Completed: February 23, 2012 (#14)
Recommendation: Erudite and ghastly, Harvard Law School meets the Occult
Reading, let alone publicly reviewing, a book written by a friend is less of a pleasant prospect than one might imagine. An infelicitous turn of phrase or two, a perceived slight, then follows a lifetime of awkward reunions. (One shudders to imagine the soirées that followed the publication of Wolf Hall… “Oh, Hil, so nice to see you! I read your book. It was just so…just so…I really liked the pronouns.”)
To find fault with another’s polished written work is a matter of a different intellectual–even moral–quality than to contradict an argument delivered orally. Writing exposes the writer’s ego to far more slings and arrows than speaking does the speaker’s: slips of the tongue are forgivable, but slips of the pen never.
Happily, Mr. Talley has spared A Superfluous Man the task of damning him with faint praise, thanks to his fine debut novel, That Which Should Not Be. Set in late 19th century Massachusetts, the frame narrative follows one Carter Weston on his quest for an ancient book of witchcraft, the Incendium Maleficarum. The search takes him to the nearby town of Anchorhead, where he passes the proverbial dark and stormy night in a pub. There he is regaled by three locals, each with a tale to tell that is more gruesome, eerie, recondite, and unsettling than the last. Wallachia, Antarctica, Boston–no continent escapes coverage in this quick read that this reviewer completed in two equal sittings of approximately two hours.
A Superfluous Man assures the Reader that Mr. Talley is generally the sort fellow whom one would expect to compose Hemingway-esque sentences like “the food was bad” or “the demons were scary and bled from their eyes,” perhaps with a Twainian twist: “the demons were fixin’ to done bleed from their eyes, I reckon.” Instead, he quotes from Tennyson then observes, “Though he could not have known what ancient and eldritch knowledge stirred him when he wrote those words, he spoke truly nevertheless.” For his sesquipedalianism alone, Mr. Talley receives A Superfluous Man‘s salute!
There are some flashes of literary skill in this book:
I entered quickly, pressing the door forcefully closed against the now raging wind outside. I turned to see an elderly woman glaring at me from behind a solid oak desk. “Good evening,” I lied.
(This particular passage is reminiscent of Ring Lardner’s famous line: “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”)
Or another, and the most thought-provoking passage in the novel:
‘Ah, the consummate skeptic,’ the Captain said. ‘And I would wear the name gladly,’ I replied, ‘for it’s only the skeptic that gives value to the truth.’ ’Yes,’ the Captain said nodding, ‘but only when he is open to the truth. The skeptic with a closed mind becomes the worst kind of believer.’
The book’s structure is the key to its success. As page follows upon page, the three strangers’ stories transport the reader deeper and deeper into the black abyss of Mr. Talley’s (apparently) warped imagination. The resulting effect is something akin to Marlow’s narration of Heart of Darkness, a sort of “horror recollected in tranquility”:
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
A Superfluous Man hastens to note that while he wholeheartedly commends That Which Should Not Be to prospective readers, particularly for those in search of a fright on October 31, Mr. Talley–who is sure to read this post–is not to deduce from the above quotation that this reviewer in any way, shape, or form is comparing his œuvre to Joseph Conrad’s. Not yet, anyway.
With that sole proviso: “Well done, Brett.”
Post scriptum. I guessed the epilogue. So there.