Conrad Williams, The Unblemished. Virgin Books. 2008. Pp. 347. ISBN 9780753513514. £7.99 / $12.95.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age but I was badly discomforted by this book. The plot, fantastic; characterisation, vivid; it was the graphic, dare I say gratuitous, violence that did it.

Okay, this is a horror novel so the reader has to expect horror, but something in the pages of this novel disturbed me in a way that novels such as Pet Sematary and Desperation did in the past. Perhaps it was the graphic and violent murder of children and what happened to them after death, perhaps it was the sheer torrent of dead, dying and eviscerated flesh. Perhaps, as I said, it was my age.

Having said that, however, the story itself is a scorcher, with a set of finely-drawn characters thrown together in the face of a seemingly unstoppable invasion. The monsters are original, flesh eaters, as near human as creatures who live on fresh and rotting meat can be, but with some very nasty physiological differences (not zombies, thank goodness, I am so sick of zombies). In fact, the detailed description of those differences is another positive aspect of this novel, attention to detail. Whether the subtle and not-so-subtle anatomical characteristics of an ancient flesh eater, or the streets and back alleys of London, the story is rooted firmly in the real earth, it does that thing all good writing should do: cast a shadow on the ground. It is that shadow which provides the illusion of reality so necessary for believable fantasy.

The characters are, as I mentioned before, finely drawn, by turns brave and cowardly, selfless and selfish, in fact behaving the way most humans do when faced with danger and despair. Bo, one of the main protagonists is, I have to say, that typical independent press "hero/anti-hero" (this isn't, in fact a small press release, but Conrad Williams cut his teeth there). Bo is a loner, not good at relationships with the other sex, essentially self-serving and, in many ways, an outcast. He has a girlfriend but commitment is an uncrossable barrier. Recognise him? However, like all good small press leading men, he has a streak of likeability about him and in the end you root for him and admire him for his grit and determination.

Female lead? Woman-on-the-run, fleeing from a very nasty villain indeed: a sadistic, cold-hearted streak of viciousness, relentless in his pursuit of her and the sating of his vile appetites. An added twist and extremely effective emotional hook is the runaway's relationship to her daughter, a young woman carrying a horrible infection that cannot be allowed to run its course...

London is the main setting and its highways, by-ways and dark corners of its history provide a suitably desperate and dark canvas for the horrors Williams has created. One of my old stamping grounds, Southwold, also features, I used to date a girl from there and I can vouch for Williams' depiction of the place.

The Unblemished is relentless; it is soaked in blood and breathless with desperation and dissolution. It leaves the reader exhausted and strained. It is vivid, powerful and very, very dark.

It is just so graphic. Yes, back to this again. There is nothing wrong with graphic. Horror is horror, yes, but sometimes the glimpsed, the half-seen, the implied is as effective—and sometimes more effective—than having your nose rubbed in streaming heaps of vitals and stinking, too-old meat. I'm not suggesting that horror should be watered down or made as tediously respectable as rock musicians performing in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, God forbid, but for me there is a subtle, hard to define line which Conrad Williams has most definitely crossed.

So, recommended? Yes, if you can take the raw horror, because once you wipe the blood off the page, this is a terrific, powerful, wildly imaginative and immensely skilful piece of writing.

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