Josh Reynolds, Phil Kelly and David Annandale
Three strangers arrive on a cemetery world, an entire planet dedicated entirely to the deceased of the Imperium of Man, meeting in one of the thousands of plazas on the surface and surrounded by funeral biers that stretch as far as the eye can see. The only other living things on the planet are servitors, lobotomised androids that maintain all of the monuments to the fallen. None of them can remember exactly how they arrived on the planet, nor do they know why they have been summoned there. Their only link appears to be that they are loyal servants of the Emperor of Mankind – a Commissar, a senior officer in the Imperial Guard, and an Ecclesiarchy missionary. Confused and unsettled, they decide to each take their turn in describing the last thing that they remember, in the hopes that some shared commonality will enlighten them.
It’s a classic scenario for a piece of horror fiction, harking back to old black and white Hammer Horror films, and it certainly grabbed my attention. But I’ll readily admit that I was somewhat skeptical as to whether The Wicked and the Damned could really produce something distinctive enough to warrant being published under the new Warhammer Horror imprint. Horror is of course inherent to Warhammer, especially the 40K universe, what with its demons, eldritch gods, sanity-shredding warp travel and an endless, futile conflict against countless alien races and Chaos-worshipping cultists that has lasted tens of thousands of years. But I’ve always felt that even the best stories have been somewhat constrained by the fact that they, at heart, fiction based on a miniature wargame system. Although that system has changed occasionally, especially in the past few years, those changes have always influenced the titles released by Black LIbrary, and never vice-versa. I therefore wondered if it was possible for Warhammer fiction to break out of those constraints, and produce truly transgressive Horror stories.
When I picked up my copy of The Wicked and the Damned, the portents were certainly good. There was that lavish piece of cover art by illustrator Allan Ohr, a trio of shattered skulls surrounded by smaller skulls and creepy red candles, all on a pitch-black background with a suitably devilish font. And the three contributors couldn’t have excited me more – although I hadn’t encountered Phil Kelly before, I’d heard good things about his fiction, and in my opinion David Annandale and Josh Reynolds are two of the best Black Library writers, demonstrating an innate understanding of the Warhammer universe and the horrors to be found within it. So there was an excellent writing pedigree, a sharp-looking cover that effectively portrayed the themes of the book, and the physical book has some neat black-tinted pages at the bottom and side, just to make it stand out more.
The collection opens with Josh Reynolds’ The Beast in the Trenches, and right away you can tell that there’s something inherently different about the stories in this collection, compared to previous offerings from the Black Library. There have been many Warhammer stories focusing on the role of the Commissar, but these characters have always had to be contextualized to the Warhammer roleplaying game – assigned to an identifiable Imperial Guard regiment, or stationed on a planet known to the canon (even if new) and fighting an identifiable enemy. Reynolds completely disregards all of these anchors. Commissar Egin Valemar is assigned to an unknown regiment, fighting an unseen enemy, on an unnamed planet. The Commissar as a trope in Warhammer is supposed to be fanatically loyal and intensely paranoid, but Valemar is entirely unhinged, convinced that an unseen enemy has infiltrated the regiment, and taking increasingly extreme measures to prevent its alleged corruption. Valemar’s actions take place against a backdrop of an intensely atmospheric and highly ambiguous conflict in First World War-style trenches; casualties are high and continuous from artillery that seems to come from both sides, and a complete absence of an actual enemy to fight. Even the terrain itself kills, the mud and ooze of the trenches shifting randomly, sucking in men and women without warning. Reynolds masterfully evokes the hellish conditions of trench warfare and the stressors caused by fighting in such conditions, and weaves that into Valemar’s narrative; fanaticism clashes with expediency, and men and women just trying to survive in a seemingly-endless conflict that kills them for no real reason. There’s also some delicious ambiguity by the end, as it becomes less and less obvious what the regiment is doing, and what the Commissar is actually achieving in his mindless pursuit of loyalty and purity.
After that strong opening to the triptych, we come to Phil Kelly’s The Woman in the Walls, a grimdark take on the classic Horror scenario of a guilty party being haunted by a vengeful spirit. An ambitious officer in an Imperial Guard regiment, Leana Venderson arranges for a rival to have an accident, to allow her to advance in rank, only for the accident to turn fatal. When the regiment departs onto a troopship to advance to the next warzone, Venderson and her compatriots finds themselves trapped on the ship being hunted by an impossibly strong and angry ghost. I enjoyed the way that Kelly developed the complex, class-ridden relationships to be found within the regiment, which forces Venderson to use a murderous assault as a way to advance, and he uses the claustrophobic nature of the troopship to excellent effect, creating some tense chase scenes and bloody murder scenes. It’s an enjoyable and often chilling story, albeit the weakest in the collection for me because the high quality of the writing was never quite matched by that of the plot; it never quite stood out from previous Warhammer 40K stories I’d read in the past that were set on vessels affected by the Warp.
Finally we come to David Annandale’s The Faith and the Flesh, which in my opinion is the best of the three novellas in The Wicked and the Damned, just about outdoing Mr Reynolds’ contribution, as well as being one of the best sci-fi horror stories I’ve come across in some time. A ship-breaking station in the depths of space, isolated and crewed by a tiny handful of crew-members, is the setting for a story that cuts to the heart of the concept of faith, belief versus evidence, and the inherent horror to be found in answers to those questions in the Warhammer 40K universe. Oswick Marrikus, an Ecclesiarchy missionary, travels to the station to visit an old friend and tend to the needs of the crew; or at least that’s his excuse. In fact Marrikus is a man with a crisis of faith, struggling with the demands of duty, faith and love, issues that Annandale deftly intertwines as the plot progresses. Just as he reaches his nadir, Marrikus and the crew discover an ancient ship with a cargo that seems like an Emperor-sent opportunity to discover the true meaning of faith and solve all of his problems. Unfortunately, rash actions lead to something ancient, eldritch and terrifying being unleashed instead. Annandale uses his novella to relentlessly and ruthlessly interrogate the nature of the Imperial Faith – and, really, all religious faith – in a way that I’ve never seen before in a Warhammer story; there aren’t any easy answers, just more and more difficult questions. Add to that some brilliant atmospheric writing and characterisation, especially for Marrikus, and a tense and horrifying second half that feels like an even terrifying version of Event Horizon, and you have a story that perfectly demonstrates Annadale’s intrinsic understanding of the Warhammer universe.
The Wicked and the Damned is formed of three great pieces of Horror fiction, two of which are especially transgressive and deliver unique angles on the Warhammer 40K universe, and all three delivering spine-chilling and stomach-churning horror and terror in equal doses. The collection is really only let down by the connective passages – the three interludes between the stories. Although Part 1 sets the tone and themes of the story well enough, there just isn’t enough detail to join the three novellas together. The last Part is particularly frustrating; although as well-written as the rest of the book, it just doesn’t feel anywhere near long enough to do the three writers and their novellas justice, and feels like the author was forced to hit an arbitrary word-count limit and leave certain elements of the plot unfinished. But this is a relatively minor concern, and I have no hesitation in calling The Wicked and the Damned a brilliant start to the Warhammer Horror imprint, and I’d love to see all three authors do more stories for it.