Black Library continues their output of Warhammer Horror short story anthologies with Anathemas, the follow-up to Maledictions and Invocations. Whereas Maledictions had 11 stories split between 4 Age of Sigmar tales and 7 Warhammer 40,000 stories, Invocations flipped the proportions somewhat, providing 12 stories with a 5 Warhammer 40,000/7 Age of Sigmar split.
The pendulum swings back in Anathemas, and if anything it swings further: of its 14 stories, 5 are Age of Sigmar pieces and 9 are Warhammer 40,000, which only further cements my view that Warhammer 40,000, since its baseline axioms are darker and less prone to epic heroism than Age of Sigmar, is a bit of a more natural home for horror than Age of Sigmar – at the very least, it seems like the creative juices are flowing a bit more freely on the Warhammer 40,000 side of the equation.
Warhammer Fear-Ty Thousand
Justin D. Hill’s Hab Fever Lockdown has nothing of the supernatural to it whatsoever, merely documenting the progress of a plague through a hive-city and deriving its horror from the plague itself, the response to it, and the typical conditions of life in the Imperium itself. It uses second person narration through out, which I find works better when the “You” referred to is an anonymous cipher that the reader is free to project their own characteristics onto and identify with, rather than a character as developed as the protagonist here, but other than that weird decision it’s pretty good.
That said, I found James Forster’s Vox Daemonicus to have the edge in terms of “the real horror is the Imperium’s draconian overreaction”-themed stories, as it follows a father and son through a hive city turned into a warzone simply thanks to a well-timed hack of the propaganda systems and the inevitable crackdown provoking chaos.
In a similar “everyday life in the Imperium is horror in and of itself” vein is Mud and Mist by John Goodrich, which portrays a minor incident on the front line of a battle between the Imperial Guard and a Tyranid force. You could very much make the case that if the action of an Imperial Guard novel isn’t this horrifying on some level, it’s probably guilty of over-romanticising war in general or the Imperium specifically on some level. A similar piece is Alan Bao’s Runner, in which a Guardsman whose identity has been worn down to his function regains himself as he attempts a desperate dash to carry a warning when long-range communications fail. It’s OK, but I feel like it was either too long for the punchline it was serving up or too short to properly explore the background it teased out.
Tim Waggoner’s rather excellent Skin Man is a great story largely for its realisation of relatable, ordinary characters in an unusual but entirely plausible corner of the Warhammer 40,000 – namely, a formerly Imperial world which has been cut off from offworld contact for so long (whether by warp storm or bureaucratic oversight or whatever) that the very basic principles of the Imperium have now become matters of folklore and legend, and in their ignorance the locals must contend with things of the Warp which are potent enough to do terrifying things but aren’t sufficiently powerful or numerous to completely destroy the world (suggesting that the powers of Chaos are likewise overlooking this place). This is a great example of a Black Library author inferring the existence of a type of world which, if you think through the implications of the setting, almost certainly exists somewhere in the galaxy but hasn’t been widely depicted previously.
Paul Kearney’s The Thing In the Woods takes a folk horror route; the elderly woman who acts as the protagonist is the last survivor of a missionary force dispatched by the Ecclesiarchy to a technologically rudimentary feudal world, but in the absence of further backup her mission is doomed to die with her as the culture she aided in the suppression of reasserts itself.
The least successful Warhammer 40,000 story in here is Nicholas Wolf’s Miracles, a tale which shares a title with an Insane Clown Posse song and is about as subtle as one. It’s a “driven to madness by visions” type of story, albeit one where people seem to go from zero to madness very rapidly. I also really wasn’t sure about Darius Hinks’ The Funeral. The concept of a disgraced Inquisitor’s retinue assembling to commemorate them after their death is sound on the face of it, but it feels superficially handled here, and in addition the plot relies on a decidedly off-consensus interpretation of the setting.
