Sen. Rob Portman’s communications director is the antichrist.
More accurately, Caitlin Conant (née Dunn) is the namesake of the antichrist in her co-worker’s latest work of horror fiction. In reality, she’s quite nice.
“I wanted her to be important. I wanted her to be a major character,” says Brett Talley, 33, who, in addition to being Portman’s speechwriter, is an author of three published horror novels and two “true ghost” stories. His latest, “The Reborn,” a novella about a world where reincarnation is scientific fact and a blood test can determine who you are before you are born, is littered with characters named after people in his Senate office. “I consider it a gift. In horror novels being the antichrist is, like, the highest honor possible.”
“That’s how I took it,” Conant says later on the phone. “I know he doesn’t think of me that way, obviously.”
Talley’s day job is to write speeches and op-eds for Portman, an Ohio Republican who recently quashed speculation that he might run for president in 2016 — a move that only increased speculation about his being picked as a vice presidential candidate. Part of Portman’s perceived problem when it comes to the national theater of a presidential run is that he’s boring. Talley doesn’t have that problem.
Born in an Alabama town so small that it “doesn’t even have a stoplight,” Talley is probably the only congressional staffer who moonlighted as a paranormal detective before coming to Washington. The first time I met him, we had lunch at a Capitol Hill bar; the second time, we traipsed around a cemetery in search of ghosts.
“When I’m writing speeches, I hear [Portman’s] voice in my head, which is weird, kind of schizophrenic,” Talley says over lunch. A big ol’ boy from small-town Alabama, Talley has graying hair that belies his young, cherubic face. He wears a University of Alabama red polo, topped with a Harvard Law School fleece, with a pair of aviators hanging from his collar.
His day-job voice isn’t his own. It was never his dream, for example, to write a speech about the corrugated-box industry, as he did this year. (“We talk about wanting to sell more products stamped ‘Made in America.’ Those stamps are on your boxes.”) But then, day jobs on the Hill seem to breed a desire to spread wings. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal female senator from California, wrote a novel about a liberal female senator from California; dozens of lawmakers live out their childhood fantasies by donning uniforms and playing the annual Congressional Baseball Game at a major league ballpark, and a bipartisan group of representatives formed a rock band call the Second Amendments.
Talley just wants to terrify people. Despite writing novels about the occult — last month, he finished a draft of a sequel to his first book — Talley doesn’t seem to have much darkness inside of him. He’s always grinning as if he just told a dirty joke and often interrupts his stories with laughter. But he grew up loving horror movies and the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King.
He says his writing began on a dare from a co-worker at a law firm he was working at after law school. He says he has sold between 10,000 and 15,000 books, and his first horror title, “That Which Should Not Be” (2011), was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award (also known as the top award in horror writing).
He was thrilled with the reception but knew he wasn’t about to make a living off fiction. He also knew that working at a big D.C. law firm was sucking out his soul. He decided to make the move into one of the only professions that gets more eye rolls than being a lawyer or horror writer: politics. Talley had attended Harvard Law while Mitt Romney (R) was governor of Massachusetts and took a liking to his style. So when Romney ran for president in 2012, Talley volunteered at the campaign’s Boston headquarters for four months before being hired to help with the op-ed writing. His extracurricular work slid under the radar until after the election.
“I remember finding out after, and I couldn’t believe it was the same guy,” says Stuart Stevens, who had served as Romney’s chief political strategist. “I’d read his stuff and was blown away. This guy is sort of a cult figure; he has a big fan base.”
Stevens — who had seen Talley’s work before working with him — considered himself part of that fan base (despite having torn apart several Talley op-eds during the campaign), and he put in a good word with Portman’s office. The senator’s team liked him but had some slight reservations.
“When you find out someone is a horror writer, you have two options,” says Rob Lehman, Portman’s chief of staff. “You either read all their books or ask them if there is anything that could possibly be a problem.” With staffers as a reflection of their bosses, one horrific scene taken out of context could have a gruesome impact. Talley persuaded them not to worry, and he got the gig.
“It’s a weird job,” Talley says. “A lot of Americans believe, and this is fine, that every tweet, every Facebook post, every letter to the editor, every op-ed, the senator just sat down and wrote that thing.”
When writing for himself, Talley gets to say whatever he wants. When it comes to Portman, he says, he has to sacrifice writing under his own name to help a man he believes is truly great. And he admits that he doesn’t agree with his boss on everything.
Last year, a couple of years after Portman’s son came out as gay, the senator said he would support same-sex marriage. Talley hasn’t made that change.
“It’s honestly not something I agree with him on, but I’m sort of open to the idea,” Talley says. “I don’t know, it’s sort of this weird compartmentalization, I guess. My job is to help him deliver his message.”
And by all accounts in the office, he’s been good at it.
“He’s been great,” Lehman says. “He’s very creative. He’s also dogged about expanding the senator’s vocabulary.”
Case in point: Talley says he keeps trying to get the word “hobgoblin” into a speech.
“That’s not fiction,” Portman says when reached by phone. “He has tried to get me to say ‘hobgoblin,’ but I’ve been resistant. I guess I didn’t really appreciate it. I’ll have to do it for him at least once. But I speak pretty plainly.”
Portman says he gets a kick out of Talley’s supposed dark side, even if the senator isn’t much for horror. Last year for Christmas, Talley gave him an autographed copy of his first book. He’s about halfway through it.
“I’m more, like, into cowboy movies and action films,” Portman says. “He was kind of a risky pick for me. I knew I’d know within a month if it worked out or not.”
Talley has been there two years. When asked whether he knew that Talley had been a paranormal detective, Portman pauses and says , “I didn’t, but I’m not surprised.”
Talley began going out with the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group while clerking for a judge after law school. The group would explore old plantation homes or abandoned insane asylums armed with thermal cameras, electromagnetic field meters and digital voice recorders to search for signs of the supernatural. Talley says he was always one of the more skeptical people on the expeditions, but then again, he kept going on the expeditions.
On a foggy evening in early December, Talley takes me to the Holy Rood Cemetery in Northwest Washington to show me how to hunt for ghosts. He has come from the Hill, and his black trench coat and suit combination makes him look like he was a lobbyist for the undead.
“It’s not the guy who makes the tombstone who makes the life,” he says to me, in an effort to tie together this journey to the cemetery with his day job. “The guy who writes the speeches is not the person who is creating the underlying ideas or even creating the vision.”
Armed with just a voice recorder and flashlights, Talley’s move is to find graves that seem interesting and ask questions out loud in case a spirit wants to answer. Even in his off-hours, he is trying to channel someone else’s voice. But he seems almost to be doing this with a wink and a smirk. He knows it is absurd.
“I tend to believe there’s a good scientific explanation for the weird things people see and hear,” he says. “But I’m open to the idea, and it’s fun.”
We walk through the mud to the back corner of the cemetery, past toppled over tombstones and patches of dead grass. We come to a grave whose lettering had been rubbed out.
“It’s kind of sad,” Talley says. “You live your whole life, and there’s a monument made to remember you but the words have completely faded away.”
Then, he turns to the grave. “How long have you been buried here?”