The Colonel’s Monograph (Black Library Novella Series 2: Book 10)
The Colonel’s Monograph is the tenth book in Black Library’s Novella Series 2, a set of ten Novellas with matching covers, ranging through the various Warhammer settings (40,000; Age of Sigmar; Necromunda), written by a mixture of veteran and new authors and inexpensive enough for anyone to collect without particularly straining their budget. Both Series 1 and Series 2 helped to bring me back into Warhammer as a hobby and begin reading Black Library fiction again, and having missed out on purchasing many of the titles in the first series, I was determined to purchase (and then review) all of the novellas in the second series. Apart from Nate Crowley’s Severed and Thomas Parrott’s Isha’s Lament, I was excited about the existence of a Warhammer Horror novella in the Series 2 collection, because I’m a huge fan of what Black Library are doing with that imprint, and the creative freedom the authors have in the titles they’re producing under its banner.
That excitement only increased when I saw that the novella’s author was Graham McNeill – not only is he a brilliant author who’s produced some top-notch Warhammer fiction, but he’s also written some great horror titles; most relevant to this novella would be the trio of novels he wrote for the Arkham Horror imprint. I read them all a few years ago and thought they really captured the atmosphere of the Arkham setting, as well as being great slices of cosmic horrors, so he seemed to be a great fit. The cover art for The Colonel’s Monograph is particularly brilliant, standing out even from the gorgeous minimalist design used for the rest of the titles in Series 2; the jet-black background and skull-and-claw motif on the book (the titular Monograph) is incredibly striking and accurately reflects the sinister, foreboding atmosphere that McNeill replicates within the novella itself. The back-cover blurb just stoked my enthusiasm further, as the concept of an M.R. James-style story seemed to be the perfect fit for both the Warhammer Horror imprint, and the length of a novella.
The overarching plot of The Colonel’s Monograph certainly takes inspiration from the classic tales written by James, as well as the likes of Blackwood and Bierce, and McNeill deftly integrates the core concepts with the uniquely grim-dark nature of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. A retired and recently-widowed archivist agrees to the task of cataloguing the extensive book collection of one Colonel Grayloc, a beloved senior officer in an Imperial Guard regiment who recently passed away. The archivist, Teresina Sullo, journeys to the isolated Grayloc Manor to begin her task, but soon realises all is not well. Something sinister lurks in the surrounding marshes, and a key item in the Colonel’s collection is missing; the titular Monograph seems central to the events surrounding the Colonel’s death, as well as whatever lurks in the shadows outside the Manor. As she begins to sort through the voluminous collection, small, subtle but important clues begin to appear that show that the Colonel may not have been the paragon of Imperial service that she appeared to be, and there is a conspiracy that threatens far more than just Sullo. There’s even some cheeky (but apposite) mentions of Magos Drusher and Ciaphas Cain that act as quietly humorous easter eggs for veteran readers of Black Library fiction.
The first-person perspective used by McNeill perfectly suits the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that he invokes throughout the novella, and also allows us as readers to become acquainted with Teresina Sullo. She’s someone who has slowly but surely advanced through the Cardophian Repository (a planetary archiving institution) to the very top of her profession, consequently becoming an incredibly skilled archivist with a broad set of academic skills. Even in retirement her services are much sought after, but the death of her husband throws everything into disarray; only the arrival of the invitation to catalogue Colonel Grayloc’s collection gives her a lifeline and the excuse to leave the ruins of her life behind. McNeill is a skilled writer, and in only a few pages we are able to take the measure of Teresina and her character and nature, and also become engaged with her as a well fleshed-out and sympathetic protagonist. Though the cast of characters is small (as befits McNeill’s inspiration for the novella) they are exceedingly well-drawn and memorable, particularly the mysterious Imperial Guardsman-turned-Servitor who acts as a servant for the Grayloc family. This excellence is mirrored in the surroundings McNeill portrays, with a bone-deep atmosphere of unease coming to the fore from the very start of the story – from the long, grim journey through the dilapidated and semi-abandoned areas around Grayloc Manor, to the terrifying dreams that only raise that unease and wrongness. There’s this great sense of things subtly wrong in the whole area despite looking fine on the surface, a theme that extends throughout the novella.
McNeill is an expert at deftly ratcheting up tension as the plot progresses and more clues are revealed about Colonel Grayloc and the missing manuscript, and Sullo begins to get glimpses of the horrifying truth found in the book collection she is supposed to be cataloguing. The actual secret of the monograph when it’s finally revealed is genuinely shocking, both in terms of what the Colonel did to earn her retirement at Grayloc Manor, and then what happens to Sullo after finding and reading it. There’s an inevitability to it that’s both engaging and deeply satisfying when the secrets are finally revealed, as McNeill finally unveils the horror at the heart of the Manor and Colonel Grayloc. It’s all wonderful stuff and expertly done, with McNeill deftly mirroring the slow, tense build-up of tension for the first two-thirds of the novella with sudden bursts of frantic action, with some intense chase scenes and attempts to escape that bring to mind old slasher films from the 1980s.
The Colonel’s Monograph is another excellent example of the kind of brilliant fiction the Warhammer Horror imprint can inspire once authors are allowed to utilise the setting of Warhammer 40,000 (and the other Games Workshop settings) without being shackled by the demands of the meta-narrative or requirements to promote certain new models or factions. It’s an incredibly haunting gothic horror story that’s perfectly paced and littered with unforgettable characters, accompanied by some absolutely amazing atmosphere, all of which is enhanced through the deft use of the inherent horror to be found when writing in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. McNeill may not write a great deal of Black Library fiction these days, but The Colonel’s Monograph proves that when he has the time to do so, he’s still one of the finest authors they’ve ever published.