Maledictions: A Collection of Horror Stories
The production quality in Black Library publications has always been of quite a high standard, but with the new Warhammer Horror releases they certainly seem to be pushing the boat out in order to make them look distinctive and stand out from the rest of the many titles in their ranges. I picked up a physical copy of Maledictions: A Collection of Horror Stories when it first came out and I have to admit that it’s a handsome-looking volume. It’s unfortunate that the interior pages don’t acknowledge who’s responsible for the cover design and illustration, because whoever did it deserves a huge amount of credit. The dirty bone-white colour of the cover contrasts nicely with the blood red alveoli-style pattern on the front, and the title font is suitably gothic, and it’s accompanied by the edges of the pages being coloured red as well. It gives it an air of some forbidden tome taken from the bookshelf of a mage (or indeed Magos) and looks lovely on my shelf next to some of the other Warhammer Horror titles.
[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.]
The collection opens with Nepenthe by Cassandra Khaw, which is a rather unusual story that focuses on the Adeptus Mechanicus. It’s a well-worn trope in Warhammer 40K stories that the acolytes of the Mechanicum can become obsessive and secretive over their endless and fanatical pursuit for knowledge and power, but this was one of the few stories I’ve read where that was really laid out fully for the reader to see. Through the actions of two brothers, both Adepts on an Explorator vessel in deep space, Shaw demonstrates the ruthless and coldly logical nature of Mechanicus deception and politicking in order to achieve a goal. In this case, that’s the ancient vessel Nepenthe, which is believed to be full of wondrous technology and artefacts from the fabled Dark Age of Technology. It certainly is, but it’s also guarded by something as intelligent as the brothers – and far more vicious. There’s a great focus on obsession and deception throughout the story, as well as some chillingly-described and rather grisly body horror in the latter half of the story, and it has a satisfying story arc – something many Warhammer short stories often fail to achieve. It’s a great start to the collection, and I look forward to more stories from the author.
Veteran Warhammer author Graham McNeill offers up No Good Deed, which looks at what happens when a group of orphans from a nearby schola progenium (a sort of school for taking orphans and turning them into Imperial Guard officers) discover a severely-injured man nearby. He’s been burnt and badly beaten, and only the partial remnants of an Imperial Aquila highlight that he’s a Space Marine – maybe one of the ones who arrived in their Hive and crushed a band of heretics? They rescue him and bring him back to the schola, and try and help him regain his memory – the only thing he knows is that he’s a talented medicae and wants to help some of the sicker children. McNeill delivers a classic slice of horror here, which harks back to the very early days of the Black Library and some of the darker stories produced back then; the plot itself is easy to guess, but it’s very well-written and engaging, and there are some distinctly horrifying moments as the stranger’s motivations are finally revealed.
If there had been a Hammer Horror film set in the Meiji-era of Imperial Japan, then it would have looked almost exactly like C.L. Werner’s Last of the Blood, to the extent that it’s rather eerie; it feels like a lost script from a parallel reality was plucked out of the ether by Werner and turned into a short story. One by one, a disparate group of strangers are drawn to the ramshackle castle of Baron Eiji Nagashiro, who has invited them all to the ancient, isolated fortification for a mysterious purpose. A scholar, a widow, a warrior and others all come together to find out that the elderly Baron has deliberately gathered them in a last-ditch attempt to fend off a deadly curse that could affect them all unless they work together to try and end it. This really is a fantastic slice of supernatural horror – the tension and atmosphere are first-rate, and Werner slowly, surely and deftly unravels the twisted and labyrinthine plot as it becomes obvious why each and every one of the attendees has actually been invited to the castle. Indeed, the castle itself is almost a character in of itself, with Werner lovingly crafting a dilapidated, crumbling yet still strangely noble edifice that frames the entire story – both metaphorically and literally. Add to that some Warhammer-style magic, and an unstoppable phantom killer, and you have the recipe for a classic horror story that demonstrates Werner’s skill as a writer.
Predation of the Eagle is another tale from Peter McLean that allows him to again demonstrate his ability to compose tightly-written, action-packed Imperial Guard stories while also interrogating the setting in difficult and uncomfortable ways. While it’s a common trope in 40K that the life of an Imperial Guardsman is short, bloody and usually ends in a violent and anonymous death, there have still only been a handful of stories that actually explored that concept in more detail. Dan Abnett’s excellent Eisenhorn story Missing in Action comes to mind, which looked at how a group of Guardsmen might be affected by service against Chaos. But that was an Inquisitorial tale, whereas McLean allows Predation of the Eagle to focus on the viewpoint of a group of Guardsmen. Set on a brutal jungle world in an endless war against native Orks, McLean deftly demonstrates what the effects of constant, grinding attrition warfare would have on Guardsmen. What happens when soldiers can only rely on each other and not their clueless, incompetent officers – and then one of the most trusted, veteran members of their unit suddenly goes ‘native’? There’s a fascinating look at psychosis and something akin to group PTSD, as well as some excellent action scenes, all of which confirm my belief that Warhammer Horror is a setting uniquely suited to McLean and his skills. I’m intrigued to think about what he could do with other areas of the 40K universe – and what other awkward questions he could pose.
