That Which Should Not Be by Brett J. Talley
Published by JournalStone
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the history of American weird fiction and horror literature the name of H P Lovecraft looms large. His imagined Massachussets towns full of brooding old houses and inbred families have proved so compelling that more than a few people have been sure of their actuality. And he has inspired scores of imitators, some of whom openly mention the terrible and inhuman names of the Great Old Ones whose sinister power suffused the imagined land known as Lovecraft Country, and others who merely seek to convey that same sense of building horror from a steady accumulation of minutia, but within their own original fictional universes.
Although Lovecraft sometimes essayed into areas that could rightly be considered science fiction (cryonics in "Cool Air," alien biology and unearthly physics in "The Colour out of Space"), as a prose stylist he was quite conservative, even reactionary. In several of his well-known works he used the mechanism of the manuscript or diary found by one or another means. When modern literary fiction was first developing in the early nineteenth century, readers weren't accustomed to suspending their disbelief in a story just by reading it. As a result, writers often had to coax their readers into suspending their disbelief by providing a clear and detailed mechanism by which the narrative was conveyed from its original narrator to the reader, hence the letter from an old friend, the manuscript found in a forgotten trunk in an attic.
In this novel, author Brett J Talley uses the mechanism of the manuscript found among the effects of the deceased to simultaneously provide that narrative frame and to lay the foundations of a creeping sense of wrongness, of something dangerously amiss to which the reader is about to become privy, with potentially disastrous consequences. It also allows the author to slip in a little in-joke, for the senior partner of the fictitious law firm that delivers the manuscript bears the name of "Lovecraft."
The manuscript purports to be the memoir of one Carter Weston, once a student at Miskatonic University and an associate of Henry Armitage (the librarian at Miskatonic at the time of "The Dunwich Horror"). In the course of his studies Weston quickly became fascinated with the occult, and in particular with the various tomes of esoteric and forbidden lore that have been written over the ages. And thus his advisor summons him one day to ask him what he knows of a tome called the Incendium Malefacarum, the Witch's Fire or Inferno of the Witch. Weston dismisses it as legendary, claims that no mention of it has ever been substantiated -- and then this distinguished professor tells him that one has been located in the town of Anchorhead, not far away.
Thayerson wants Weston to go there and retrieve the book, that it might be locked safely away in Miskatonic's restricted collection. He waves away the suggestion that he might be better equipped for this mission by saying that its existence and presence has come to the attention of others, and some of them may well wish to gain it for evil ends. Furthermore, Thayerson has already purchased a ticket on a northbound train for Weston, and it leaves within the hour.
So off Weston heads, and as the train makes its way north, he begins to realize that he may well have bitten off more than he can chew. He has absolutely no information about the circumstances in which this infamous book may be held, or whom he can safely approach to ask about it. He thinks back to a story Henry Armitage once told him, about an Antarctic explorer by the name of Ashcroft who went mad after seeing some unspeakable horror (the reader familiar with Lovecraft's novella "At the Mountains of Madness" will recognize it as whatever Dyer's graduate student Danforth saw from the air, that drove him utterly mad).
With that reassuring thought in mind, Weston arrives in Anchorhead and finds the only possible accommodation a decidedly unwelcoming inn without a restaurant. Wanting something to eat, he trudges through an incoming storm to a nearby tavern, the Kracken. There he meets four men, who propose that they pass the time by each telling a tale in turn, from personal experience.
The trope of the manuscript as mechanism by which to transmit story to reader dates back to the beginning of the modern novel, but here we have an even older one, from the beginning of the modern era. Such giants as Chaucer and Boccaccio used this narrative structure in the classics The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, as does the Middle Eastern classic The Arabian Nights. Of course these examples come closer to what we moderns would call an anthology, since the framing tale serves primarily to bring the tellers together and thus provide a mechanism for the presentation of otherwise unrelated works of fiction. In this novel, Talley makes both the stories and the process of telling them an integral part of building a sense of a terrible wrongness that lurks behind the pleasant appearance of an orderly world.
The first to tell his story is Jack, a trapper. After a number of trips into the forest with his father, he went his own way. The team he joined seemed solid enough, if a bit rough and odd, but on their last night in town before heading out into the woods, one of the men pays a little too much attention to one young woman and is cursed by an old woman. At first they pay it no heed, but once they are far from civilization, things begin to go very strange.
