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The Unblemished
      The Grin of the Dark
Conrad Williams
      Ramsey Campbell
Virgin Books, 347 pages
      Virgin Books, 352 pages

The Unblemished
The Grin of the Dark
Conrad Williams
Conrad Williams is the author of over 80 short stories, two novels and several novellas. His work has been short listed for awards by the British Fantasy Society and the International Horror Guild. The Unblemished beat a strong shortlist, which included Stephen King, to Best Novel at the International Horror Guild Awards. He lives in Manchester where he teaches creative writing.

Conrad Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nearly People

Ramsey Campbell
The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as "Britain's most respected living horror writer". He has been given more awards than any other in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention. He is the president of the British Fantasy Society and lives in Merseyside.

Ramsey Campbell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Overnight
SF Site Review: The Darkest Part of the Woods
SF Site Review: Nazareth Hill
SF Site Review: Alone With the Horrors

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

Horror fiction is still a relative rarity in the British mass market, so it's great to hear that Virgin Books are starting a monthly series of horror titles. It's also good to hear that the first few will be reissues of small press publications. Of course, we still want the books to be good -- but, with the first two at least, there's nothing to worry about in that regard.

The first title in the series is a revised version of Conrad Williams's 2006 novel The Unblemished, originally published by Earthling. In a London pub, photographer Bo Mulvey is approached by a random stranger offering him a map to the secret "house of flies." Mulvey accepts, but all he receives for his trouble is a few lines of nonsense. He may think at first that he's been taken for a ride, but then the map invades his vision, and begins to change him.

Further north in England, Sarah Hickman is on the run from Malcolm Manser, a local crime boss with a penchant for doing something unspeakable to young women. Manser himself is abetting a sadistic serial killer planning to make a dramatic return. Sarah's daughter Claire is carrying... something within her. And all of this is connected to the emergence of flesh-eating creatures who look human but aren't...

It must be acknowledged from the outset that The Unblemished is an uncompromising and visceral book; yet, although Williams depicts some deeply unpleasant events, to his credit he doesn't dwell on them. This doesn't make the book any more comfortable to read, nor should it; but it is a welcome reassurance that the gore isn't there just for the sake of it, and a hint that there's a good reason to keep on reading.

That reason is the remarkable way Williams builds up the picture of what's actually going on. The situation gradually emerges from the swirl of story; it builds up in layers, rather than being explained straightforwardly. A disaster happens, but by stealth; you might not even notice the point where those descriptions of London became descriptions of ruins. For all the blood and guts, things can seem a bit distanced at times; I think it's all part of the way that we only see this apocalypse through the eyes of a few people who can't comprehend it -- which, of course, is the way we'd experience such an event if it ever happened to us. And if it sometimes feels unreal within the novel because of the distancing -- well, I imagine living through something like this in reality may feel that way, too.

Williams doesn't sustain the "layering" approach to the very end, but it's probably impossible to do so: after all, the set-up needs resolving, and that can't happen properly if we don't understand the situation. Some of the characters' stories don't have as much closure as they perhaps should; but the overall ending of The Unblemished is entirely appropriate, given what happened before it.

The second of Virgin's reprints is of Ramsey Campbell's 2007 PS Publishing novel The Grin of the Dark. Full marks to the publisher for showcasing the diversity of horror: whereas The Unblemished goes straight for the throat (as it were), Campbell's novel creeps up on you, taps you on the shoulder and hides. It's narrated by Simon Lester, who has been down on his luck ever since the film magazine he wrote for closed down. Now he's working two part-time jobs to make ends meet, and struggling to convince his girlfriend's parents that he can be any good for their daughter and grandson.

Rescue (of sorts) comes from Simon's old university tutor, who commissions him to write a book expanding his thesis on forgotten film stars. The actor who particularly captures Simon's interest is Tubby Thackeray, a professor who became a music hall comedian and then a silent movie clown, but who has now been effectively written out of cinematic history. It becomes clear why when Simon eventually tracks down some footage of Thackeray's highly disturbing films.

Thackeray comes to occupy increasing large areas of Simon's life and mind, such that he begins to see grinning clown faces and hear mysterious laughter everywhere. Eventually, the biggest anchor in his life seems to be the argument Simon conducts online with "Smilemime," a poster who has been spreading inaccurate information about Thackeray's films. But even that turns threatening, to the point where it appears Smilemime has been messing about with Simon's manuscript. And then Simon discovers that Thackeray could have been on to something far more profound than he could ever imagine...

Yes, The Grin of the Dark creeps up on you, which is both a strength and a weakness: it builds up the mystery and the atmosphere; but there were times in the early stages, when Simon was confronted with yet another grinning face, that I found myself wishing the story would move on to the next stage. Yet I'm glad I kept going because, when the novel does move on, it becomes something else -- in more than one sense of that expression. The way that Campbell depicts Simon's reality reshaping itself around him is stunning; this is not a book that will leave you alone readily once you've finished it.

When I sat down to read The Unblemished and The Grin of the Dark, I was expecting them to be good; but, I must admit, I wasn't expecting to be quite so dazzled with what their authors managed to achieve: the way Williams' threat emerges from the world like an optical illusion being revealed, then you find that society fell apart while you were looking somewhere else; and the suffocating subjectivity of Campbell's disaster, as one man's reality (which is also ours by proxy) disintegrates around him.

But reading these books is not an experience of coldly admiring technique; both authors tap into basic human fears -- and I'm not necessarily talking about the specifics of what they depict. It's a cliché (though nonetheless true) that what you can't see is more frightening than what you can. These books have made wonder whether something else is more frightening still -- namely, what you can see but can't understand. The characters (and, indeed readers) of both novels have to confront horrors that just don't make sense to them, but at the same time cannot be denied -- and I think that combination makes the books all the more effective.

If fantasy and science fiction can encourage us to imagine there could be more to the world than we know, The Unblemished and The Grin of the Dark are two books that make us hope there is not. This new mass-market horror series could hardly be off to a stronger start.

Copyright © 2008 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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