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