Saturday, November 26, 2011

That Which Should Not Be by Brett J. Talley (3/5)

That Which Should Not Be by Brett J. Talley is the tale of Carter Weston, a student at Miskatonic University in witch-haunted Arkham as he starts off in search of a dreaded book of arcane lore. As one might surmise from the cover art, this is another one of the many works influenced—nay, spawned—by the grand horror tableau created by the one and only H.P. Lovecraft.

But before I get into the review, I feel compelled by some strange, other-worldly force outside of myself (much like a long-dead God speaking to me in my dreams) to tell another tale—the tale behind the tale that is That Which Should Not Be. It’s pretty interesting, especially for any aspiring authors out there. You see, the publisher is a young upstart firm by the name of JournalStone. They recently held a horror novel contest, the winner of which would win a $2,000 advance and the publishing of their novel. Well Talley—a lawyer and heretofore (to use a lawyerly term) unpublished author—had the good fortune and foresight to submit his manuscript to said contest, and voila! A professional writer is born and That Which Should Not Be is here and available for our reading pleasure. Quite an inspiring story, if I do say so myself. Not exactly a rags-to-riches yarn, but pretty damn cool nonetheless.

Anywho, on to the review. As one would expect for a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, the story is set in 1920s or 30s New England (it never really says for sure) and involves an inexperienced yet knowledge-hungry young man studying at the fabled Miskatonic University. His name, as I mentioned before, is Carter Weston, and he is studying for a degree in local history, specifically the local folklore and myths of New England. One of his favorite professors asks him to retrieve a book of some eldritch consequence and sends him off to the seaside town of Anchorhead (did anyone else think of Star Wars just then?) to search it out. As he arrives in town a vicious Nor’easter blows into town as well. He seeks refuge at a local pub and there meets a quartet of disparate individuals inextricably linked through a variety of past life experiences. Carter is beckoned over, introductions made, and one by one the men launch into their tales.

At this point it becomes apparent that the book is really more of a short story collection than a novel to itself. Each of the stories is fairly lengthy (I’d estimate at least 10,000 words each), told from the first person, and focused on the Lovecraftian theme of mind-shattering horror. Talley borrows from established horror tales of the genre, but he is still able to craft entertaining stories that can stand on their own without the surrounding fabric of the novel. The main failing with his narrative is that the tone and voice of the stories do not change from speaker to speaker. The trapper, the magistrate, the doctor and the ship’s captain all speak with the same diction and sentence structure and nuances of speech. I suppose you might say that that’s because the tales are all being filtered through Carton Weston and that in his retelling of them he uses his own intonations and style. I don’t buy it, though. I find it much more probably that it was easier just to replicate the Lovecraftian voice with each narrator rather than having to develop a unique style that spoke to their cultural and economic backgrounds. But then again, it’s a Cthulhu novel. Would you expect any less?

After each of the stories have been told, the ship’s captain—the apparent leader of the bunch—gives Weston the book that he seeks. Weston heads back the next day to Miskatonic, handing his prize over to his professor. But as you might suspect, his tale is hardly done. I won’t go into the climax and conclusion in detail, but suffice to say that it includes some tried and true Lovecraftian tropes—mad cultists, ancient cities, the resurrection of long-dead gods. You know, the usual fare.

Overall it was a great read. If you like Lovecraft or any his imitators (e.g. Derleth, Lumley, or Ramsey), you’ll enjoy this one too. But that being said, the content and style of the story is somewhat trite. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of it. Talley does a really good job replicating the voice of the original Lovecraft tales. But the other side of that coin is that there’s little new here. He co-opts many of Lovecraft’s characters, settings, themes and even whole stories (“At the Mountains of Madness” is retold early in the novel) into his own work. One innovation he did include was to add the Judao-Christian God to the mythos. In Tally’s novel, God has power over the old ones, and indeed, it was He who originally imprisoned them. In fact, His very name—the “word” spoken at the beginning of creation—was enough to lock them in eternal slumber. But all this is a late addition to the tale. Truth be told, I would have liked to have seen Talley include more of that kind of thing. If he had taken the Cthulhu Mythos, broken it over his knee and had his way with it, he might have ended up with a far more memorable novel. As it stands the final product—while good and entertaining and all of that fun stuff—is just another in a long line of entertaining yet formulaic Cthulhu stories. 


  1. This does seem interesting. I'm also impressed by the jacket cover. It catches my imagination.

  2. @mike draper

    Thanks for replying, Mike. Yeah, the cover is pretty rad, ain't it? I was pretty impressed that an new-ish publishing firm was able to get such a good artist for the cover. Usually they skimp in that area--but again, not in this case. As far as I can see it was money well spent.

  3. I saw this book and wasn't sure about. Great review, guess I will take another look!

    Squeak - The Alaskan Bookie
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  4. @Squeak

    'Eh, give it a look if you come across it, but if I were you I wouldn't go out of my way to find a copy. It's entertaining, but there's other stuff out there that's more so. Though, if you inhale everything that is the Cthulhu mythos, then yeah, give her a whirl. ;)

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