Category Archives: Literary Musings

Let’s Talk A Head Full of Ghosts

Lately, I’ve written a number of straight reviews. I’m bored with that, so for A Head Full of Ghosts, let’s do something different. Spoilers galore, by the way, so if you haven’t read the book, you might want to do that first.

23019294It took me a while to read Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. When I picked it up the first time, I got to Chapter Two—the first blog post—and put it right back down. Recently, I tried again, and I’m glad I did. It’s not a perfect book. The treatment of religion borders on cliché, and the blog posts are full of the kind of psycho-babble social commentary you might find on your least favorite Twitter feed, but these are minor quibbles. Head Full of Ghosts is a page-turner that makes you think and keeps you guessing. With that in mind, I’ve posed some questions below with my take on the answers. Looking forward to your comments. And as I said, spoilers. SPOILERS. (4.5 stars, by the way.)


I said, spoilers!

  1. Is Merry really the one possessed?

I’ll start here, just because it’s the first thing you wonder after you close the book, based on the last couple of pages. I also feel quite confident in saying that the answer is no. Tremblay’s denouement is a nice trick, just like the one at the end of Inception (I also feel quite confident in saying that two seconds after the fade to black in that movie the top falls over, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he no longer cares what is real and what isn’t because he has the life he wants. It’s deep, man, and everyone missed it trying to decide what the answer was to the question that didn’t matter. But I digress.) It’s just a trick, though. The coffee guy all but says the heat is broken. It’s not Merry’s demon suddenly stealing all the heat. And other than the last few pages, I can think of no other evidence in the book for Merry’s possession. So let’s let this one go.

  1. Was the father planning on murdering the family?

I also feel pretty confident in saying that the answer here is no. As Merry suggests, her father was intending on cleaning the pewter cross, something that potassium cyanide is quite good at. If I’m right about that, then Marjorie is simply manipulating Merry into helping her murder the family she now hates while sparing the sister that she still loves. It’s possible that in Marjorie’s paranoia she also thinks her father is trying to kill them all, but I don’t buy the idea that she doesn’t know the consequences of her own actions. She’s made a decisive choice to end things. The exorcism didn’t work to help her and in the process she lost whatever trust and affection she had left for her mother and father. This also has the side-benefit of a nice tie in between Merry and what I assume is her namesake—Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Now, it’s possible I am wrong here. The emails between the crazy church leader and the father certainly indicate a plan for mass suicide. Moreover, if the father were simply buying the poison to clean the cross, it’s unclear why it would be so difficult for the police to track the purchase. More ambiguity from Tremblay and his unreliable narrator.

  1. What is really wrong with Marjorie?

Some might think this is the central question of the book. I’m not convinced. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with Marjorie. The book is really about the breakdown of a family, a scathing critique of reality TV culture, and an analysis of how desperation and greed can combine to create a horror far more terrifying than the supernatural.

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering what is going on with Marjorie.

Every time I think Tremblay is signaling that there is no demon and that Marjorie isn’t possessed, something happens to change my mind. Let’s get one thing clear from the start—she’s not faking it. The most likely explanation—and I’m no psychologist so don’t @ me bro—is that she is suffering from schizophrenia with associated paranoid delusions. Marjorie’s symptoms line up perfectly with that diagnosis, and the onset in early adulthood fits with the disease. The voices, the belief that thoughts and experiences are inserted into the mind by others, a marked change in personality, etc., etc., would seem to make the diagnosis pretty straightforward. Which leads me to my next question…

  1. Why, exactly, are we performing an exorcism?

This relates to my earlier comment about the way religion is treated in the book. There’s an implication at some point in the story that the local priest is somehow benefiting from the television show which presumably would not exist without the exorcism itself. But it’s never fleshed out and I don’t find it particularly believable. Moreover, a priest can’t just decide to do an exorcism. The bishop has to approve. This is glossed over in the book and there’s a chapter where a doctor, Dr. Navidson in a hat-tip to House of Leaves, examines Marjorie in order to provide evidence supporting the exorcism. He doesn’t find a whole lot. All we really have is Marjorie turning into a chatty Cathy, revealing evidence that she easily could have garnered from the internet. Compare this to The Exorcist, where the demon-possessed victim levitates, speaks Latin and Greek, reads the priest’s mind, and he still isn’t convinced she’s possessed. The book is probably based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but even there they had far more evidence to go on than we have here.

