Conrad Williams: Use Once, Then Destroy

Williams brings a number of good, and often slightly contradictory, tricks to bear in this collection of 17 stories spanning a dozen years of his career:

  • His prose juxtaposes lyrical, even pastoral imagery with the ugliness of urban decay. The book is full of description like, “There was a moon low in the sky, like an albino’s eyelash. What light there was came from the stars, or the ineffectual blocks of orange in the pub windows,” and “A layer of slate-colored cloud had slide across the sky. Only the thinnest edge of light trembled above the staggered horizon, like hope receding.”
  • Sometimes he approaches the apotheosis of horror with subtlety and occlusion, in phrases that left me sure something grotesque and horrible had happened but not always sure exactly what.
  • Then again, sometimes he opts for stomach-wrenching clarity or the well-worn use of metaphor and simile to project characters’ unease onto innocuous settings, like, “the exposed bones of more demolished houses on our dwindling street.”
  • Williams’s sense of place is often extraordinary. The protagonist’s search for a mysterious London street in “Nest of Salt” left me feeling almost as if I’d traipsed some of the same blocks. (On the other hand, I found the Venice travelogue of “City in Aspic,” less convincing, as if Williams were laying out his tale with a city map at his side.)
  • Williams’ characters, with few exceptions, are either unhappily alone or on the cusp of realizing they’d be less unhappy if they were alone. He’s eerily good at portraying guttering relationships:

    Crumbling farmhouses; fields freshly opened by the tractors, the soil dark and dense, brown as wet leather; long gray roads. They turned on to one now, flanked by elm trees, an object lesson in perspective.
    “Now there’s pretty for you, Molly said.
    “There are moves to pull trees like that down,” Ian said, and then mentally kicked himself for once again putting a downer on things. Why couldn’t he just agree occasionally? It was what she wanted to hear.

    (supernatural elements enter only at the end of several of these stories — if at all — as tensions between the characters reach a climax, which heightens my overall impression that Williams is very consciously using literal, physical horror as an externalization of his characters’ internal, emotional horror.

  • Scattered through the volume are a handful of supernatural entities or tropes that one might name, or have encountered previously. “You could arguably describe that one as a ‘ghost story,'” one might say, or “the twist of that one was a bit like a certain Twilight Zone episode.” And there’s at least one bona fide “serial killer” within these pages. But even the relatively comfortable, recognizable sources of horror are transmuted in Williams hands. Overall, this is one of the most original and surprising works of dark fantasy I’ve read in some time.

Despite its many strong qualities, I found this a difficult book to finish. Partly it’s the familiar problem of the single-author short story collection: it perhaps over-emphasizes the extent to which an author revisits certain themes or uses certain literary devices.

But the problem here is substantially mine: I prefer my horror to have more likable characters and/or a little more potential for redemption. Not every story in this collection is relentlessly grim, but many are, and I found the cumulative effect oppressive.

For what it’s worth: Williams seems so quintessentially British that I found the (US-based) publisher’s use of American spellings for words like “color” almost distracting.

needs more demons I may have to go with “needs fewer demons” for once.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

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