a secret of its own! That is, every doctor associated with the Institute is an extension of a single consciousness, because they are all hosts for a single symbiotic kind of parasite that no one who isn’t connected is supposed to know about. How long did it take you to figure out that the doctor was not entirely human?
  • The doctor immediately perceives the organism pulled from the old doctor’s optic canal as a rival. In what ways did the “doctor” have the upper hand? In what ways were they challenged by this unknown organism?
  • On page 4, the doctor surmises that “… phobias, like immunities, are acquired early and are difficult to erase”. Can you think of any phobias that shouldn’t be erased? (What’s wrong with being afraid of heights??) Who (or what) would it ever benefit to erase immunities?
  • On page 13, the doctor recalls a patient who’d said “… there are as many ways to die as there are drops in the acid sea.” However the doctor disagreed, believing that “though the sea is vast, I am certain it is finite.” Great. How many ways to die can the book club think of within two minutes starting…….. now!
  • The doctor tells us on page 20 that patients like the baron “… pay generously for the opportunity to prolong their suffering.” Does this remind you at all of modern medicine as we know it?
  • The weekly formal dinners in the château remind me of some obligatory family holiday gatherings. Assuming that your book club does not include any boorish old dirtbags like the baron, would you care to spill the tea about who typically ruins the holidays in your families? Is it your cousin Colin? Goddammit, Colin.

chapters V to X

  • In my endless need to put things in perspective, I felt compelled to do the math and figure out that the current events in Verdira were happening 150 years after the “… protean mountains split to reveal a path to the north”, 100 years since the mines were restored and the railroad established, and 50 years since a “green pebble” destroyed Inultus. First, I had to look up the word “protean”, because huh? I obviously didn’t go to any fancy school…
Dictionary definition of protean: tending or able to change frequently or easily

Second, now that we know protean in this context means something “changing a lot”, can we talk about this green pebble? What do you think was the thing that destroyed Inultus 50 years ago?

  • The prized mineral called wheatrock is used as a gem, a food ingredient, and somehow as a fertilizer for growing crops. Do we have any mineralogists in our book clubs who can tell us: what, if anything, could be the present-day equivalent of wheatrock?
  • On page 56, Baker states that “… no one wants to die nameless.” Did anyone read that as foreshadowing?
  • There is a mention of the descendants of Inultus greeting traditionally with touch, and of greetings with a brush of fingers between the eyebrows being an old “Montish” salute. What remnants of ancient humanity are we talking about here? Who do you suppose were the ancestors of the Montish, with their oral traditions, sled dogs, and apparent resistance to the cold?
  • In considering how humanity has lived for millennia among giants, like titans of the sea, and monstrosities of machinery, the doctor believes the Institute is helping people “reclaim the world that was lost”. What do you think this means, and why would the doctor want to do that?
  • In chapter VIII, the doctor feels an odd twinge of fear at the idea they might die either at the hands of the baron, or failure to survive the winter, and feels oddly disconnected from the Institute. Is this the first moment where the real person underneath the doctor’s consciousness emerges?
  • There are a number of stories within the story in Leech, and the mythology shared orally among some of the characters is evocative of some stark and terrifying imagery. There was the tale in chapter X (10) of a Montish boy who lived when “the ashes of the world’s great catastrophes were fresh and warm, when life was easy… and… ventigeaux were… tall, clement elk”; but unfortunately some living shadows didn’t care for the kid’s goodness, so they snuffed out his torch and ate him up. The end. Wait, what? Often, old myths and legends deliver a moral to the story. Can you guess at the morals of these stories? Also, hello? How was life “easy” after some big-ass disasters?

chapters XI to XV

  • Previously, Priest told a story where the ventigeaux used to be elk. The doctor knows of a myth where the first ventigeau was believed to have been an ancient Montish astronomer who became deformed trying to reach for the stars. The Institute believes the ventigeaux were the result of reckless experimentation and biological mistakes. Can you think of any examples in our world, where mythology, oral history, and scientific worldviews have all touched on a common subject and all turned out to be not-quite-right at some point?
  • In chapter XII (12), Priest talks about feeding Montish babies as a wet nurse. Is Priest transgender? Why do you think he is or is not, and does his gender have any bearing on the rest of his role in Leech?
  • Another family dinner, another controversial exchange: the family discusses the governor’s attempt to build a flying vessel, repairing the château, and how repetition of past mistakes will lead to the same calamities as before. If you survived an apocalypse, would you be hot to bring back the things that led to disaster? Considering that many of our modern conveniences are contributing factors to overpopulation, greenhouse gas emissions, and overuse of technology, where would you draw the line on what you need to have back after the apocalypse, and what you could live without?
  • On page 146, the baron makes an astute observation: “If no one needs bleeding, no one needs a leech.” Amen, brother! Sing me that free market capitalist song once more! Please vent amongst yourselves for a few minutes about how our needs (as we perceive them) are manufactured to keep leeches capitalists in business, because you KNOW that’s the metaphor here. Right? RIGHT??
  • Perhaps the most notable quote of the entire novel, on page 153, Hélène – in a fit of frustration – exclaims “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Didier uses the same expression on page 161. I just want to say, if any colourful phrases of the 21st century should survive for 1000 years, this is the one I would hope for. My question to you, dear book club, is: Is it “for fuck’s sake” or “for fuck sakes”? 🧐

