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The Unblemished

by Conrad Williams

(Earthling publications, 2006; 367 pages; 0-9766339-9-x.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanA leaf-burnt, pumpkin glowing adventure carved into the very heart of the supernatural and humankind whose actions are often as dark as the ether towards which they climb, British Fantasy Award-winner Conrad Williams' The Unblemished, the second book in Earthling's 'Halloween Series,' is both a trick and a treat. While not having much to do with our favorite Holiday in either setting or surface plot, this rich, emotionally engaging and extremely fast-paced novel -- taken, it seems, right from the 1980s -- captures the essence of the holiday in its themes, and therefore is comfortable (if a bit misleading) in its proposed marketing niche. Capturing the essence of the month of October and the ancient festival of Samhain, The Unblemished is as much a love note to the fire within the human spirit as it is an evocation of the season's darkest demons. A spirit of melancholy beauty surrounds these characters. The lyrical descriptions of settings and atmosphere -- both of which Williams excels in -- lend the disturbing drama the cosmic resonance of a folktale while its characters and general storyline bring to mind the cold, cruel modernity sensed by the alert on any angry street corner.

In a plot combining blood crazed murderers seeking to overthrow the balance, overprotective mothers on the run from amputee-loving maniacs, and a man cursed to be a metaphysical 'map' for creatures he detests (and with whom he may share more than his worst nightmares thought possible), The Unblemished achieves the admirable, tricky task of interweaving physical horror with spiritual terror, reaching impressive heights of panic in its harvest of suspenseful shenanigans and heartfelt archetypes. As much the story of one man's quest for redemption as it is an unapologetic white-knuckle thriller, this chilling search-for-self manages to walk the tightrope between outright shock and suggestive supernaturalism as we follow a dying man's conflict with both the shadows of his misspent life and a storm of wrathful creatures ancient in their hunger and ferocious in their vengeance. Williams offers nothing less than a literary tribute to the paradoxical themes of life and death, passing and rebirths, fear and frolic that the genre symbolizes. These various themes/motifs and are readily apparent in his characters, all of which harbor various shades of this lonely, foreboding, yet strangely exhilarating time of year. Within one human monster's search for a heritage, and within another man's scrabble for salvation, we find a symbolic embodiment of life and death, sin and redemption as Man struggles with insect-like mutations. The resulting atmosphere is equal parts apocalyptic magnificence and the illusive prowling effect of chimney-smoke.

Williams writes with precision and clarity, yet instead of the routine dullness of minimalism that stains many modern tale-teller's efforts, his words breathe poetry. A lyrical sense of motion and beauty breathe in his sentences, and he is equally adept describing the turmoil of a human in conflict with himself or swift, general descriptions of fathomless evil. As capable of realistically describing a haunting Autumn morning as a demon's ravenous appetite, Williams manages to merge the unbelievable and mundane until the already blurred boundaries between the seemingly commonplace and fantastical are called into question, as is our perception. The Unblemished screams with external suspense and, perhaps more admirable, whispers with that sort of unease that makes Bradbury and Sarrontonio exhilarating as well as frightening. More to the point, Williams shares these authors' organic ability to dig deep beneath the surface of illusionary so-called 'reality' to the true essence of existence -- soul, heart, and mind breath alongside a thrilling surface plot. Williams is more interested in what lurks beneath veneers of the everyday than in grue, and the earnestness of his vision drips from his sentences. Rather than creating a world of normalcy where the supernatural slowly intrudes, as do many traditional authors, or rushing readers headlong into a world where their exist no rules, Williams creates his own sense of order, his own shadow of realism -- a borderland between the real and imaginary.

Open your goody bags early this year, for Williams spins a yarn with the simple eloquence of nightmares told round tribal fires, whispered by grandmothers around the chimney. And while the truths he uncovers may not be to your liking, too realistic to be taken for pure fancy, yet too wonder-filled to be compared to the prosaic psychology comprising most of today's fiction, the personal pain and joy and tenderness inherent in his style are infectious. Featuring an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer and an Afterword by the author, The Unblemished is perfect read for the darkest month of the year.

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