The Way Out – Rachel Harrison (Audiobook)
Perdition’s Flame – Alec Worley (Audiobook)
I have always been impressed by the audiobooks released by Black Library, both in terms of narrated titles and full-blown audio dramas with multiple cast-members. They’ve always been of an exceedingly high quality, especially the audio dramas – listening to one, I can always be sure that there’s going to be excellent audio fidelity and quality, distinctive character voices (both in terms of audio and characterisation) and above all, fantastic sound effects and audio cues. I was therefore excited to discover that the new Warhammer Horror imprint would include a number of audio dramas, all fully-casted and approximately an hour in length. I immediately picked up the first two releases – Perdition’s Flame by Alec Worley and The Way Out by Rachel Harrison, curious to see how the concept of how horror fiction based in the Warhammer universes could be translated into an audio format.
[Note: Given the short duration of each audio drama, and the fact that the production quality in each one is so good that I feel they really are essential listening, I’ve decided to go light on plot details to try and avoid spoilers, and instead do two mini-reviews]
Of the two audio dramas, I decided to try The Way Out first for two specific reasons – firstly, I’d been impressed by some of the short stories I’d read by Rachel Harrison, especially her Commissar Raine tales that took an intriguing angle on an Imperial Guard regiment; and secondly, because The Way Out seemed to promise a classic ‘haunted house’-style story, but with a unique Warhammer slant. The crew of a freighter are caught in an intense and damaging Warp Storm, and are forced to slowly limp for the sanctuary of an isolated space station in a gigantic nebula, whose unique properties make radio transmissions almost impossible. They’re promised refuse and supplies by a mysterious voice on the station responding to their distress calls, but when they manage to dock, they find the station seemingly deserted. With travel no longer an option, they’re forced to venture into the station itself to search for help, and a way to make contact with the rest of the Imperium. But something is lurking in the depths of the station, interacting with each crew member in strange and terrifying ways.
Unusually, The Way Out was initially released in three separate parts, released over several days for a Warhammer Horror week on BlackLibrary.com, and I can’t help but wonder whether that helped or hindered the tension in the plot. Personally, I’d recommend purchasing the complete audiobook and listening to it all in one go to really appreciate Harrison’s script and the work of the voice actors. Given the limited run-time of the audio drama, in one sense there aren’t any real surprises in the overarching plot itself, and I’d readily guessed the ending after about a third of the way through it. However, that’s more than made up for by the depth of the characterisation, aided by excellent writing. Harrison has a great eye for inter-personal relations and the way they all work together – their reactions do seem like a veteran crew who’ve worked together for years, yet have their own secrets and grudges that would come out under times of high stress and fear.
In addition, the audio effects and cues used throughout the audio drama enhance the air of mystery that arcs through the story, and is skilfully deployed to heighten tension at key moments. There are a number of different scenarios that occur as each crew member is assailed by audio and visual hallucinations that are keyed into their greatest fears and hidden secrets, and they’re all memorable in their own way. A highlight of the plot was the plight of the ship’s Astropath in the opening moments of the story, who struggles to bring the ship out of the Warp and into normal space, in a sequence brilliantly written and supported by some great audio work. Of course, a huge part of these audio dramas are the cast of voice actors who voice the characters, and they’re uniformly brilliant, each one swiftly developing their own ‘voice’ as their character; particularly good is Jonathan Keeble, narrator of the Horus Heresy titles, who brings his pitch-perfect tones as the narrator, ominously intoning parts of the plot as they occur. The Way Out is a fantastic, immersive horror experience, created by merging a fantastic script and brilliant voice-acting and audio effects.
Turning to Alec Worley’s Perdition’s Flame, I was deeply impressed by the cover art for the audio drama, and wish I knew who produced it; it’s deeply evocative, featuring an Imperial Guardsman wreathed in shadows, hand outstretched with a blood-coloured flare going off, the clouds of smoke forming a skull. It really sets the mood for the whole production, and especially the overarching plot, which focuses on the character of Vossk, a disgraced former soldier in a Vostroyan Firstborn regiment. The Firstborn are a well-known planet in the 40K universe for producing Imperial Guard regiments, stretching back through the canon, and like many early regiments they’re based on a single nationality or trope: in this case they’re hardy ice-worlders with deep Russian accents and a fondness for fur-lined hats and hard drinking. That means that Vossk, voiced by Andrew Wincott, has a rather strong and thick accent that does occasionally boil over into self-parody, but generally Wincott is able to keep it on the level and give the plot much of its tension, as Vossk quietly informs his rescuers how he went from prisoner on a penal legion barge to sitting in a darkened cave.
Again, rather like The Way Out, the plot for Perdition’s Flame is fairly straight-forward – while travelling through the Warp, something goes terribly wrong on the penal legion vessel and prisoners and guards begin to die as they’re hunted by some kind of warp-spawned presence. There are some great audio effects and narration early on, as Vossk is haunted by whispers and spectral images and tries to convince nearby guards that he needs to be released before he dies with the rest. There’s also a cracking scene later on where Vossk and a guard are forced to navigate a pitch-black access corridor just by muzzle-flashes as they fight, and the voice cast and special effects team do a tremendous job of showing the tension and chaos of the sequence. Add in some very strange events at the end of the audiobook and you have a straight-forward but suspenseful and atmospheric plot, with some excellent voice-acting.
Both The Way Out and Perdition’s Flame are high-quality audio dramas, featuring the same excellent production values and voice cast that all of the latest Black Library audio products feature. Of course that means that they’re going to be enjoyable even before you get into the specific concept of Warhammer Horror. Having listened and re-listened to both of them for this review, I’d say that my favourite of the two would still be The Way Out purely because of Harrison’s script and the way in which the freighter crew interact with each other, and begin to lose their sanity as they travel through the way-station. Perdition’s Flame is also a good production, but at times it felt like it relied a little too heavily on the narration by Andrew Wincott and his, shall we say strong, accent. Regardless, they’re both excellent productions that I enjoyed immensely, and they’re great additions to the first phase of the Warhammer Horror imprint. I look forward to seeing more Warhammer Horror audio dramas, especially Alec Worley’s forthcoming The Watcher in the Rain.