by Conrad Williams
Review by John Berlyne
Virgin Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780753513514
Date: 03 April 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The book that won the International Horror Guild award in 2007 for the scariest damn novel finally gets published in the UK. The Unblemished by the brilliant and deeply disconcerting Conrad Williams -- a British writer with a deserved reputation for scaring people out of their wits -- was originally available only as a limited-edition hardcover published in the US by Paul Miller's top-drawer Earthling Publications. It is now published as the lead title for Virgin's new horror line and is available as a paperback edition priced at £7.99 -- definitely one to watch out for. Sometimes when I read a novel with a true heart of darkness, I do wonder how the writer can sleep at night. Rarely has this been a starker reality than with Conrad Williams, a British writer of undeniably horrific intent and one whose work, with its indefatigable fascination with meat, really ought not to be considered as "suitable for vegetarians"!
Williams' most recent novel, The Unblemished, scooped last year's highly coveted International Horror Guild Award, beating off some pretty stiff competition (which included some bloke called Stephen King), and copies of the US hardcover edition published by Paul Miller's Earthling Publications cannot be found for love nor money. Good news then that Virgin Books, who are launching a line of pedigree horror novels, have chosen Williams' award-winner as their lead title.
The Unblemished is essentially a vision of an appalling modern-day apocalypse. It opens with a prologue telling of a young couple who are taking a holiday in the country. They are out driving on a dark evening, the weather is poor and they are lost -- a classic set up for them to run into trouble, which, of course, they do.
Our first meeting with another of our main protagonists is a similarly recognisable scene. Our hero, Bo Mulvey, is a young photojournalist whose troubles begin when he meets a stranger in a London pub. One might be forgiven for thinking this may lead to some sort of punchline -- "A fella walks into a pub …" -- but not so. This particular meeting is the starting point of a downward spiral awash in blood and sinew.
Bo's seemingly innocuous encounter proves to be auspicious, for an ancient knowledge is somehow transferred to him and he unwittingly becomes the focal point for a race of carnivorous insect-human hybrids to step out from the shadows and begin feeding upon the hapless people of Britain. Broken down like this, the premise sounds a little trite, a little stock, but Williams is an artful writer and his stark narrative is chilling and thrilling, relentless and fearless. As the antagonists rise up, Williams takes the reader on a journey coloured crimson, a tireless and unflinching descent into a landscape more usually associated with the back rooms of the abattoir. This is visceral writing, grim sentences coldly depicting scenes of clinical gristliness, and all the while, the pressure builds and builds.
It's an extremely effective display from Williams. His race of cannibal killers are detached and ruthless, driven by their simple need to feed, but true horrors lie with the human collaborators. One character particularly, a gangland psychopath by the name of Manser, is a powerful vision of the darkest perversions human nature can conjure.
There are moments, though, when the drive of this novel palls, largely due to the simple law of diminishing returns. With such a feast of horrors in display here, such constant depravity, it is inevitable that after a while the effect on the reader is a little numbing, in much the same way that it seems to be for the protagonists. In spite of this, The Unblemished is a stomach-churning vision by an accomplished and courageous author and definitely not for the faint of heart.