  1. Is this book really just about reality television and what it says about our culture?

Criticisms of how the book handles religion aside, it’s spot on in the way it addresses our reality TV culture. Just think about what is going on here—we have a girl, a mere child, suffering a severe mental breakdown to the point of harming herself and threatening her family and instead of giving her medical treatment the mom and dad have agreed to film the whole thing with an entertainment company agreeing to go along with it. And of course, it’s a huge hit. The central line in the book by my reckoning is when a now adult Merry is asked by the author writing her story how she can watch horror movies about exorcisms, given that they are more horrific than what actually happened to her. She replies, “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”

Now you may be saying—it’s just a book. It’s not real. Bless you if you think it couldn’t be real, though. If you think we wouldn’t watch. And bless you if there’s not a part of you, buried deep back there in your brain, that doesn’t wish you could watch this very reality television show, that doesn’t wish it were real after all.

That’s the true horror, my friend.


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On Originality

Something interesting happened yesterday. I was perusing the reviews of Limbus, Inc. and I came upon one that was quite fascinating. It was a so-so review—three stars—but in reference to my story they noted that they were able to predict the ending because it reminded them exactly of a movie they had seen. In the interest of not spoiling the film for everyone else, they declined to name it. Intrigued, and unable to figure it out, I sent them a message. They were kind enough to respond, and they told me the movie that it reminded them off.

And I got to tell you, after they named it, I saw the resemblance. So much so, that I’m not going to name it here, either, lest I ruin the story for you. But the most interesting thing of all? When I wrote the story, I had not seen this movie. And even though I knew something of its plot, it never entered my mind. Not once. Not at all.

I think there’s a valuable lesson there for writers. Of course, you don’t want your work to be derivative. You don’t want it to be just like everything else that is out there. But when it comes to originality, you can’t worry about it too much. You can’t obsess over it. Cause no matter how original you are being, it’s probably the case that it’s been done before, at least in some way.

All you can do is tell the story you’ve got, and make it as scary or romantic or funny as it can possibly be. 

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Can Print Books Survive?

Came upon this recently on (so, you know, if you want to be a teacher check it out). Anyway, I found this interesting. Could be pro-real book propaganda  but it seems to indicate that print books can survive the e-pub revolution. What do you think? Are print books a dinosaur just waiting to go extinct? Or will they always have a place? (I’m hoping for the latter).

E-books Infographic

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Does Good Horror Have To Be Depressing?

So part of my duties lately as a member of the Horror Writers Association has been as a member of the long fiction jury for the Bram Stoker Awards. I’ve read tons of great submissions this year, but I’ve noticed a trend. The ones that I have judged most highly, the ones that have seemed the most literary and the most deserving of the award, have also tended to be incredibly depressing. Rip your heart out, make you wonder about the world, depressing. I just finished one of the best I’ve read–When We Join Jesus in Hell. When I opened it up, I expected some cliched trope about religion. I was wrong. Very wrong.

How would I describe the story? Dark. Chilling. Disturbing. Heartbreaking. A trip through grief and torment and vengeance. And I would call it great. And like all great works, it left me thinking.

Does good horror have to be depressing? It’s an important question for me. I am a horror writer. Like everyone else who ever put pen to paper, I want to produce great stuff. But I am also a believer in the idea that good triumphs over evil. Doesn’t mean everything I write has a happy ending (see my contribution to 90 Minutes to Live), but most of it does. And so I return to that basic question.

I don’t have an answer. Common sense tells me that it can’t be the case. And yet…

So what do you think? Can horror have a happy ending? Or if something is to be truly horrifying, if it is going to take us into the abyss, can there be any light that shines through? Or does hope destroy horror?


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What I Love About The Void

Other than the fact that it is my newest book (comes out on Friday!) . . .

Somebody once told me that the only review that should upset you is a three star where the review amounts to “eh.” Well, The Void is not that.  People either love it or hate it.  There is no inbetween.  So far more people love it, so that’s good. Most interesting criticism so far? Not the typos (it’s called an unedited advance copy for  a reason). Definitely the science. Scientists have been debating the gravitational effects of anti-matter for the last hundred years, and yet the number 1 criticism by people who didn’t like the book is the one sentence on anti-gravity and anti-matter. OK, guys, it’s a stretch, but it’s not THAT BIG of one.

Anywho, thanks to everyone who has already shared how much they love the book. I’ve included some of those reviews below.

“VERDICT – This unique and unnerving read is a sure bet for horror and SF fans… the horror elements are very well written and fascinating.”  – ­Rebecca M. Marrall, Western Washington Univ. Libs., Bellingham – Library Journal.

