The Thing Which Should Not Be
Brett J Talley
Journal Stone, 2011
Nominated for the 2011 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel Brett J. Talley’s The Thing Which Should Not Be is send up to the classic occult horror of the early 19th to mid-20th centuries. The novel contains several nested narratives and is couched as a found document. As I’ve said in the past the sort of found material is a tradition that extends back as far as 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and later made most famous in Stoker’s Dracula. The Thing Which Should Not Be isn’t a complete epistolary but rather a single lengthy letter with several narrated sub-stories that inform the overarching, a somewhat tenuous narrative at the novel’s core.
I should point out that the format employed in The Thing Which Should Not Be while enjoyable was somewhat weakened by the different narratives that appear throughout. The novel has many strong elements and each individual story is certainly effective on its own but I found the interweaving of the story into a whole was less than the sum of its parts. The novel didn’t feel some much like a novel but rather like a series of intersecting short stories drawn loosely together. As such I’m going to try to address the various narratives separately at least to a degree.
The Thing Which Should Not Be is a prefaced by a letter from a lawyer discussing the provenance of the document which follows. From there the narrative begins as the story of a one Carter Weston. The earliest section of the novel introduces us to Charles and his friend Henry and the life as students of New England folklore at Miskatonic University. The novel really kicks into gear when Charles is tasked by his professor to go and retrieve and ancient grimoire from a nearby town. Trapped by a blizzard Charles meets four men: Jack, William, Daniel, and Captain Jonathan Gray who each relay a strange and horrific story. This is what forms the bulk of the novel as each man relays his brush with the supernatural.
Jack’s story is sort of a classic monster tale. Talley’s spare prose serves the hardy trackers and trappers of Jack’s tale well and for all of the author’s economic use of language he adeptly manages to conjure up a scene of cold isolation and creeping dread. With sparing language Talley crafts a sense of looming weather and coming terror “But there was a growing gloom above us as well, and as the moon waxed brighter, as a steel-grey curtain of clouds rose, and as an icy cold wind cut through our tents and our clothes, it was clear to all that the season’s worst was near.” Cleverly, as the terror of night defends, Talley uses “the brilliant, blinding light of the morning sun” to usher in the story’s true horror.
After a brief interlude Daniel begins his tale. Daniel’s story is one that again uses isolation and borrows elements from a haunted house (in this case haunted abbey story). Again Talley proves adept at setting the mood with a few spare sentences as Daniel’s guardian, Lawrence, warns the young man “In Europe…the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. There is darkness there, darkness that you have never seen. That land can be a wondrous place, no doubt of that. But promise you will take care not to stumble out of the light.” With a story like Daniel’s I often find it most difficult to divorce myself from my own past experiences in the horror genre. When travel’s suddenly find themselves forced to take shelter in an ancient castle in the Romanian country built during the war between the Wallachian princes and the Turks well a certain type of reader knows that some bad things are going to happen. The traditional elements here don’t lessen the impact of the story, and it is in Daniel’s tale that the inter-connected nature of the story begins to become more apparent. Expectations aside, Talley manages to provide some surprises.
It isn’t long before William’s story begins, which is perhaps my favorite of the book. William takes a job at an insane asylum and again Talley does a great job at informing the mood from the bright, antiseptic lights to the juxtaposition of the howls of the “wildly mad” against the weighted silence of men who “retrain [reason] while being thoroughly evil, those without remorse or compassion.” Talley earned major respect for a single chilling line spoken by an inmate of the asylum: “I see clearly…what you see darkly.” Something about that line felt absolutely chilling to me. It is also William’s story which continues to solidify the novel’s connection to Lovecraft’s mythos with recitation of that famous quote “That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons, even death may die.”
The final story, that of Captain Gray, is second only to Daniel’s and I won’t discuss it in detail lest I spoil things further. The Captain’s tale is one that finally brings things full circle and sets of Charles Weston’s part in this web of the supernatural. It was this section that felt the weakest to me. Each of the individual stories above manage to spend at least some time letting us get into the heads of the protagonists but as a result over the course of the novel Charles sort of falls by the wayside. Thus as the climax of the novel features him prominently I felt less of a connection to the proceedings since I knew him the least. Furthermore, as much as I love the Cthulhu Mythos I felt like the novel leaned a bit too heavily on that aspect and, truth be told, was actually stronger when it wasn’t leaning quite so heavily on Lovecraft’s legacy. This is the author’s first novel and it definitely proves he has the chops to craft a chilling and engaging story. Fans of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos looking for a fitting homage need look no further that The Thing Which Should Not Be. Brett J. Talley is a horror author to watch and I for one plan on checking out his new novel The Void, as soon as possible.