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Friday, June 6, 2008

"The Unblemished" by Conrad Williams

Official Conrad Williams Website
Order “The Unblemished
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Reviews of “The Unblemished” via Horror Read + SF Site
Read Fantasy Book Critic's INTERVIEW with Conrad Williams

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Since the late 80s, horror/dark fantasy author Conrad Williams has sold around eighty short stories and has published three novels (Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished), four novellas (Nearly People, Game, The Scalding Rooms, Rain), and a short story collection “Use Once Then Destroy”. He’s also won the Littlewood Arc Prize, the British Fantasy Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. His next novel, “Decay Inevitable”, will be published by Solaris Books in early 2009.

PLOT SUMMARY: Enter the minds of two demented serial killers—one is a blood-crazed lover of amputee victims, the other believes he is the rightful heir to an ancient dynasty of flesh-eating monsters…

Follow the frantic journey of a mother whose daughter is infected with the stuff of nightmare, and the price she pays to protect her daughter no matter the cost…

And look through the eyes of Bo Mulvey, who possesses the ancient wisdom a vengeful evil needs to achieve its full and horrifying potential. A man upon whom the fate and survival of the entire human race depends…

CLASSIFICATION:The Unblemished” is a difficult novel to describe. At its core, the book is a horror story, but one of many different parts. For instance, even though the novel is set in contemporary London—2008—the atmosphere of “The Unblemished” is reminiscent more of Clive Barker and Stephen King circa the 1980s. Story-wise, the book evokes a little bit of everything—Hannibal Lecter, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 28 Days, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Aliens—and alternates between white-knuckle suspense, mind-bending surrealism, and in-your-face gore. Besides the horror, there’s a little bit of fantasy in the book—due mainly to the map reader and the ancient breed of eaters—and a gothic decadence that recalls ‘urban fantasy’ storytelling where the setting, in this case London, is as much a character as the novel’s heroes, villains, and victims. Overall though, “The Unblemished” is recommended to readers who want the shit scared out of them :)

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 347 pages divided over five ‘Parts’, thirty-seven titled chapters, and a prologue/epilogue. Narration is in the third-person via several different perspectives including Bo Mulvey, Sarah Hickman, Malcom Manser and Gyorsi Salavaria as well as various minor characters. Originally, “The Unblemished” was released by
Earthling Publications in 2006 as a limited edition (sold out), and has been revised—bit & pieces added or deleted, plot points fixed and characters further developed—for the Virgin Books release. The book is self-contained, but like the other Conrad Williams stories I’ve read, the ending leaves room for speculation…

June 10, 2008 marks the North American Mass-Market Paperback release of “The Unblemished” via
Virgin Books. The UK version, also through Virgin, was released April 3, 2008. Cover images provided by Getty Images and Plain Image.

ANALYSIS: As difficult as it is to classify, “The Unblemished” is even more difficult to review. You see from a purely writing standpoint, Conrad’s novel suffers from a variety of problems. The pacing is haphazard ranging from languid to breakneck; the characterization is uneven—Conrad does a good job with a person’s background/history and voice, but I thought their reaction to events could have used more work while Malcom Manser & Gyorsi Salavaria were underdeveloped; there’s a major imbalance between the different perspectives with some viewpoints disappearing for long stretches or confusingly merging into one another like when Bo meets Sarah; and the plotting is full of moments where I was left scratching my head, not quite sure what happened. Basically, you just get the sense that Conrad is still feeling his way with the novel format—the writing in his short stories/novellas seem much sharper—and “The Unblemished” is like a trial run…

Despite all that though, I couldn’t tear myself away from the book. For starters, Conrad has a supernatural gift for conjuring terror. Whether it’s through ambiance, imagining what’s happening offstage, or being hit over the head with horrific images of violence—a young woman with her legs recently amputated being raped, a baby’s body part being eaten like a chicken leg, et cetera—“The Unblemished” is a novel that tests your capacity for fear. Why the novel is so scary is three-fold. First off, Conrad’s detailed descriptions of people, places, and events are so vivid, so visceral, you can just taste and smell the blood. Secondly, Conrad has a vile imagination. A city fallen into apocalyptic ruin by a horde of flesh-eating monsters; humans used as a live breeding ground for eggs; being hunted down in a hospital, morgue, or graveyard…it all sounds like derivative horror fare, but it’s not. Take for instance the eaters, a mix between cannibals, zombies, body snatchers and insects who have been waiting for their revenge since The Great Fire of London in 1666…just one of many unique ideas in the book, courtesy of Mr. Williams’ imagination :) And thirdly, there’s the human element—the lengths people go to survive, the monster lurking inside all of us, maternal love, loneliness—insights which lend the horror of what’s happening in the book a much starker perspective…

Of special note is the setting. London has been the backdrop for many stories, but in “The Unblemished”, the city comes alive in a way I haven’t seen and is not just a character in the book, but arguably the focal point of the whole novel. In fact, one of my favorite parts in the entire book is watching the city descend into madness, while people are trying to pretend that everything is normal: “London is built on weirdness. It celebrates it. It’s stained into its history. People move to the city so they can be peculiar and feel comfortable about it. Nobody cares. Every fetish and kink and perversion is catered for in secret rooms and back alleys. You can blend in no matter what your needs are. You can disappear. Men and monsters, rubbing shoulders in the street. It’s like rot. Like cancer. By the time the cavalry come trotting in here, the guts will have fallen out of everything. There’ll be nothing left to rescue.”

CONCLUSION: Since I first heard about the book almost two years ago, it seems like I’ve been waiting forever to read “The Unblemished”, and while the novel could have benefited from some additional refinement, it was well worth the wait. Admittedly, “The Unblemished” is not for everyone—particularly the squeamish and weak of heart—but if you like your fiction dark, bloody, and frightening, and you’re in the mood for a book that understands and embraces the horror genre, while also pushing down boundaries, then look no further than Conrad Williams’The Unblemished”. It will pierce your imagination, slither into your nightmares, and haunt your soul…


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