In particular, it assumes that fully-fledged Inquisitors are much more subject to the authority of planetary governors or local Ecclesiarchy officials than most Warhammer 40,000 authors and background material tends to assume. Now, to be fair, I’m no canon purist – I like it when people offer up interestingly different interpretations of the setting. On the other hand, I feel like “the authority of the Inquisition is feared by those who know of its existence, and Inquisitors are a law unto themselves” is a common enough axiom of the setting that if you are going to significantly deviate from it, you really need to do some sort of groundwork to justify why that is the case.
You can have, say, a nefarious port where humans and xenos rub shoulders in the setting, as we’ve seen in the Warped Galaxies series and Hinks’ own Blackstone Fortress tie-in novel, but it’s a significant enough deviation from the setting’s default that you need to justify it somehow. In the case of Blackstone Fortress, the port of Precipice is an unusual institution which exists because of the diverse parties intending to explore the titular anomaly – a bit of groundwork done by the boardgame designers rather than Hinks himself – and in both the examples I’ve cited the stations in question are outside of Imperial rule. See, you don’t need much of an explanation as to why an anomaly is the case, but you do need to give the impression that there is some rationale there.
I would say that the low level of authority of the Inquisitor who is the subject of The Funeral – who in life had to worry both about potentially being executed by a planetary governor (and in context it sounded like this would be an entirely lawful execution, not the act of a renegade planetary governor on the brink of breaking from the Imperium altogether) and being excommunicated by the Ecclesiarchy (and then apparently being left alone to live out their life, which feels like a bit of a weaksauce religious punishment by the standards of the setting) – is a similar case. It’s a big deviation from the usual assumptions of the setting. If you want to tell a story where this is the case, you need to justify it. Hinks doesn’t even bother trying.
Age of Spookymar
Jake Ozga’s Suffer the Vision goes in hard for the trippiest aspects of the Age of Sigmar setting, which I tend to feel is playing to its strengths, but at the cost of potentially obscuring what’s going on in the story. On the flipside, David Annandale’s A Deep and Steady Tread, a tale of gruesome vengeance against a corrupt noble family, is the sort of Age of Sigmar story which could be a Warhammer Fantasy story with the serial numbers painted over.
Lora Gray’s These Hands, These Wings probably incorporates some supernatural spookiness, but there’s at least some plausible deniability. It’s either about a cruel man driving his orphaned nephew into the service of the powers of Death or said orphaned nephew taking power back for himself by rejecting his humanity and accepting the enlightened position that crows are the best bros. Either way, for a “Aaaah, but people are the real horrors, do you see?” story, it’s pretty good.
C.L. Werner’s story of palace intrigue and hidden monstrosity, The Shadow Crown, reads like a sword and sorcery story fresh from the pen of Clark Ashton Smith, or possibly a better Robert E. Howard story. Some might feel it’s close enough to sword and sorcery to not really qualify as horror, though personally I think the best early sword and sorcery stories often included a significant horror component. I was less impressed with Richard Strachan’s Voices In the Glass, though that might be because it is based in the setting of the Shadespire boardgame, and as a result I think it relies on readers having more knowledge of that than I to really appreciate it.
The Boy’s Club Grip Holds
Lastly, I regret to report that once again the Black Library editors have abjectly failed to include more women among the authors this time. Let’s look at the Boy’s-Club-o-meter:
Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 14
Number of said authors who are male: 13
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 93%
This is particularly bad when you consider the one author here who isn’t a dude is Lora Gray, who has stories in the previous two anthologies and whose biography uses “they” pronouns. Now, it’s great that a nonbinary author has representation here, and particularly good that they are seen as a reliable hand and given repeat work. However, not only does this mean that Anathemas have no women writing for it, but it also means that we’ve had two anthologies in a row with no women, and where the sole non-male representation among the roster of authors was provided by the same person. Given that the editors seemed to have no trouble finding new men to contribute to the series, it’s really past time they cast their net a bit wider.