When I was younger, I was not overly fond of horror. I attributed this to watching Child’s Play when I was probably far too young to be watching it, compounded by seeing Gremlins soon after. I have never been the same since, and if I am alone in a room with dolls (especially those giant “walking dolls” that were popular in the mid-’80s – I had one of those and I was terrified of it after Child’s Play), I get nervous. And do not get me started on Furbies: a somewhat-misguided aunt thought that I would appreciate one, and gave me one of the first models when I was in high school, giving another one to my then still-in-grade-school sister. I didn’t so much as try to put the batteries in mine, though my sister did start hers up, and I nearly destroyed it throwing it down on the floor in a fit of fright when it suddenly started singing in the middle of the night and woke me up.
While I am still afraid of dolls and Furbies, I am now quite appreciative of the horror genre, and will happily watch or read anything in the genre, even if it does involve dolls and Furbies (though I have yet to see a horror movie or read a horror novel involving the latter – why hasn’t anyone picked up on this yet?). Since then, I’ve developed my own criteria for horror. Gore does not scare me, so any book or movie that relies heavily on gore will not frighten me – I’m one of those people who can eat a steak dinner while watching The Walking Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any number of slasher films. In fact, I rather frown at books or movies that attempt to use gore to include a sense of fear – this is, I feel, hardly creative. I am aware that a lot of people find copious amounts of blood and guts all over the place to be quite terrifying, but as for myself, I find it a bit of a bore.
But what truly terrifies me, what gives me bad dreams and follows me around like a bad shadow, is a combination of supernatural and psychological horror: the type of fear created when the author or filmmaker reflects humanity’s darkest aspects right back at the reader or viewer, the fear created by twisting reality around so that it doesn’t fit quite right anymore. Psychological horror takes the fear humanity has of looking into its darkest aspects, while supernatural horror takes the basic human fear of the unknown and magnifies it through the lens of mythology and folklore.
Of all the writers who have mastered this heady combination, H. P. Lovecraft is considered to be one of the best – indeed, many horror writers and filmmakers say they owe much to Lovecraft and his writings. I believe they are right: I first started reading Lovecraft towards the latter of my undergraduate years at university, and have come to enjoy his special brand of horror, which plays around with both psychological and supernatural horror, though Lovecraft does not play with ghosts or spirits. Instead, Lovecraft has created his own unknowable horrors, such as the Elder Gods and other strange, disturbing creatures that populate what is now known as the Cthulhu Mythos. And since August Derleth and writers like him have adapted and expanded the Cthulhu Mythos, there has since been a tradition of other horror writers playing around with the mythos and putting their own spin on things. The novel That Which Should Not Be is part of this tradition.
Written by Brett J. Talley and nominated for the Bram Stoker Award’s First Novel category in 2011, That Which Should Not Be is centered around Miskatonic University and tells the tale of Carter Weston, a student at the university who is sent on an errand by his professor, Dr. Thayerson, to retrieve a special book called the Incendium Maleficarum, ostensibly for safekeeping alongside the more notorious Necronomicon. Weston goes out on this errand, and along the way meets some people who have unusual stories to share, but all of whom point to the true danger that lies at the heart of Weston’s seemingly innocuous errand.
I only discovered this novel about a week or so ago, and was quite excited to start reading it. Since I enjoyed Lovecraft’s works, I was rather hoping this contemporary interpretation would prove enjoyable, as well. As it turns out, I’m quite wrong about that, and I am still rather sad that this had to be the case.
One of the things Lovecraft is fantastically good at is creating a sense of atmosphere. The Lovecraft novellas At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are the ones that stick out the most when I think about Lovecraft and his ability to create a vague sense of dread, one that lingers and follows the reader around long after he or she has finished reading the story. I had hoped That Which Should Not Be would be able to recreate the necessary sense of atmosphere, but it did not have that at all. It might be argued that there are stylistic differences between Lovecraft and Talley’s writing styles, and therefore comparing one to the other is unfair. I agree with this entirely: Talley is not Lovecraft, and therefore while he can try to mimic Lovecraft as best as he can, there would hardly be any point to it because he is not Lovecraft. But I think Talley should still have been able to create that haunting sense of fear in his writing in whatever way he thought such might be accomplished, but this does not happen. There are a few brief moments when this seems to be the case, and during such moments I eagerly awaited the next development, but then something would happen in the story itself – some character’s dialogue, maybe, or the description of an event – and I would lose the moment entirely.
Another thing that disappointed me about this novel was the plot – or at least, its organization. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are capable of sucking me in, to the extent that I can read one of the novellas or around three of the short stories, look up at the clock, and wonder where the time has gone (while feeling a simultaneous shiver of fear at the lost time). While it is true that Lovecraft was not really known for creating engrossing characters, he was capable of creating some very engrossing plots. The blurb for That Which Should Not Be promised much, especially since it was being set in Miskatonic, and I do not recall Lovecraft setting a great many stories on its grounds – he mostly references it. And even when the story swiftly moved out of Miskatonic and to Anchorhead, I was quite all right with that – eager, even. But when I reached the three stories nested into the overarching plot of the novel, it felt as if the novel as a whole had lost steam, and I rather wished that they had not been in there at all. Do not get me wrong: I rather liked those stories, and had I read them separate from the novel I think I might have liked them. But I did not appreciate their inclusion, mostly because they felt a whole lot like filler to me: like Talley was trying to stretch a good short story out into novel length by including these three tales in the middle of it. If That Which Should Not Be had been presented as a series of interconnected short stories, I think I might have enjoyed it more, since the sense of fear in each story would not have been diluted.
Finally, I have some issues with the ending – more specifically, the role of what I suspect is the role of the Judeo-Christian version of God. At the novel’s climax Weston stabs Yog-Sothoth in the back with a cross, which kills it (or at least banishes it), and one of the other characters states that the only way to put Cthulhu back into his slumber for good is to recite an incantation that concludes with the true name of God, which said character does at the cost of his own life. I feel that such things do not have a place in the Cthulhu Mythos. What makes the Mythos so interesting – and so terrifying – in the first place is that there is no possibility of redemption. There is nothing out there, no sympathetic entity whose power or name could conceivably halt the coming of the Elder Gods. One can only put them to sleep temporarily, but eventually, that evil will return, and will return in such a manner that there is no way it can be stopped. So this idea of the Judeo-Christian God being a potential source of power that can oppose the Elder Gods rubs me entirely the wrong way.
Overall, That Which Should Not Be feels like a loss. There was so much potential in this novel, and even when I read it under ideal conditions (at night, in bed, in a quiet room, occasionally with the rain pouring buckets outside), the sense of fear would come and go depending on what was happening in the novel. There were times when it was there, and I would sit in bed, frozen with terror, but then something in the novel would happen – some plot event, or a slip in the language – and the terror would disappear with a sudden pop, and I would be left to rebuild the feeling again. The plot and organization were problematic as well: this could have been a great collection of four linked short stories, but as a novel, it does not succeed quite so well. And then that ending – oh, that ending. While I can understand attempts to spin the mythos off in a new direction, that was entirely the wrong one, and is the main reason why this novel is such a let-down (and perhaps a clue that Talley is not as familiar with the themes of Lovecraft’s works as he ought to be). This novel might work as an introduction to the works of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, but I doubt it will do for hardcore Lovecraft fans – or even for those who know the Mythos well enough to know that that ending is entirely not in keeping with the way the Mythos works. I am all for altering and expanding upon what Lovecraft did, but just not in this way.