The undignified, blubbering, grumpy weeping on the part of certain Warhammer fans when it comes to the Warhammer Adventures line of kid’s novels set in the Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 universe certainly involved a lot of utter bullshit being spouted. The entitled self-appointed gatekeepers of the hobby couldn’t be honest and direct about some of their objections – such as the prominence of girls, PoC, and girls who are PoC in the proposed fiction series – so they had to talk a lot of nonsense which was demonstrably untrue.
An oft-repeated claim, for instance, was that the settings in question weren’t suitable for kids – this despite the fact that the books are pitched at a reading age of 8-12 year olds, an age which happens to match a good many hobbyists’ first encounters with Warhammer in its various flavours more or less exactly. A related complaint, equally unfounded, was that the Warhammer Adventures line would herald the Bowdlerisation of the settings, with disturbing material excised by dint of being not suitable for kids.
The latter complaint was especially ridiculous, since it could only sustain itself if you only paid attention to the Warhammer Adventures announcement and didn’t give any consideration to the other new fiction line Black Library had announced at more or less the same time. This line was Warhammer Horror, an imprint for stories set in any of the Warhammer universes which put a particular emphasis on their horror-oriented aspects – of which there are a great many. This is precisely the material which dullard nerd gatekeepers would have us believe Games Workshop was about to censor forever for the sake of capturing an 8-to-12-year old demographic which, so far as I can tell, they’ve rarely actually lost.
Maledictions is part of the first wave of Warhammer Horror releases – an anthology of short stories (with, concerningly, no editor credit) offering up a range of all-new horror stories in the Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar settings. Although the book doesn’t separate the stories out into a 40K section and an Age of Sigmar section, I will deal with the stories from the two sections separately anyway because my level of exposure to the settings differs greatly.
Warhammer 40,000: Grim Nightmares of the Far Future
The anthology kicks off with a 40K offering in the form of Cassandra Khaw’s Nepenthe. This is her first Black Library publication, but shows that Khaw has a fine sense of obscure bits of 40K canon to play with, and in particular appreciates the possibilities that open up when you play with artifacts of the Dark Age of Technology in the setting’s past.
Graham McNeill is known more for Space Marine stories than for horror, but he does at least manage to make a horrific Space Marine story out of No Good Deed, a story which ends up brutally effective. As the title implies, no good deed goes unpunished, and it’s pretty clear which good deed is going to backfire on the collective of underhive orphans and the Sister Hospitaller who cares for them here – but the details of just how it all goes to shit are quite fun, and underscore just how inhuman Space Marines can be.
Patrick McLean’s Predation of the Eagle is a chilling look at what happens in an Imperial Guard regiment when one of their own decides to root out the weak links on an unsanctioned basis. It’s let down quite badly by a very obvious use of orks as stand-ins for Vietnamese people in a Vietnam-like conflict – right down to the troopers having trouble telling the difference between Ork and human settlements and uh, no Patrick, 40K orks have a very particular aesthetic and it’s going to be very obvious that a particular settlement is theirs. In general, using orks as a stand-in for real-life peoples from actual historical conflicts is kind of disgusting and dehumanising – particularly since the story would go just the same had the orks been swapped out for human anti-Imperial rebels. (If you want a dose of Communism there the rebels could even have T’au backing.)
David Annandale’s The Last Ascension of Dominic Seroff is a horror story of a time-tested format: really bad shit happens to our protagonists, it turns out to be a judgement on them for their character flaws. It falls down because the characters aren’t vivid enough for us to care about, so their punishment doesn’t carry any weight with the reader. A more artful execution of this model is found in Paul Kane’s Triggers, in which the hidden pressures on a corrupt planetary governor show their true form; the story ends on a nicely-managed note of ambiguity as to whether the final intervention has saved the planet or merely player into the hands of Chaos.
The penultimate 40K offering here is The Marauder Lives by J.C. Stearns. It’s a story in which the protagonist, antagonist, and most of the supporting cast are women (a welcome progressive moment in an anthology which actually overall doesn’t too bad when it comes to including female characters), and focuses on the story of an Inquisition agent who’s suffering from severe paranoia and PTSD after having been kept prisoner by a dark eldar aristocrat and tortured continuously for years. At points the story seems to be pursuing a “protagonist is hallucinating, loses themselves in the past, is doomed” ending, but the ending manages to be more empowering than that without betraying the overall atmosphere of horror in a universe where paranoia represents a wholly rational and evidence-supported worldview.
The final story in the collection is also a Warhammer 40,000 one, though in its initial movements it’s not wholly clear which setting it unfolds in. The anthology unhelpfully doesn’t label its stories by setting; for some stories, this makes them unduly confusing at the start because you’re not sure whether you’re meant to be imagining the action taking place in the grim darkness of the far future or the trippin’ ballsness of the Mortal Realms. Alec Worley’s novella The Nothings – twice the length of any other story in the collection – exploits this a bit, however.
The initial premise, as presented to the reader, is that of innumerable children’s and Young Adult fantasies over the years – you have a remote community, you have the miserable elders uttering dire warnings about leaving the community to explore the wider world, you have a protagonist and his love interest having a burning desire to explore the wider world. The twist is that the wider world is the 40K setting, and our heroes have doomed themselves and their community by emerging onto the wider radar of that malevolent cosmos. Much of the overt horror in the story arises in part from the grasping hands of Chaos, but the concluding horror arises from the protagonist’s nightmare vision of an awful truth about the Imperium. In a way, the story lands in a curious alternate flavour of cosmic horror – in that the wider cosmos is a hopeless, dehumanising, terrible place without redeeming feature or greater good to save us, as it is in much cosmic horror, but in this setting it is that way in large part because we made it that way.
