The Unblemished by Conrad Williams

The Unblemished is one of only a very few horror novels I’ve read, so I don’t have a lot of context, here. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on it.

A young woman, Claire Hickman, is subject to a brutal attack which leaves her traumatised and strangely altered. Claire’s mother, Sarah, is on the run from a dangerous killer who has designs on her daughter. A photographer, Bo Mulvey, is offered a map by a strange man, and finds himself unwillingly playing a role in the return of a race of flesh-eaters. It is those flesh-eaters the title refers to: their appearance is that of a human, but one too perfect in symmetry and shape. “They do not abide scars of any kind, nor marks.”

This is an incredibly violent novel. Death and the eating of flesh is everywhere. We see through the eyes of a man who likes to rape women whose legs have been freshly amputated; another man who likes to kill young girls and eat their organs. Some moments are genuinely shocking, many are disturbing, but there are times where the extremity of violence verges on farce – fortunately Williams seems aware of this, and the more extravagant scenes are sometimes peppered with moments of black humour, such as when Gyorsi Salavaria, the aforementioned killer of girls, arrives at a hotel in London:

The clean were warehousing the dirty.
A conference suite was being used as a walk-in larder. Bodies were being stripped, laid out, shorn, disembowelled, marked with indelible pen: BEST BEFORE 3/1/09. Short, shocked screams were impacting against the walls and ceiling like sporadic gunfire. The atrium swimming pool was crimson, topped with pink foam and body parts that rolled this way and that in the delicate ebb and flow. A man in a dinner jacket, his bow tie loose, hanging at his collar, strolled along the corridor holding a human rib in each fist, blood splashed like a gunshot wound to his mouth.

Within the violence, there’s a use of small, incongruous details that serve, at times, to emphasise the horror, to banalise it, or to make it almost comical – a tactic that makes striking images out of something that could have been mindless gore.

On the story side, the book’s mythology is that of a secret history of London, a tale of an ancient, deadly race that played a major role in ending a crisis in the city, but was driven out, into hiding, and forgotten by history. The characters, Bo Mulvey in particular, takes us touring around many locations in London, and the book often evokes the idea of these modern streets following the lines of roads that date far back into the city’s history.

The flesh eaters are an excellent enemy – creatures almost entirely indistinguishable from humans, beautiful, but whose mimicry of human behaviour is limited. It feeds into a real paranoia that people can sometimes feel when in an unfamiliar place, around strange people. At one point Sarah and her companion, Nick, enter a crowded pub, only to slowly realise that none of the other patrons are drinking, or even talking about anything meaningful – it’s as if, Sarah observes, they were surrounded by extras on a TV show. And these creatures are capable of sudden, extreme violence, so that their brutality slowly pervades, then overwhelms, the city.

I felt that there were some odd decisions in the plotting. Malcolm Manser, the serial killer who begins the novel as Sarah’s aggressor, seems underused, spending half of the novel setting up the arrival of Gyorsi Salavaria into the action, then the other half simply moving toward the finale. Gyorsi himself is a character built up early on who in the end proves of little importance to the outcome – it would have been entirely possible to remove his character and have most of his role in the plot (apart from a certain amount of exposition) taken up by Manser himself.

There are minor characters that come along in the story only to be forgotten later. Bo rescues a policeman from invaded Scotland Yard, but seemingly abandons him shortly afterward – the rescue scene provides more insight into the creatures, but is ultimately unimportant. Toward the end, as characters meet up and a group is formed, the book takes a brief foray into ensemble horror movie territory – even down to following the rule that sex equals death – only for the surviving secondary characters to be (literally and figuratively) dropped shortly after, with their eventual fate only presumed. Claire Hickman is less a character than a plot device – she exists to motivate Sarah Hickman’s actions, as well as serving the book’s macguffin.

The book’s climactic scenes, too, are a mixed bag. There is a fairly satisfying confrontation between Bo and Sarah and a particularly nasty creature that served as Bo’s nemesis; beyond that, the two protagonists seem to serve mainly as catalysts toward the final outcome, rather than acting themselves. For the most part I think perhaps this ending suffered because of the flaws already mentioned: the redundancy of the two killers, and Claire’s existence as object rather than person. The ending was fitting, but the execution of it didn’t quite feel right.

I haven’t managed to touch upon everything I could have; there are a lot of things the book did get right. All in all I did enjoy reading The Unblemished – it’s a book with good writing, evocative images, interesting ideas; but the plotting just left something to be desired.