You can see, almost, the thought process behind The Wicked and the Damned. You’re working on setting up the Warhammer Horror line and want something fresh to release alongside Maledictions and the reprint of Drachenfels. The phrase “Warhammer Horror” naturally makes you think of Hammer Horror and other classic Brit-horror studios of yesteryear, and that in turn makes you think of the old tradition of the portmanteau horror movie – a set of short and essentially unrelated short films strung together to feature length by a framing story offering a context in which each story is told in turn.
In the case of The Wicked and the Damned, the framing story is set on the cemetery world of Silence, to which three people have been drawn under mysterious circumstances. These three people are the protagonists and narrators of the three novellas framed by the framing story; they aren’t sure how they came to Silence but they feel compelled to tell their stories. Gosh, what could the secret of them being brought here be? (They’re fucking dead and it’s so obvious they’re dead that this barely counts as a twist.)
Garish and arguably needless though the framing story is, the novellas here are actually pretty good. The Beast In the Trenches by Josh Reynolds is a psychological horror piece which pays little tributes here and there to Poe, arguably the inventor of the psychological horror story through tales like The Telltale Heart. As with that story, it’s a first person narrative told by an unreliable narrator – specifically a narrator who is a pathological murderer who doesn’t realise just how sick he is.
Valemar – whose name recalls that of the main figure in Poe’s Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar – is a Commissar in the Imperial Guard. In a more humane setting, in a less extreme society, he might have been detected and recognised for what he is – a serial killer – as the story progresses we note not only the various people he kills on the basis of spurious, likely delusional justifications, but also other little motifs in his behaviour reminiscent of serial murderers, such as his keeping of a small collection of contraband items “confiscated” from those he murders.
As it stands, however, the universe of Warhammer 40,000 is somewhat more amenable to someone of Valemar’s habits: in fact, being a Commissar in a regiment stuck in a hellish stalemate of a war on a backwater planet has worked out well for him. The colonel knew Valemar’s reputation full well when he requested his services, after the old Commissar bought it; an iron hand was necessary to enforce discipline in a regiment not used to it.
That’s all panned out well so long as Valemar’s been able to consistently find reasonable reasons to summarily execute his fellow soldiers – “reasonable” by the utterly cracked standards of the grim darkness of the far future, that is. But now Valemar is finding himself intent on taking out troopers for more tenuous reasons – including that he perceives them being possessed and manipulated by some nefarious force, a force which reveals its presence by turning their eyes a pale blue colour. (The fact that blue eyes are unknown to Valemar previously suggests that Valemar and his colleagues are the descendants of some Terran ethnicity which tends away from blue eyes, or at the very least that the blue eye mutation has died out in their sector of the galaxy – an interesting worldbuilding point. It’s also, probably, a nod to the “vulture’s eye” of the murder victim in Poe’s The Telltale Heart.) Is there really a psychic predator working its way through the regiment, or has Valemar finally cracked completely?
Despite the enormity of Valemar’s own acts, the shadow of an even greater horror hangs over the story – the nature of the enemy Valemar’s regiment is fighting, which once it is revealed emphasises the terrifying futility of the 40K setting magnificently. Before we get to this revelation, however, we get a front-row seat to the disintegration of Valemar’s final links to reality via his bonds of duty and loyalty to other personnel in the regiment, and as they drop one by one his actions become more and more extreme, until his final atrocity brings the regiment’s work to a terrible close.
Phil Kelly’s The Woman In the Walls is narrated by corrupt Imperial Guard officer Vendersen. The action starts just after her contacts in the shadier side of the regiment have, on her behalf, killed her major competitor for a big promotion. Vendersen is the sort of smooth political operator who can stay ahead of the heat under such circumstances and come out on top in the end – but not when she and her allies are being pursued by the ghost of the murdered rival over the course of a voyage through the Warp. This is basically one of those vengeance-oriented J-horror movies in aesthetic, applied to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and works well largely for the vivid and diverse cast of characters; I’d gladly read entire novels of Vendersen’s further adventures, though that would require that the outcome of this novella be the canonical truth and the meetup on Silence be a guilt-driven dream – still, that’s a small tweak to pay for the sake of further exploring such an intriguingly despicable character.
The Faith and the Flesh by David Annandale is your basic “monster loose on an isolated space station” story, with the extra spin that the situation is 100% the fault of the protagonist – an Ecclesiarchy missionary whose crisis of faith and inability to simply live in the moment unleashes horrors. It’s quite fast-paced once things kick off, but other than that it’s probably the weakest one here.
Overall, The Wicked and the Damned could have happily stood as a set of three novellas without the connecting matter between them, since the framing story is really kind of pointless in a book context – the portmanteau-style approach being better suited to tying together unrelated episodes into a movie, which people expect to consume in one sitting, than a novel-length book which most readers won’t polish off in a single sitting anyway. The twist is pretty obvious too. Fortunately, the framing story is extremely brief and eminently skippable, and I encourage readers to ignore it and enjoy the novellas presented, especially the first two.