Among the things I brought back from Seattle (a bib, a bottle of gin, some cough medicine) was a book of mind rending terror, That Which Should Not Be. Or at least, the blurb suggested it would be a work capable of instilling fear in the most jaded heart. Sadly, they lied.
The book reads a bit like somebody decided to transcribe a game of Dungeons & Dragons that they had really enjoyed. The kind where the protagonists all survive, which, if you’re raised on a diet of Lovecraft, tends to feel like a cop out.
Actually, it would be unfair to compare this to the novelization of a role playing game. It’s more what you’d get if you made a small child watch some Hammer Horror films, and then asked them to write down the plots.
The plot of That Which Should Not Be is fully described by the blurb, so there’s nothing much to give away. A man goes off to a coastal village that feels like a cardboard cut-out of Innsmouth, where he meets four men in a pub, who tell him Terrifying Stories!!!! The Terror, such as it is, becomes dissipated when you realize that there is no way to distinguish the voices of the different storytellers; each one’s dialogue is indistinguishable from the next’s.
Perhaps that was meant to be spooky, some suggestion that the narrator was stuck in the Village of the Body Snatchers… But no. How …. creepy ….
It started promisingly enough, with the journey to Ersatz Innsmouth. But when the first story turned into John Carpenter’s The Thing, by way of nineteenth century fur trappers, my heart began to sink. The second story was a pallid rehash of some kind of horror film, called The Nuns Of Satan, with a bit of Lovecraftian unspeakable monstrosity to leaven things up. Story three confused me; it was either Session 9, or Sucker Punch, or some horrid blend of the two. There was no common theme to these stories apart from a "surprising" twist that was semaphored from the start of each tale.
Then again, the blurb gives away the twist from the overarching story on the back cover, so perhaps that was the true leitmotif. Somebody says they’re a good person. They turn out to be a bad person. The end. Somebody says they’ve written a good book. It turns out to be a bad book. The end.
The happy endings are perhaps the worst bit. It’s a bit of a joke that every story Lovecraft wrote seemed to end with "The horror! The horror!" as rugose tentacles clamber toward the narrator, but the alternative "An eldritch beast lurched towards me – but with one leap I escaped!" is no improvement. It’s also a bit strange that we go into lots of detail explaining that these beasts are from a time long before humanity, but then a quick crucifix is enough to get you out of any bother.
Strangely though, I didn’t stop reading it. Whether it was the pirate zombies, or the satanic nuns in not-quite-Transylvania, or the hope that the plot would do something out of the ordinary, I don’t know, but it was compulsive. A bit like cthonian biscuits…