“Talley follows Stoker finalist That Which Should Not Be with another tale of cosmic horror. This tale of aliens preying on humanity stands out from the crowd thanks to the strength of Talley’s prose and creative imagination.”  – Publishers Weekly.

“With THE VOID, Brett J. Talley guides us out to the vastness of space and deep into the landscape of nightmare. Talley gives us elegant prose that whispers unspeakable horrors. Highly recommended.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author of ASSASSIN’S CODE and DEAD OF NIGHT

“A cosmically magnificent piece of dark science fiction. Talley is a gifted story teller. Every word is an inevitable piece derived from a past dream, and every sentence, a haunting insinuation of what might come next.”  – Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award winning author of BLACK & ORANGE and BOTTLED ABYSS.

“The Void is one of the best horror novels that I’ve read this year, hands down. It is a vast improvement on That Which Should Not Be and firmly establishes Brett Talley as an author to watch out for in the future.”  –  Starburst Magazine

 “Talley has composed an immensely effective novel. It’s rare we stumble onto a new author so consistent in their capability to allure us into their next anticipated journey. Talley proves That Which Should Not Be, his debut effort, was no fluke. He’s here to stay deeply embedded in our darkest dementia.  –

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Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?

I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.

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Ray Bradbury Has Passed On

Of all the authors I have read, three have had an indelible impact on me and my writing–H.P. Lovecraft, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ray Bradbury.  I will never forget the first time I read The Martian Chronicles.  If  in my entire career I write one thing even approaching the beauty of “Night Meeting” or the heart-rending tragedy of “There Will Come Soft Rains,” I will consider my life a success.

Fare the well, Ray Bradbury.  The greatest adventure of them all awaits you.

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When Bad Things Happen: God and the Existential Crisis


I’ve noticed a common trope among writers that I want to point out.  It’s a cliché that I think most don’t recognize.  The following scenario has happened in just about everything I have read lately (in one book, it’s happened twice).  Somebody is religious.  X happens to them, something that is really bad.  The character decides that they don’t believe in God anymore, because what kind of loving God would let X happen.

Now maybe it’s just me, but I’ve known a lot of religious people in my life.  And I’ve known a lot of religious people that have had bad things happen to them.  And I’m sure that in the darkest hours of the night, they might have questioned God, or asked why.  But I have never known a single person who stopped believing in God or stopped being religious because something bad happened to them.  Not one single person.  In fact, most of the time, it’s made them more religious.

I get it.  Everybody who ever took a philosophy class has heard about the Argument from Evil.  If God is good and all powerful, why doesn’t he stop bad things from happening?  After all, we aren’t all powerful, and we try and stop bad things from happening.  It’s the ultimate preaching to the choir argument.  The only people who are convinced are already atheists anyway.  You see, religious people have this whole complicated belief system about the nature of evil and the way the world works.  The Book of Job is entirely devoted to the question.  So atheists walk into philosophy class and think they’ve heard the most profound explication of why God can’t exist ever formulated.  Meanwhile, the believers are yawning in the back.  They’ve been studying this stuff in Sunday school since they could walk and know that it’s nothing new or all that special.

So I think there are two types of writers who fall into this trap.  The first are the atheists who think that the first time something bad happens, the believers are going to wake up from their ignorance and curse God.  Then there are the guys who are trying to impress upon the reader the horribleness of the occurrence by showing that it would make someone give up their faith because of it.

Either way, I think I’ve seen enough of it.  If you are going to give your characters religious convictions, at least have enough faith in them to think that they would keep their own when bad things happen.

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A Writer’s View on the Evils of Copyright

Conventional knowledge would tell you that copyright is a writer’s best friend.  To a certain extent, that’s true.  No one wants to see their story with another person’s name slapped on top of it.  Plagiarism is a real problem (and surprisingly widespread), and if copyright was limited to stopping it, that would be fine.  But copyright has been twisted in a way that hurts artist and the general public.  In fact, I’m not sure copyright helps anyone, at least as currently constituted.

The Constitution says that the purpose of copyright is “To promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Ideally, that’s what copyright would do.  It would ensure that artists are rewarded for their work while promoting the art itself.  In fact, artistic compensation is but a side effect of copyright.  Its primary purpose is the flowering of art itself.  How far we have gone from that ideal.

Have you ever wondered why there are a hundred different film versions of Dracula or Romeo & Juliet but there’s only one Star Wars? Copyright.  Current copyright is roughly the life of the author plus 70 years.  Given the way George Lucas handles Star Wars, that means that no one alive is likely to see another version of the trilogy.