When one of their number goes missing, and then is found dead and stretched like a hide to be cured, the story comes out at last of the Wendigo, the mysterious entity in whose name the old woman cursed the troublemaking Travis. Of course this version of the Wendigo is grafted into the mythos of the Great Old Ones and their former reign over the Earth, before they were banished into deathlike sleep and the modern human era began, rather than being a cautionary tale against cannibalism, a warning that there are worse things than death by starvation.
There is something reminiscent of John Carpenter's movie The Thing in the events that follow. The survivors know that one among their number is the killer, but can't tell who remains a genuine human being and who is in fact a monstrous impostor, biding its time before killing again.
And then the Wendigo is unmasked and sick dread transforms into grisly horror as it kills one after another man in grotesque ways, until the storyteller finally finds a way to defeat it and flee back to civilization. But not without scars.
The next man, Daniel, is a son of wealth and standing. When he was a young man, his father sent him to Europe to make the Grand Tour in the company of a trusted associate. But while he is in Venice he meets up with a raffish young Scottish lordling and decides to strike out on his own, to Odessa in the Crimea, before returning to Venice via Turkey.
Here I kept wanting to think that the story was taking place in the relatively recent past, during the Cold War, when those lands lay behind the Iron Curtain. I had to consciously remind myself that this novel was supposed to be taking place during the youth of Henry Armitage, who was an old man at the time of "The Dunwich Horror," and thus we are talking about a region that still lay within the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A time when automobiles were not just the playthings of the Party elite, but utterly unheard of in that wild region so recently liberated from the Turk. A country where the only way to travel is by horse-drawn coach and the roads can be treacherous indeed, especially near certain holidays of the Old Religion, in a land where local belief predating Christianity and Islam holds that Satan fell to earth in these mountains and sleeps beneath one of them.
And it is at this time that our young heroes set forth, thinking to make a simple journey across a mountain range. Except a rockfall has blocked the road, and they must perforce take refuge in an old fortress converted into a convent for a mysterious order of nuns led by a prioress with the ill-starred name of Batory. One can only wonder if she is a relation of the infamous noblewoman who bathed in the blood of young women to preserve her own youth.
They were supposed to stay just a few days, until the priest returned with assistance in unblocking the road. But as their stay wears on, Daniel and his friend Charles see growing evidence that something very strange indeed is afoot here. Curiosity aroused, they find a way to escape their locked quarters at night and go exploring. In one of the oldest parts of the fortress they find a mysterious chamber -- and are discovered by the prioress.
She explains that it is the Scholomance, the legendary place where practitioners of the dark arts were initiated into the deepest secrets of unwholesome magic. It is also the temple of Gog and Magog, ancient evil entities that are mentioned in the Bible, particularly in the apocalyptic writings. She repeats her request that they not wander about unescorted.
Although both Daniel and Charles consider themselves worldly men and as a general rule reject superstition, the entire thing leaves them just uneasy enough to decided it's time to get out of this place. They make plans to leave the following night -- but when it comes time to carry them out, they discover it's already too late. The two lovely young women they think to rescue are already in that hellish temple, about to assist in Batory's horrific rite of sacrifice, not of an innocent, but of a soul utterly steeped in evil.
In romantic fiction the hero would free his beloved at the last moment and they'd ride off into the sunset together. But this is not a work in the romantic tradition, and our hero's escape is of the sort that leaves a scar of survivor guilt.
The third man, William was a physician, trained in Miskatonic University's medical school. He was always fascinated by the maladies of the mind, even in that time when almost nothing was known about the workings of the brain. As a result, he decides to do his residency at the Danvers State Hospital, which unlike the fictional Arkham and Miskatonic University, was an actual historical institution in Masachusetts.
There he meets Robert, a young man of uncertain origin who claims to be able to see strange shapes or entities moving in the air. Discussing matters with the youth, William becomes uncomfortably aware of all the times he half-glimpsed something moving in the corner of his eye. Was it just an ordinary shadow cast by some mundane object in his environment, or might it have been something uncanny, eldritch?
