Ex Libris: Conrad Williams' The Unblemished
I've always been wary with Conrad Williams as his reputation precedes him. Similar to Clive Barker's early works in Books of Blood, I've heard that Williams' stories veer toward the grotesque.
However, I've never been able to verify this as his work has always been limited to small or indie presses. As such, I'd have to order his books online as they wouldn't be available at local bookshops.
Fortunately, Virgin Books managed to come out with a heady selection of affordable novels by horror writers first published published by small presses, like Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco, Ramsey Campbell's Grin of the Dark, and-- of course-- Williams' The Unblemished. (All now available locally in Fully Booked.)
In The Unblemished, Williams does not hold back with his vision of a near-future London that's been silently invaded by a race of creatures that had been exiled from city in almost five centuries. These creatures-- half-beauties and yet half-monstrosities as well-- live as hives and treat the human race as their cattle and their creches (by laying their eggs in select victims).
Williams also introduces us to a number of interesting characters: these range from the photographer Bo Mulvey who bites off more than he can chew and becomes the focal point of the invasion, to Sarah Hickman, who tries to rescue her daughter Claire when the latter becomes central to the creatures' plans.
Likewise, there are the requisite human monsters like the child killer Gyorsi Salavaria who is working in tandem with the invaders, as well Manser, a hit man with a fetish for amputating his victims. It is here that Williams elucidates perfectly that between human and inhuman monsters, we are still the best-- or the worst-- beast that walks with the darkness in the soul.
But more than anything, Williams paints a singular portrait of both the creatures and London that is the city. The creatures he depicts as a misunderstood species that just want their place in their sun (notwithstanding that they eat humans). Meanwhile, Williams' picture of London as a city of beauty in the light of the setting sun as well as the savage attacks of its inhabitants in the evening is perfectly matched.
My only problem with this book is the ending, which seemed rather abrupt. Admittedly, Williams seemed to have painted himself in a corner with this one unless one considers the use of a thermonuclear bomb as a way to end a horror story. (Which usually happens in the movies.)
This book is not for the squeamish: Williams will not stint on showing the horrors of a London under siege. But if you're thinking that Williams' horror is all blood and gore akin to splatterpunk, think again. Like Barker, Williams has a purpose in the evisceration of is victims. It's the difference between art and pop, one might say. (Rating: Three paws out of four.)