In The Last Ascension of Dominic Seroff, David Annandale revisits the titular Dominic Seroff, a former Imperial Guard Commissar who had attempted to scheme against the legendary Commissar Sebastian Yarrick and been exiled in disgrace as a result. With him in exile is Inquisitor Ingrid Schenk, another person who had attempted to defy Yarrick and paid for it with her career. They have both fallen into disrepute and obscurity as a result of their schemes, assigned to a miserable, dead-end planet that few have heard of and even fewer care. They spend their days undertaking pointless duties, going through the motions for no other reason than they haven’t yet died. It’s a depressing, miserable experience even before you add in the random space debris hurtling through the atmosphere, vaporising anything unfortunate enough to be underneath it; or a planet that makes even Armageddon look like a holiday destination.
Annandale does a brilliant job of highlighting the rote, banal and wretched existence of the planet – just one of millions in the Imperium that exists purely to supply that empire and do nothing else, with no care for its wretched inhabitants. But then, something happens – a plague suddenly appears, burning through the planet with unseemly haste and killing all in its path. Seroff and Schenk scramble to try and contain it, and then to try and escape when containment becomes pointless, but it’s far too late for that. Hubris for the two has finally come calling, in a familiar and utterly terrifying shape. Annandale’s writing is as crisp, lyrical and engaging as ever, and the appearance of a Chaos-created plague allows him to use his imagination to particularly gruesome effect. The ending to the story really is fantastic, although I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, and readers of Annandale’s Yarrick novels will get a nice sense of closure for some minor plot threads that had hung slightly loose.
Triggers by Paul Kane is a rather intriguing piece of fiction that looks at a character archetype that so often appears in the background of Warhammer 40k stories but is rarely, if ever, the focus: the planetary governor. Tobias Grail is a Governor with a shady and murky past, and at the beginning of the story there’s little indication as to how, exactly, a former Imperial Guardsman came to assume such a high-ranking and powerful position. Kane paints a portrait of a man who’s outwardly confident, assured, even arrogant and vain, but actually harbours both a dark secret and some very specific personal habits that tend towards exactly the sort of dodgy stuff the archetype trends towards in other 40K fiction. There are some twists and surprises in the overarching plot of the story, and it’s a tale well told with some rather chilling undertones.
A Darksome Place by Josh Reynolds is not only another cracking story by one of the best authors in the Black Library, but also a nice little addition to the location of the city of Greywater Fast, one of the primary settings for Reynold’s latest Warhammer Horror novel Dark Harvest which has just been released. The story focuses on a small group of Underjacks, men and women who brave the waterways and sewers of the city to ensure that the water flows and things don’t try and interfere with the water. Not only is it a claustrophobic, dirty job that stains the clothes and the soul, but people have been going missing while underground, only adding to the inherent tension of the job. A tense, slow and ethereal slice of horror that reminded me of M.R. James in some ways, allied with engaging characters, this is another great story by the author.
The servants of the Inquisition generally tend to lead short, brutal lives that kill them long before they get to old age; and if it doesn’t, then they’re often physically and psychologically scarred by their experiences. In The Marauder Lives, J C Stearns demonstrates the fractured, paranoid existence of a former Interrogator, Monika, as she recovers at a covenant after escaping the clutches of the Dark Eldar. But she can’t settle in her new location, flashes of memory and paranoia dominating her thoughts, and there’s some delicious ambiguity throughout the story as both Monika and the reader attempt to figure out which reality is real.
The Nothings by Alec Worley closes off the collection, and this novella-length tale is a slow-burning mystery that’s rather different to all of the other stories in the collection. Two orphans reside in a mysterious, closed-off valley that they’ve lived in their entire lives. So have their families, and their ancestors, and for countless generations prior to that. It’s a sweet, pleasant, bucolic existence, but the boy and girl chafe at the restraints placed on them – they cannot leave the boundaries of the valley lest they be hunted by the titular Nothings and then killed. To try and describe any more of the plot would mean literally divulging the core mystery behind the story and some excellent twists – so I’ll have to end by saying it is a long, engaging but highly rewarding story.
Maledictions is an excellent anthology, well-edited, and it contains a number of high-quality stories that clearly demonstrate why the Warhammer Horror imprint is such a great idea by Games Workshop and Black Library. Unfettered by the requirements to advance the overarching narrative of the 40K or Age of Sigmar settings, or demonstrate some specific model or new faction, each author has been able to freely make use of the inherent horror and terror of the different Warhammer universes to tell their own, unique and often timeless tales. I really enjoyed it, especially the stories by Annandale, McLean and Reynolds, and it is a worthwhile tome to pick up both for pre-existing Warhammer fans, and also general Horror readers who might not be interested in the intricacies of the wider meta-narratives of the various Warhammer games.