Invocations: A Collection of Warhammer Horror Stories
Nothing seems to to closer to the very centre of a Venn diagram of this blog’s title than the titles of the Warhammer Horror imprint; and as I’m a big Black Library fan, it seemed only natural to read and review all of the Warhammer Horror series as they’re published. I was excited when I learnt that Black Library were planning a Horror-focused imprint, and I was somewhat skeptical that Horror fiction could be differentiated from the already-grimdark nature of the Warhammer settings, especially Warhammer 40K. However the first publication, the triptych The Wicked and the Damned, thoroughly impressed (and horrified) me and made me realize that Warhammer Horror could indeed be a distinct imprint. I dived into the other releases in the first tranche of the imprint – the anthology Maledictions, the audio dramas The Way Out and Perdition’s Flamers – and realised that here was an imprint that I both loved and wanted to succeed. Therefore I decided to make sure I reviewed each title as it was released, regardless of the format. Reviews of that first tranche will be forthcoming in the future, but for the moment I’m focusing on the latest anthology Invocations, having received a copy through Netgalley. The Table of Contents listed a great blend of veterans and newcomers in the Black Library stable, and the distinctive and eye-catching cover art by Rachel Williams made me eager to begin reading.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
I’m a huge fan of David Annandale, and his contributions so far to Warhammer Horror have been some of my favourite stories in the imprint, so I was glad to see the anthology open with The Hunt from his pen. I haven’t come across many stories told in second-person, and I know it can be a difficult point of view to pull off; fortunately Annandale is more than capable of pulling it off, using it as an engaging and chilling framing device for portraying a Witchhunter being haunted by terrifying screams and wails that emerge from the darkness each night, joined by strange flashes of unlight that only Bered Davan can see. Annandale’s mastery of atmosphere and descriptive prose only ever seems to grow with each story he writes, and he uses it here to effortlessly portray a growing sense of horror as Davan watches his spectral doom approach his quarters. Add to that a terrible decision made in the past that gnaws at the Witchhunter at every opportunity, and you have a genuinely creepy and unsettling tale, with a gut-wrenching twist in the ending. It’s easily the highlight of the entire anthology and well worth the price of purchase alone.
The Confessions of Convict Kline by Justin D. Hill is set in the familiar grim darkness of the 40K universe, and sees a Confessor reviewing the crimes and confession of a psychopathic killer, a man who carved his way through several Ecclesiarchy apartment blocks before being captured. Hill captures well the feel, the atmosphere, the flavour of a 40K interrogation with its overbearing religiosity and presumption of guilt until innocence is proven. It’s also a fascinating look into the ‘art’ of producing a confession, and the attitudes of the fanatical religious zealots employed to undertake that task. The casual brutality and attitudes to death, and yet implicitly rote nature of condemning yet another criminal to Imperial ‘justice’. The horrifying irony that penitence and being ‘saved’ means a far worse fate than just being executed; and the perhaps inevitable fate of those involved in such service. It’s all first-class atmosphere, added to good writing and an engaging plot with some nice twists and turns.
Setting a horror tale in and around the feastday for a returning monarch is certainly an original and intriguing concept, and it’s one that Lora Gray uses to great effect in He Feasts Forever. There’s some good characterisation with the relationship between protagonist Dedric, cook in the King’s court and his older brother, a foul-tempered hunter. As if his brother’s mood wasn’t bad enough, there’s the unexpected present of a fine deer for the feast, and then the appearance of a strange young child in the kitchens while the deer is being butchered and prepared. There’s some intense imagery in this story as Dedric considers his past prior to service to the King, some of which made me feel queasy, not an easy achievement given how much Horror fiction I’ve imbibed the past few years. A quietly horrifying tale that bodes well for Gray’s future as a Black Library writer.
Stitches by Nick Kyme has a fast-paced opening that was certainly a change of pace compared to other stories; and you can tell Kyme is a veteran storyteller from the way he efficiently and effectively sets the scene – a worn-out medicae on a war-torn world the Imperial Guard are struggling to pacify, and a flood of wounded and crippled men who are often infected with things that require a flamer to deal with. The keen isolation of dirty white walls and endless slabs with crippled and dying men is deftly evoked, and there’s a wonderful sense of sanity slowly being lost as the medicae begins to see dead men come back to life. A potent blend of psychological horror as well as physical – almost splatterpunk in some parts. Both a great Warhammer story and a great horror story – perfectly stitched together.