chapters XVI to XXI

  • The doctor recalls Atiey telling her to never trust a well-dressed person because good clothes mean good money, and there’s no such thing as good money. What was Atiey implying?
  • In chapter XVI (16), Hélène uses her/she pronouns for the doctor. Had you figured out the doctor’s gender before that moment? Be honest now… at the start, had you assumed the doctor was a man?
  • The doctor arrives at the conclusion that Émile will survive infection by Psuedomycota emilia because of his Montish physiology, and decides it is necessary to incorporate Émile as a host in order to survive. Would you knowingly end an innocent life to prolong your own? What about a not-so-innocent life?
  • Around the time that the doctor is figuring out that pretty much everyone in the château and the surrounding town is infected with P. emilia, she has an epileptic seizure at the dining table in front of the baron. This is probably the least alarming thing that happens in chapters XX-XXI (20-21). When she comes out of it, she witnesses the baron chowing down on some nasty old wheatrock, and he gets an assist from a trio of black tentacles extending from his mouth to grab the food and pull it in. And the baron seems to be just fine with that? Like, how far gone do you need to be to not notice there’s a goddamn sentient sea anemone flailing about inside your face? Hélène knew all along that there was something messed up happening inside her body, but wasn’t believed. Do you believe there are differences in how men and women perceive illness, and how they receive medical treatment?
  • The doctor goes to use a dumbwaiter in an abandoned drawing room to reach Didier’s suites, after the constable stops her from going up to see Didier. What the hell is a drawing room anyway?
  • Upon arriving in Didier’s study, the doctor discovers the terrible explanation for Émile’s burns, and, well… she kinda loses her shit. Her thoughts, on page 235: “… I cannot stop myself. I don’t know why I would want to, after all these years of helplessness. So I let myself go.” Is the doctor still “the doctor” at this point?

chapters XXII to XXX

  • In recollections of the (ex?) doctor’s childhood, Atiey had opined that ruin was engrained in everything that we [i.e. humanity] made. On page 240 she says “Back when we could fly. When we thought what we built could save us from everything else we built. In the end, what we built won.” What has humanity built that we currently need saving from, assuming that “back when we could fly” is a reference to now?
  • One of the Institute doctors tries to compare itself to the multitudes of other organisms (presumably bacteria and other microscopic little fuckers) that inhabit human bodies and influence cognition and behaviour. What differences can you think of between what our usual crew of stowaways does to (and for us), and what the Institute does to (and for) its hosts?
  • When the ex-doctor (our protagonist who appears to have separated from the Institute, but whose name we have not yet learned) tells the Institute doctor that both they and pseudomycota originated from a dog’s nose, what is she saying? What does the Montish folklore likely say about the cause of the long-ago apocalypse?
  • On page 261, there is a comment regarding “… books about when the world was far too big…” Assuming this means our time now, what is too big about the world?
  • How hard did you cringe when it became apparent to us innocent readers that Didier’s obsession with Émile was linked to his earlier obsession with Útolie? Did you figure out the connection before or after Émile went all mediaeval on Didier and the baron?
  • When they are out of the château and on the run, Simone – finally, we know her name! – thinks she wouldn’t be so scared if she still had an extra body or two. Do you think that it can be less scary to live up to the harmful expectations of others, than to live as your authentic self? Do you have expectations of others that might deter them from being themselves? Like, oh I don’t know… retail workers during Black Friday sales… police officers serving and protecting… dare I say, your kids? Or have you been someone who has felt they need to hide their true selves in order to keep from being judged? Scary shit, friends.
  • After everything he’s been through, Émile is still able to experience joy and thrill in being away from Verdira. Seriously, I’m happy for him. But it is a tough son-of-a-bitchin world out there! Is he going to be ok?

Big Questions from Leech by Hiron Ennes

  • How important is identity, when trying to understand someone else’s worldview?
  • Can you draw any parallels between the human-Montish relationship, and the settler-Indigenous dynamic?

Well look at that! We’ve reached the end of another noises above book club guide. Be sure to let us know if you have any comments or suggestions for books you’d like to see in this space, and check out the blog for articles about other books, and other great horror writers!

go ahead, whistle past the graveyard

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