The Nightside Codex edited by Justin A Burnett
The Nightside Codex is a themed anthology of stories about unwritten works: books, documents, musical scores, theories, mystical glyphs, tattered autograph books and the like. Think ‘The King in Yellow’ type stories. Now, I might be somewhat set in my ways, but experience has taught me that getting writers to write about writing is akin putting your grandmother in a barrel and pushing her over Niagara Falls: it seldom ends well!
While there’s a world of inventive ways to address such a theme, often when writers write about writing the result is somewhat introspective. All writers – no matter how relaxed they might seem about their work – are prone to introspection when the subject arises, and keeping that out of the stories can be a challenge.
It’s fair to say that a fair few of the stories in The Nightside Codex carry a degree of introspective narrative, and as interesting as it might be, it often doesn’t drive the tension needed for a suspenseful tale. Well, it doesn’t for me. A fair few of the stories have a lengthy build-up, promising some great secret to be revealed which will leave the reader reeling, but when the climax arrives, the pay-off isn’t worth the investment.
The shame of this is all the stories are well written, and all do promise something will be revealed. There was only one story in the collection which didn’t hook me in. However, when dealing with mythical texts, it’s difficult to have a grandstand ending because it would need to convey the enormous power which has been attributed to the imagined work.
If, for example, the story is based on a piece of writing which drives people insane or pushes them to strange and unusual deaths, then any revelation of the work needs to have that power. If it doesn’t, the story fails. Most writers know this, so the result is a number of stories based upon the power of a book, musical score or fabled communication, but to avoid the inevitable anti-climax the story too often veers off at the last moment, which leaves the reader feeling short-changed.
Too often in the Nightside Codex, the stories promise a mystery, create a need to understand the content of the specific text, shroud events in mystery and uncertainty, and then deliver a subtle and vague ending. That isn’t to say subtle and vague endings don’t work. I like the odd one sprinkled in a collection, but because the vast majority of tales ended without resolution, I found myself craving some action, an explosive ending, an orgy of violence or destruction. I would even have swallowed a happy-ever-after (and I hate happy-ever-after in all its forms). I just wanted a conclusion.
However, The Nightside Codex does include a couple of stories that really work. My personal favourite was Tongue-Tied by Devora Gray. To start out, it feels fragmented, but the various elements dovetail together to build a story which is compelling, tense, mysterious and entertaining. The subtle twist is unexpected, and left me with a thirst for more of Gray’s works.
Vanity by Austin James also sidesteps introspection, delivering a short but well-crafted tale of rejection, absence, revelation and vanity … of sorts. It sits at the back end of the collection, which means some who find the subtlety of the anthology too much might never find it, but it deserves to be sought out!
The Past is a Foreign Country by Alistair Rey is another which worked well. A mysterious musical score is the centrepiece of this tale, which has an unsettling undertone of dread throughout the tale. I spent a fair amount of time after reading the story trying to imagine how the composition sounded.
Rhys Hughes’ Between the Circles is another interesting read, and while it has a somewhat lacklustre ending, it stands well without the last part. Based on The Divine Comedy, it considers the story of a swindler determined to beat Dante’s circles of Hell.
The Nightside Codex isn’t an anthology that cries out to devoured, one story after another. For my taste, it was a little too dry and whimsical for that. It is best picked over, taking on one story at a time, before dipping into something with a touch more humour, pace and action. Then, when you’re in the mood for a bit more introspection, tackle another story. As a selection of more atmospheric samples, it could find a place in the libraries of many.