That vision, I contend, is an important enough counterpoint to other flavours of horror – cosmic horror which denies all power (and thus all responsibility) on the part of humanity in particular – that it deserves to be represented in horror fiction, and the Warhammer 40,000 setting seems uniquely well-suited to its delivery; on that level alone, the Warhammer Horror line is thoroughly justified in its existence.
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar: Waiting For Drachenfels
Richard Strachan’s The Widow Tide is basically a spin on the old “lonely, bereaved person in a fishing village encounters a mysterious, perilous sea person” story, set in the Age of Sigmar setting – the brand-new fantasy setting which replaced the original Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy a few years back, set in the cosmological aftermath of the Old World getting eaten by Chaos. Whilst the Old World setting is still utilised in some licensed products like the Total War: Warhammer videogames or the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Black Library does republish fiction set in it, by and large Games Workshop itself has abandoned the old setting for the purpose of material produced in-house like new Black Library fiction, wargames, and the specialist games not produced by outside licensees. (A mild not-quite-exception is Blood Bowl, which is set in a somewhat alternate version of the Old World setting.)
This is my first visit to Age of Sigmar, in any format, and I’m favourably impressed. Among the other missteps made during the initial rollout of Age of Sigmar, one of these was the fact that the setting seemed to be a really exciting one to draw massive armies of superpowered entities fighting each other, but didn’t feel like there was enough substance underpinning that – that, in other words, the landscape offered great scenery for prog rock album covers, but wasn’t a place you could imagine anyone actually living in. Part of this comes from emphasis given to the way the setting consists of a series of connected Realms, dimensions which are each dominated by one particular flavour of magical force, and depictions of that tends towards the extremes of said landscape.
Age of Sigmar has evolved somewhat since its loud, brash entry into the marketplace, and part of that has involved a certain deepening of its background lore and a better sense of what less superheroic folk are doing whilst the big gold Totally Not Space Marines of Sigmar go stomping about fighting baddies. The fact that Strachan could plausibly find somewhere to put a rural fishing village and tell a story where you don’t need to know much at all of the setting’s lore to follow what’s going on was heartening to me, prompting similar expectations of the rest of the stories in the book. (It would make sense, after all, that as the pioneer of a brand-new imprint that Maledictions would try to focus on being open to new readers who might have passed on the less horror-oriented fiction lines.)
On top of that, the themes of the Old World setting and Age of Sigmar aren’t all that distant from each other; with a few tweaks, Josh Reynolds’ A Darksome Place could serve just fine as an Old World story of sewer ratcatchers as an Age of Sigmar one. (That said, I do hope that the Warhammer Horror line will see fit to include some new material for the Old World setting, much of which is decidedly appropriate for horror. The fact that they’re reprinting the entire Vampire Genevieve series gives me hope, though I suspect it means they’ll want to turn their hands to more Age of Sigmar and 40K stuff first to avoid the embarrassment of the currently in-vogue settings having less Warhammer Horror material than the old setting.)
Lora Gray’s Crimson Snow is set among the sylvaneth dryads, some of the less human of the Age of Sigmar factions. It’s tricky to do horror with nonhuman protagonists – so many of our fears are tied to the particular restrictions and constraints of our condition – but Gray does a good job by picking a particular bit of lore relating to them and teasing out its most sinister implications. Less interesting is C.L. Werner’s Last of the Blood, an extended exercise in cultural appropriation in which Werner attempts to tell an Akira Kurosawa-influenced ghost story.
And… that’s more or less it as far as Age of Sigmar content goes here. With four stories of the 11 ending up using Age of Sigmar as their basis, it’s clear that the authors seem a bit more comfortable resorting to the 40K setting for horror purposes. In general, the production of Age of Sigmar fiction hasn’t been as rapid as that for Warhammer 40,000; I suspect part of this comes down to the fact that Age of Sigmar has yet to have its Eisenhorn trilogy or its Drachenfels – a work which attains a sufficient breakthrough in quality to really help the fiction line in question kick off.
On top of that, I suspect it’s easier to write for Warhammer 40,000 because the setting has simultaneously had more development and therefore offers more grist for the mill but, at the same time, is much less nailed down than Age of Sigmar in terms of the potential consequences of a story. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is so vast that they can pretty much give every author their own Sector of the galaxy to play with – and if that entire Sector is destroyed, so be it, it doesn’t have to affect any of the rest of the setting because the galaxy is huge and individual worlds are small. Conversely, with Age of Sigmar you have a set number of Realms and a particular balance of power in each which you can’t change unless it’s been decided to make that change to the setting centrally, and I think writers are still struggling to find an approach to Age of Sigmar where they have sufficient creative freedom to do what they want whilst remaining true to the setting’s axioms and canon.
Finally, let’s wave the Boy’s Club-o-meter over Maledictions to see what sort of reading it gets:
Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 11
Number of said authors who are male: 9
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 82%
Not altogether uncommon for Warhammer or horror purposes, though on the plus side I note that Cassandra Khaw and Lora Gray are both new authors to Black Library – so a process of redressing the balance is ongoing.