Brett J. Talley. That Which Should Not Be. San Francisco: JournalStone, 7 October 2011. 260 pp. $12.99, trade paperback. ISBN-10: 1936564149; ISBN-13: 978-1936564149. Hardcover: 260pp. $27.95. ISBN-10: 1936564157; ISBN-13: 978-1936564156. Kindle edition: 641 kb. $6.00. ASIN: B005RR20RM.
“Words, words, words” (Hamlet, II, ii).
As Hamlet—and Shakespeare—well knew, words are all we have to tell our tales. And within each language, writers and storytellers must perforce choose from among a common word-hoard.
As the various tales-within-the-tale incorporated into Brett J. Talley’s That Which Should Not Be clearly evidence, some writers seem more adept at selecting and arranging from that common word-hoard than others. In Talley’s case, his ingeniously constructed frame-narrative requires that he tell several stories, from differing points of view, narrated by characters whose backgrounds, histories, and experiences demand that each speak using a unique vocabulary, constructing sentences and paragraphs in different ways and yet each contributing to the sense that the resulting novel is a seamless whole rather than merely a random collection of stories.
Talley rises to the challenge beautifully. His woodsman/master trapper, his solicitor, his physician, and his ship’s captain each take turns regaling the primary narrator, Carter Weston (note the surname), with episodes that, taken individually, deftly illustrate Talley’s mastery of the motifs and protocols of horror—and specifically, Lovecraftian horror. Weston himself frequently speaks in the rich cadences and employs the heightened vocabulary of eighteenth-century prose, often using key words alone, rather than elaborate descriptions, to establish his moments of high horror. Since he is recalling his own tale along with the other four, his tone suffuses the novel; at the same time, Talley provides subtle differences for each of the four. It is difficult to read a passage from any of the individual stories and misidentify its narrator.
That Which Should Not Be clearly acknowledges its debt to Lovecraft and his canon, to the universe in which the Great Old Ones have been defeated and ejected from the surface of the earth, only to await the moment when some human, arrogant in his greed and ambition for power, speaks words from the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred in conjunction with certain spells from an even more ancient, more infamous volume, the Incendium Maleficarum. Twice such an attempt is made. Twice mere mortals find themselves confronting the monstrous entities from beneath the sea, treading the eldritch surface of the risen city of R’yleh. (It is a mark of Talley’s control of his materials that he only uses the super-Lovecraftian word eldritch two or three times in the novel.)
It is also much to his credit that his pastiche attains a life of its own. His characters remain individuals, hinting at some of Lovecraft’s creations but never slavishly following the master’s lead. The fifth story, with its potentially cataclysmic meeting between mortal and the greatest of the Great Old Ones, nonetheless carries within it its own sense of suspense, of climax, of surprise.
It is equally clear that Talley had a great deal of fun in writing his novel. I’ve already mentioned the name Carter Weston—at least half of it alludes to Stoker’s Dracula with a possible side-glance at C. S. Lewis’s master villain in the Space Trilogy; the first part may be an off-hand reference to Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, who, like this Weston, was forced to confront monsters not of this world. In addition to Weston, however, we also meet a Dr. Seward and a Dr. Harker; an Abbess Bathory (not quite the same person as the historical Countess Báthory but quite as horrifying); an inn named the Kraken in which the key tales are told; ships variously called the Kadath and the Lydia Lenore; and, not the least, the Danvers Insane Asylum. And, of course, the primary action of the novel begins and ends on the campus of Lovecraft’s own Miskatonic University. Meeting these familiar names, often in new and unexpected guises, merely adds to the fascination of Talley’s novel.
If there is one thing that definitely separates Talley’s vision of the cosmos from Lovecraft’s, it is the revelation, late in the novel, of the final word of the final spell to defeat evil, the Logos Creed, an immensely powerful incantation used only once before, capable of returning the awakening Great Old Ones to their place of banishment…but it can only be found through intense and dangerous searching and itself requires an almost more-than-human sacrifice to be wielded. In Talley’s universe, unlike Lovecraft’s, God has power.
Taken as a whole, That Which Should Not Be is a welcome addition to the ranks of the Cthulhu Mythos. It takes the originals seriously but at the same time feels free to take certain liberties with them as well. It exploits multiple possibilities in storytelling but at the same time remains a coherent novel. It is a pastiche but at the same time strives for—and attains—its own level of creativity.