British fantasist Conrad Williams, best known for the short horror tales collected in Use Once, Then Destroy, wrote the deeply personal, contemporary urban fantasy novel London Revenant (UK, 2004) over a period of nine years. It's a lean book, perfectly measured and paced at 227 pages (Night Shade Books, 2005 edition), filled with more surreal and fantastic inventions than are found in most novels twice its size. Williams seamlessly blends plot threads involving a philosophical serial killer, a secret race of Underground dwellers, a lost subterranean city called "Beneothan," and an apocalyptic earthquake to create a city brimming with danger and decadence. Indeed, it's this setting, overflowing with bruised and rotting magic, detailed with an eye for both beauty and horror, that drives the pulse of Williams's compelling narrative. Witness this slice of prose poetry:
"I could feel its [London's] suck; it was a starving, ruined baby, looking for nourishment from any quarter. Defiled, indiscriminate, blind. It devoured us all, digested us in its poisonous juices for years and then spat out the bones." (p. 147)
With stylized prose, Williams depicts London as a city on the brink of architectural, moral, and spiritual decay, and, in all respects, as a living, breathing organism, much like the diseased city in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, but without the grotesque menagerie. Our first-person narrator, Adam Buckley, exhausted by his mother's premature death and girlfriend's sudden departure, tries to find his way alone in this haunted landscape. Increasingly, he's experiencing violent nightmares of being pushed in front of trains, strange visions of acquaintances suffering horrific deaths, and bouts of narcolepsy that leave him with blocks of memory loss. His reality is being distorted—who are those shadowy characters, ever present in bars and at parties, referring to him as "Monck"?
Meanwhile, it appears as though every denizen of London is affected differently by the city—some of Adam's friends discover magic in the city's decay, which seems "to promise so much" beauty but is "all fouled and fucked" (p. 80), while others entertain thoughts of suicide and mutilation. In the backdrop, a madman known as The Pusher provides moments of unflinching horror by pushing people in front of Tube trains. Due to the publicity granted The Pusher, the secrecy of a clandestine race of Underground people, unknown to "Topside" Londoners, is threatened. Therefore, to defend their seclusion, they recruit "Monck" to put an end to The Pusher's crimes.
Since Revenant is told primarily from Adam's unreliable point of view, Williams's story is consistently unpredictable, keeping the reader constantly on edge. It's a genuine page-turner, because the reader's understanding of the narrative evolves with Adam's understanding of his reality. On one page we may believe a character is dead; on the next we may discover it was just one of Adam's visions. Yet Adam's narrative never becomes merely an arbitrary series of surreal visions, thanks to the parallel narration of The Pusher. For the reader, through this madman's eyes, the truth of Adam's shifting reality becomes crystallized.
In the first 50 pages, Williams reveals that Adam, while in a narcoleptic state, becomes Monck, a covert operative of the Underground. It's a plot device that does not hold up to logical scrutiny, yet in a city divided in two—the Topside and Underground—where the sublime and fanciful exist comfortably next to the painfully real, Adam's dual nature feels like a thematic necessity.
For all the stylistic flourishes and bountiful imagination on display, Revenant at its core is a very human character piece about Adam, a lost and lonely soul being sucked dry by the modern world. He works two dead-end jobs, lives in a modest flat, engages in barhopping and promiscuous sex—he's a common man with an unfulfilled life, trying to find his identity in the modern world. He's also an action hero, stalking the caverns of London's Underground, in search of a serial killer. Particularly poignant is Williams's portrayal of Adam struggling to reconcile his dual identities, and the way Adam, in a fitting and moving finale, chooses to find himself by escaping London.
London Revenant is a novel of rare, seductive power, propelled by its evocative setting and use of language. Certainly, Williams's creation of a mysterious and strange London, fantastical yet gritty-real, deserves to be mentioned alongside Miéville's New Crobuzon and Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris. Furthermore, Williams's proclivity for rendering such a bleak atmosphere palpably aligns him with the British literary tradition paved by the likes of M. John Harrison and Ramsey Campbell—call it the bleak-fantastic. But make no mistake, Williams is a true original, one who should appeal to all fans of literary dark fiction.
Kelly Shaw has lived in Milwaukee, WI, for his entire life, so he reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies. Sometimes he tries to write.