Now, maybe you’re saying, “That’s fine, I hate remakes.”  And maybe that’s true of the original trilogy.  But what about the prequels?  You know that you and your friends have sat around and thought about how you would have done those prequels differently.  How there would be no Jar-Jar.  How the first movie would have been condensed into a ten minute prologue, consisting mainly of the final duel.  You will never see that version.  Nor will you see a Return of the Jedi with Wookies instead of Ewoks.

Jar-Jar, crime against humanity.

But it’s worse than that.  You also won’t see the hundreds of movies that could have been made in the Star Wars universe, each with stories George Lucas never could have imagined.  Think about all of the writers who’ve worked within the universe created by Lovecraft.  None of us could have done so without Lovecraft’s insistence that other writers could borrow and expand his work.

Lovecraft, copyright rebel.

But what if it’s bad, you ask?  Funny thing about that.  Under current law, I can’t remake Star Wars, but I can make fun of it.  So while you’ll never see a remake of Star Wars, you will see Space Balls.  Parody is exempted from copyright protection.  If you want to make a loving remake of The Matrix, you can’t do it.  But you can make fun of it till your heart’s content.

If I were reforming copyright, I would limit the protection to 15 or 20 years.  That’s plenty of time to have exclusive rights to the work in its original form.  After the period was up, I’d give the original authors a gradually declining rate of return.  George Lucas would still make money off of Star Wars remakes, he just wouldn’t be able to exert total control over the product.  We’d all be better off, and copyright would do what it is supposed to do—encourage the creation of amazing art.

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For God, For Cthulhu & For Miskatonic

Johnny Depp, aka spoiler pirate.

Arrr!  There be spoilers ahead!

Yesterday I discussed how traditional good vs. evil struggles are not absent from Lovecraft’s fiction.  Today I want to get to the point—the presence of religion in That Which Should Not Be.  The best way to do that is to discuss what I was trying to accomplish in this crazy book.

  1. Create a Gothic, traditionally themed horror novel with an emphasis on Lovecraftian fiction.
  2. Treat the mythos as if it were another of the great religious traditions.
  3. Explore how legends, religions, and myths might be a way for the human mind to conceptualize the Great Old Ones, their fall, and the prophecies of their return.

For whatever reason, some people just could not handle the mention of anything religious in relation to the Cthulhu mythos.  The funny thing is, there’s not that much in TWSNB.  Sure, there are several references to the Bible, but almost all of those are reinterpreted as referencing the Great Old Ones.  I mean, if that guy on the History channel can see aliens in every verse of the Bible, why not Cthulhu in Revelations?

Yeah, this guy.

In fact, I think there are only three overt references to Judeo-Christianity in the TWSNB.  The first and second are actually the same—Jack’s use of a cruciform to defeat the Wendigo and Weston’s subsequent use of that weakness to fend off Thayerson towards the end of the novel.  The last is Captain Gray’s use of the name of God in a spell. Now, I have no problem if you want to read that as a straight Christian allegory.  I’m a Christian, and Christian themes have been present in literature in every form for the last 2000 years.  But the thing is, such a simplistic reading sorta misses the point.

As is stated multiple times in TWSNB, one of the driving principles of the book is that there is truth in every legend, every myth.  Take the cross, for instance.  Lovecraft scholars who objected to the power of the cruciform might be shocked to learn this fact, but the cross as a holy symbol predates Christianity and indeed is present in nearly every culture.  (Hence the reference in TWSNB to the ankh).  Indeed, the ankh of ancient Egypt was the ultimate symbol of life.  We see the cross in Eastern and Aryan religions, and archeologists regularly find Bronze Age objects (and even bones) engraved with the cross.  Lovecraft talks about certain signs and sigils that were used to keep the Old Ones at bay.  Why not a cross?  That Jake stumbled upon this defense because of his Christian faith doesn’t mean my book is the equivalent of Left Behind:  The Cthulhu Stories.

I mean, is there anything this guy could tell you that you wouldn’t believe?

Finally, the name of God.  The use of the name of God as an instrument of power isn’t from the Christian tradition, at least not in the way I used it.  It’s Kabbalistic mysticism.  According to some strands of Kabballah, it was the name of God that was used to create the world.  What a powerful word THAT must be.  What better way to bind Cthulhu? (And let’s recall, SOMETHING put Cthulhu and the Old Ones in their place. Whether it was the Christian God or not, it was something pretty powerful.)