Blood Sacrifice by Peter McLean is a continuation to several of his 40K stories, including one in the Maledictions anthology, and confirms my belief that Warhammer Horror seems to be a natural place for McLean to write in. Once again Corporal Cully and One Section are fighting the enemies of the Imperium, this time on the Hive World of Voltoth. It’s a grim, depressing place but a vital one, churning out the endless food supplies the Imperium of Man needs to hold back the tides of xenos and chaos for another day. It’s under siege by Orks and needs to be held at any cost. Cully is a fascinating character, and something I don’t think we’ve seen before in an Imperial Guard story: a Guardsman explicitly affected by the horrors inflicted by all the campaign’s he’s survived, with McLean openly highlighting things like PTSD and self-inflicted wounds. I imagine it’s only an imprint like Warhammer Horror that would allow McLean to flourish like this, and Black Library are to be commended for that, as he’s a fantastic writer. He really brings home the fatalistic nature of service in the Imperial Guard in a way I haven’t quite seen before, combined with some great action scenes, a firm eye for characterisation, and a terrifyingly vivid imagination. There are far too many people who seem to take the Imperium of Man as the ‘good guys’ in the 40K universe, and McLean’s stories are a timely and powerful counter-punch to this attitude.
The concept of pagan rites is always a good concept for a horror story, from the Wicker Man to Midsommar, and Richard Strachan puts his own unique Warhammer take on it with The Growing Seasons. I enjoyed the slower pace of the story and the infusion of those pagan practices and the sense of thousands of years of history weighing down on the inhabitants of this small valley. Their peace is interrupted by a former inhabitant of the valley returning unexpectedly, and things begin to go badly wrong in this isolated backwater. Strachan seems to positively revel in the rot, decay and general chaos that he inflicts on the farmers, and artfully depicts the slow but inevitable disintegration of a farming community.
Jake Ozga is another new author I hadn’t heard of before, but he certainly seems to know what he’s doing with the Warhammer setting from the look of Supplication. An old man journeys from his isolated farm after the death of his wife and attempts to return to the tribe that he abandoned so long ago. But the further he progresses, the more he realizes that the forces of Chaos have won their battle against humanity and taken root deeply. Ozga’s writing is deeply atmospheric and his descriptions of a forest turned to Chaos is wonderfully vivid and detailed. That and a slow-paced, almost painful story of the old man discovering what has happened to his tribe and family makes an excellent tale, with a shocking twist and bittersweet ending. Ozga really nails the feel of Chaos, and I’d like to see more Chaos-orientated tales from him.
Quietly horrifying in its concept and also an excellent mystery tale, From the Halls, the Silence by David Annandale is reminiscent of something like the old Eisenhorn tales by Dan Abnett, or the Inquisition Wars by Ian Watson. Here we have an Inquisitor attending an aged and infirm confessor, who wishes to make a confession – but ironically one that can only be heard by an Inquisitor. Annandale weaves a classic tale of Inquisitorial investigation, with the old man once an Inquisitors accomplice; they examine accusations of heresy made by one ancient clan against another, only for the Inquisitor to disappear under sinister circumstances. This story merely added more evidence to what I already knew – Annandale really does seem to be the reigning monarch of Warhammer Horror.
C.L. Werner is another veteran Black Library author I’m a big fan of, and in particular his Old World tales, like the Blighted Empire trilogy with its compelling blend of politics and mystery. The Old World may be dead (for now) but the Age of Sigmar setting has succeeded it, and it’s here that Werner bases his tale, A Sending from the Grave. Yuri is an amateur ironhunter, using a Duardin-forged rod to hunt meteoric iron in marshlands, in the hope of making his fortune. Unfortunately he discovers something more than some scraps of meteor, something that brings death to the citizens of the wonderfully named Sigmarograd. I’m unclear if ironhunting has been featured in Black Library titles before or if Werner invented it, but regardless he deftly uses it to develop the background of Sigmarograd and its culture, moulded around the starfall hunting. That gives the depth of background needed to make the bloodshed that follows more insidious. The monster Werner unleashes is original in concept and all the more terrifying for how alien it is and unlike other things that lurk in the Warhammer settings. It also ties into some of the more intriguing and darker themes in the new Age of Sigmar universe, in particular the Stormcast Eternals, and I’d like to see Werner develop this into further stories. Vivid, unsettling and thoughtful – all one could ask for from a horror story.
The anthology closes with a short vignette from David Annandale, The Summons of Shadows, set in the dull world of Administratum bureaucracy, of ancient records transcribed pointlessly and then forgotten about instantly, yet never allowed to be ignored by the bloated weight of the Imperium. That particular anonymous, grinding and utterly tedious existence has always been one of the grimmest parts of the 40k universe for me, and Annandale evokes it perfectly even before he introduces the ghosts haunting an Administratum clerk. Ghosts that demonstrate the futility and pointlessness of Imperial service, where a mere translation error can kills tens of thousands and then be lost in moldering paperwork. It’s short, sharp and shocking and serves as a perfect ending to the anthology.
Invocations is an absolutely first-rate anthology from Black Library, and one of the stand-out titles in an imprint that is already producing some high-quality titles. All of the stories it contains effectively use the various Warhammer universes to develop unsettling, horrifying and often even outright disturbing tales that build on the grimdark foundations of the setting. Particular praise should go to Annandale, Werner, McLean and Ozga for stories that stood out even amongst the general high quality of their peers, and I would hope to see more from them in Warhammer Horror.