Then comes the terrible night when all the inmates go wild at once, to the point the staff is hard pressed to maintain some semblance of order. When the madness subsides, poor young Robert is found dead, his face a rictus of pure terror. An autopsy reveals his entire chest cavity full of blood, as if his heart had burst from the unbearable emotions.
William has no more than dealt with that horror than he receives a summons from Miskatonic University. His old mentor, Dr. Seward, was found covered with blood, and has requested to speak with no one else. When William arrives, the older man tells him a story that entangles the historical judicial murder of Giles Corey in the Salem Witch Trials with an account of a mysterious secret chamber and dark cults. And then Seward reveals that he had only been pretending to be rational, that he had in fact handed himself over to the most vile of horrors and was waiting for his opportunity to escape. William foils his former mentor's scheme, but at a psychological cost so great that he abandoned a promising career to undertake a quiet practice here in Anchorhead.
Only when these three men have told their stories and departed does the fourth man, Captain Gray, reveal his story, and not there in the tavern. He takes Carter Weston to his home, where he reveals a mysterious tome which always appears to be written in the language of the reader, and which cannot be destroyed by fire or any other human effort. It's rather reminiscent of the tome known only as The Most Damnable Book in the Universe in "The Guardian of the Book," a short story by Henry Hasse.
Captain Gray tells the story of how he found it aboard a becalmed ship in a place where even the stars were strange, unearthly. It had been the possession of that ship's captain, who refused to relinquish it. It is the vey tome Carter Weston seeks, the infamous Incendium Malefacarum. Gray sketches its history, including the disturbing idea that it rather than the Tables of the Law was the Book in the Ark of the Covenant, a suggestion that would fall into the bounds of what many Christian faith communities consider the Unforgivable Sin, namely, the ascribing of the works of the Holy Spirit to the Devil.
Whatever its early history may have been, once it came into his hands, Captain Gray resolved to learn from its previous owner's fate and relinquish it willingly when the time comes. And now it has come, and Carter Weston is the man who is to receive it. As soon as he takes it into hand, it sings to him, a strange terrible sound just at the boundaries of perception. With the story of its last two holders weighing heavily on his mind, Weston returns to Arkham and Professor Thayerson, to whom he freely hands it over.
Yet the act of surrendering it gives Weston no peace. Instead he feels oddly empty, and uneasy. Although Thayerson claimed he was taking it to put in the closed stacks of the Miskatonic Library, to be kept safe from those who would use it for ill, his voice rang oddly false.
Even as Weston is pondering those puzzling bits of information, Henry Armitage arrives, quite alarmed. He asks Weston about his recent activities, and then announces that Thayer's intent was indeed less than honorable. He fully intended to use the Inferno of the Witch along with the infamous Necronomicon to raise Cthulhu from his prison in sunken R'lyeh.
Off they run to the Huntington Library, which was built atop the site of a mysterious construction that is said to cover a tunnel going down into the center of the earth itself. In fact it only goes to the level of the sea, where they find Thayerson in the midst of a terrible ritual, and now possessed by the monstrous Yog-Sothoth. But he escapes, leaving them to meet Captain Gray, who has been hurrying to Arkham in hopes of stopping the ritual before it is too late.
Thus begins a desperate chase across the sea to the site of sunken R'lyeh. and a desperate effort to disrupt the ritual. For all that the Inferno of the Witch is a satanic tome of utter evil, it contains hidden within it something that apparently is an element of cosmic Good: a spell that invokes the Cosmic Name of God, and was used once before to banish the Great Old Ones from their dominion over the earth and into the hidden places of the universe. However, it is death for any mortal to speak the Name, which means that whoever defeats Thayerson must make the ultimate sacrifice. Unless some other way can be found, some other holy thing that can banish evil.
At the end there is a most interesting epilog. Not only does it remind us that in the Lovecraft Mythos all victories are only temporary, but it also ties the story most uncomfortably with the historical occultism of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Of course the defeat of Nazi Germany is a matter of historic fact, but Hitler has not been the only dictator to be fascinated with the occult and with ancient hidden lore. More recently, Saddam Hussain was notoriously fascinated with the ancient Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations and the lost glory that once lived in what is now Iraq. Saddam is also dead, but it really leaves you wondering whether the stern, even obsessive monotheism of orthodox Islam is a sensitivity to the presence of ancient secrets in that part of the world.
Review posted January 17, 2015.
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