In reality, I knew that there would be some in the Lovecraft community who would reject the book as an insult to Lovecraft.  There’s nothing I can do about that.  But when people like Mike Davis over at the Lovecraft eZine give the book the praise they do, I know that it was worth the slings and arrows.  And hey, there’ve been a lot more good reviews than bad ones.

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What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him? Humanity and the Cosmos in Lovecraftian Fiction

NB:  There are spoilers galore in the below post.

I often admonish writers to avoid the temptation of responding to negative reviews.  Nothing good can come of it.  People like what they like, and reviewing is perhaps the most subjective business of all time.  But I’ve noticed an interesting trend in reviews of That Which Should Not Be (both positive and negative), and I wanted to address it.  This is the first in a series of posts I plan to make on the issue.

There’s been a diverse reaction to the presence and role of religion in TWSNB.  In Lovecraft’s writing, the Cthulhu mythos is a sort of forbidden knowledge, studied by certain scholars but largely unknown.  And while Lovecraft often discusses the ancient gods in relation to the mythos, he rarely discusses the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Probably a good idea, given the times he lived in.  The people of the 20s and 30s might not have taken too kindly to any implications that could be drawn from it.

It’s also important to remember that Lovecraft didn’t think of what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos as a religious tradition unto itself.  The pantheon of the Old Ones, as we now consider it, was never so well ordered by Lovecraft.  Much of what people now defend as Lovecraftian is, in reality, a creation of those who followed him.  The major contribution of Lovecraft is not the notion of a hitherto undiscovered or unknown set of gods seeking to wreak havoc on humanity.  Rather, it is the notion of cosmic indifference.  The universe is vast, in many ways unknowable, prone to chaos, and completely uncaring about the fate of mankind.  That great beings exist is simple fact.

Many Lovecraft scholars argue that this goes one step further.  They argue that the Great Old Ones are as concerned about humanity as we might be an ant hill.  Much of the horror Lovecraft created came from his protagonists’ realization of this fact, and the insanity and hopelessness that followed from that.  Once the truth was revealed to them, there was no purpose to continuing to live and suicide often followed.

I don’t deny that one can draw this conclusion, but I reject any notion that Lovecraft did not recognize the age old struggle between good and evil in his writing, or the role that humanity might play in that struggle.  It seems to me that Lovecraft was never entirely consistent in his view of the relation between cosmic entities and humanity.  I think a lot of Lovecraftians want to believe certain things about the mythos and are willing to ignore contradictory evidence.  (In my view, S.T. Joshi, the greatest living Lovecraftian scholar, falls into this trap with The Dunwich Horror.  I’ll discuss it in more detail below.  Widely cited as one of Lovecraft’s greatest and most important stories, Joshi considers Dunwhich “an aesthetic mistake on Lovecraft’s part.”).  In reality, Lovecraft was far less concerned with continuity across stories as he was in simply spinning a great yarn.

Frankly, story after story of hopeless humanity would probably get boring at some point.  In Lovecraft’s greatest stories, humanity is not only noticed by the Old Ones, but they do a pretty good job of keeping them at bay.  The fact that the Cthulhu cult exists and seeks to wake the Great Old One speaks to their need for human action, as do the consequences of Captain Johansen’s decision to ram the eponymous creature with his ship.

But The Dunwich Horror puts the lie to any notion that humanity has no role in Lovecraft’s cosmic play.  In many ways, The Dunwich Horror is the centerpiece of the Cthulhu Mythos, even more so than the short story that bears his name.  In Dunwich, we are treated to extensive quotations from the Necronomicon as well as an Old One conspiracy that comes nigh on close to succeeding.  And how, pray tell, is it stopped?  By the efforts of Henry Armitage and his compatriots who, by using the ancient knowledge contained in arcane texts, defeat the son of Yog-Sothoth and prevent the return of the Old Ones.  (It almost sounds like The Omen).

I don’t see how we can ignore the implications of The Dunwich HorrorDunwich clearly refers to a “strange evil so vaguely threatening this planet” and sets up a dynamic where good people can and do oppose the rise of the Old Ones.  S.T. Joshi may disapprove of Dunwich because it is a “stock good-versus-evil scenario,” but that does nothing to diminish the importance of The Dunwich Horror to Lovecraft and the mythos.  I take no issue with writers who have constructed stories based on Lovecraft’s view of cosmic indifference, but I also believe that the notion that you cannot have good and evil vying against each other in a Lovecraftian story is a product more of what the readers wish Lovecraft had done rather than what he actually did.

To be continued in a future post…

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