Caiaphas Cain, reluctant hero of the Imperium, is back and this time he’s got a planet full of Orks and Necrons to deal with – and he’s not happy about it. One of the joys of this series are the footnotes provided to Cain’s unreliable and unpublished (within its 40k milieu) memoirs by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, a frequent associate and sparring partner for Cain and one of the stronger female characters within 40k. It’s a trope borrowed from the Flashman books, where Macdonald Fraser posed as the editor of the long-lost papers of Harry Flashman, but Mitchell takes the idea further by having Vail be a protagonist within some of the stories as well as a sardonic commentator, via a series of footnotes, to Cain’s adventures as well. It’s a great ploy that plays with all sorts of ideas of metafiction and helps put the Caiaphas Cain books into a different category from almost all other 40k fiction.
In a galaxy where those creatures that don’t want to eat you desire to tear your soul from your body, there usually isn’t anything much to laugh about. Indeed, humour is notably absent from almost all the books set in the 40k universe – the setting is called ‘grimdark’ for a reason!
So it was with great joy and a certain amount of relief that I started reading Sandy Mitchell’s first book about Imperial Commissar Caiaphas Cain for the realisation comes quickly: this is 40k but with a twist via Flashman and Blackadder. Indeed, in a universe as mad as 40k, the only sane response is to laugh in the face of the thirsting gods – while doing one’s best to secure a safe billet in an out-of-the-way logistics camp a very, very, very long way from any front lines. In the tradition of Flashman and, in particular, the First World War edition of Edmund Blackadder, Caiaphas Cain, newly appointed enforcer for the Imperium, tries to do exactly that. But, also following firmly in Flashman’s footsteps, Cain gains himself a reputation for heroism that sees him being dispatched to all the most dangerous hotspots in the Galaxy where he attempts to survive by a mixture of cunning and cowardice. Of course, in the face of enemies, and if there’s no where to run, Cain actually proves quite a capable fighter and an even better motivator of others to do the fighting for him. What’s particularly entertaining is his sardonic attitude to everything in the Imperium, from the Imperial Creed to his fellow Commissars. My only complaint is that Mitchell got to do this first: I would have loved to have had the chance to try writing such a character within 40k.
There was a question, extant in publishing in the 1990s, that I think I can now answer: who (or what) killed horror? Back in the 1980s, on the back of the huge success of Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert and Peter Straub, horror was the big genre, with publishers greenlighting pretty well everything calculated to scare the reader.
And then, horror died. The readers stopped buying, the publishers stopped publishing and those writers who had started off in the genre had to find another outlet for their talents – or another career entirely. The usual reason given for the sudden collapse of the market was over saturation: too many books by too many mediocre authors. But that has scarcely been a problem for chick lit, or detective fiction so why did horror fiction crash?
I think it was because, for horror to be truly frightening, there has to be an underlying belief, on the part of the writer as well as the reader, that there is something worse than dying. There has to be consequences for moral choices that transcend merely pain and suffering, which, however bad, will terminate in death, and a sense of the possibility that we, as human beings, can fall into an eternal state that cuts us off completely from what we are and what we should be. For horror to work, there has to be a profound sense that, while human beings enter this world as human beings, it is possible for us to leave it as creatures anywhere on a hierarchy from the basest and most depraved to the highest and most exalted, and that these possibilities carry on after death. For a horror that is based purely on this world becomes, in the end, nothing more than torture porn, variations on the suffering that can be inflicted on to the physical body and a mind that is conceived as nothing more than an emanation of the physical. As such, horror loses its horror, for death brings down the curtain on all suffering and cuts every story, well, dead.
This is exactly what happened with the decline and fall of the horror genre: it devolved into variations on how to cause pain, with Clive Barker’s Cenobites representing the terminal perfection of this view of horror: pain as ecstasy, horror devolved into a sado-masochistic forever.
But in the Warhammer 40k universe, there really are things that are worse than dying. Accepting the premises of the universe, with its pervasive dread of a corruption that can continue far past death itself, there is the possibility of reworking the necessary tropes to make horror work, to return it to its Victorian prime, and I’m pleased to say that Graham McNeil takes the opportunity in his stride. Indeed, with the nods to M.R. James, doyen of Victorian ghost fiction, in the book, it’s clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing in The Colonel’s Monograph. There are worse things than dying and McNeil lets that deepening dread seep through the controlled prose of this taut novella. A fine addition to the 40k universe.
This is the first in the new Black Library novella series and Iron Resolve gets the set off to a storming start with its transplanting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift from Natal, South Africa, to the jungle planet of Kallash in the 41st millennium. What’s more, it’s the field hospital in Kallash that suddenly finds itself under attack from an army of feral Orcs. They don’t seem to do Victoria Crosses for the servants of the Emperor, but a fair few of them would have deserved the honour by the end of the novella. A diverting and entertaining read. Get Iron Resolve here.
I’ve often dreamed of having a foreign-language edition of one of my books published but I must admit I never thought that the very first foreign-language translations – into French and German no less – of one of my stories would be Warhammer 40k! But there they are: Herren des Sturms, Lords of the Storm and Seigneurs de la Tempête. All available from Black Library and all good retailers from tomorrow, 9 November.
For all you Warhammer 40k fans out there, I’m delighted to announce my first novella set in the grim dark of the far future (it’s actually moved on to the 41st millennium now). Lords of the Storm tells of a Reiver squad of the Fulminators Space Marines given the mission to retrieve the relics of an Imperial saint from a penitential shrine world overrun by the forces of Chaos following the Great Rift. I’m very pleased with how the story has turned out and I hope you will be too. The novella should be available for pre-order in the summer. There’s a bit more about Lords of the Storm, and lots more about other forthcoming titles from the Black Library, here.