“It’s not hard.
I just need you to listen.
And keep listening.
That part is essential.
I need you to recite a few strange words the morning sun, or the afternoon doldrums, or the long, ever-expanding night. Wherever you are, whenever you are, whoever you are.
In his house, he waits dreaming.”
—Richard Thomas, “In His House”
Is there a better way to round out the year of reviews than with the big “C” himself? I didn’t think so, either. This review also introduces us to a new anthology, and an author I’ve not reviewed before, but one with whose work I am familiar. Richard Thomas is well known in the horror fiction community not only for his fiction, but probably more as a teacher of fiction. He is the host and professor of Storyville, an online writing workshop with multiple class offerings for any experience level. In addition to that, he also teaches several classes through Lit Reactor, another online writing community. The present anthology in which Thomas finds himself published is THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX, published in 2020 by Justin Burnett and Silent Motorist Media. Featuring stories from heavyweights like Brian Evenson, Nadia Bulkin, and Stephen Graham Jones, this anthology also introduces readers to a great selection of newer and/or lesser known authors, like K.A. Opperman, Devora Gray, and S.E. Casey. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX takes as its theme the unwritten, forbidden text. Lovecraft invented perhaps the most well known example with the Necronomicon, but Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Clark Ashton Smith’s Liber Ivonis, and Chambers’ insanity-inducing play The King in Yellow are all familiar examples as well. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX expands on those ideas as well as introducing new ones, and not all of them are what you might expect. Burnett promises us that “musical scores, ancient glyphs, curbside ‘religious’ pamphlets, and real medical texts,” all lurk within.
“In His House” begins with the address, “Hello my friend,” alerting the reader to the epistolary format but also gently introducing the idea that this will be a story written in the second person. Admittedly, the second person is not my favorite point of view from which to read a story (it increases the difficulty level of the willing suspension of disbelief exponentially for me), but Thomas pulls it off pretty well. We go on to discover that the letter we’re reading has been around for a while, and distributed throughout multiple media formats. It is at the same time a plea for help and a gospel of sorts. “However it got to you, thank you for taking the time to read it. My fractured soul depends on your help here, your involvement, your support.” Veteran mythos readers will immediately recognize the next line, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” though if this is your first foray into the Cthulhu mythos (and I doubt it) you might find yourself not only tongue-tied but a bit confused. “Translated,” it means, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Over the course of the letter, the reader encounters both a sense of calling and inevitability. You were meant for this. You didn’t find this letter, it found you and now you cannot help but read it. In the reading of it, you bind yourself to the task to which it calls you; through the inadvertent recitation of the Cthulhu cult’s chant you have drawn the sleeping old one’s eye towards you and now assist in his awakening. It is, at the same time, both a bit silly and an enormous amount of fun. Thomas wraps his cosmic dread around such gems as “I want to talk to you about our Lord and Savior—the High Priest of the Great Old Ones, The Eternal Dreamer, The Sleeper of R’lyeh.”
In some ways, I read the story as a love letter to a forgotten feeling of adventure and discovery. When I first discovered Lovecraft, I was in middle school and I didn’t get it at all, but something about it stuck with me. It was almost as if I knew there was something special there, but I was not yet ready to unlock it. So when I came back to HPL in high school, I not only read the stories but researched the concepts. Tell me you didn’t do the same? Anyone else hold their breath a little when you found a “copy” of the text of the Necronomicon? I mean, I printed mine out, hole-punched it, and clipped it into a dark blue three-ring binder on the cover of which I drew my best elder sign. I was careful to never read the words out loud. I mean, I knew it was fiction, but what if it wasn’t, right? Thomas’ story taps into that same feeling and I really enjoyed it.
Thomas’ writing is very accessible, bearing none of the hallmark’s of the Old Gent’s purple prose, but neither would you expect it to coming from an instructor of letters. If there is poetry to be found here, it is in the structure of the tale and not in the words deployed. He makes liberal use of single sentence paragraphs that generally accomplish their goal of slowing you down and calling attention to the gravity of the situation. Like those short paragraphs, the story as a whole is also very brief, leaving little room for either fluff or error, and Thomas’ deftly avoids both. There is a beautiful agony in the letter as well. Its in-text author is torn between evangelistic glee and his own horror at that to which he is luring the unsuspecting reader. This liminal narrative space was my favorite aspect of the story and where I think Thomas shines the brightest as a writer because I suspect that feeling is a very difficult one to accomplish.
In the end, this was a fun jaunt into the concept of the unwritten and forbidden text. Like most mythos work, it wasn’t particularly revelatory, but neither did it need to be because of the way it played with the already established concepts. If it had been longer it would have grown tiresome, but that’s where Thomas’ mastery comes into play. He knew exactly how long a story like this should and could be and he didn’t write it one word longer. Such self-aware economy is enviable. I look forward to digging into more of the stories in this volume. The premise is extremely promising to fans of cosmic horror and printed-off Necronomicon readers everywhere.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,