Over the last few years, horror has increasingly become one of my great passions, be it on film, in a novel, or within the virtual world of a computer game. Despite the tendency of mainstream works of horror to rework old formulas, and the mode's weakened position within the publishing industry, I believe that, in terms of creativity and innovation, it is in excellent health. It was in relation to my search for outstanding works of horror that I first became aware of Conrad Williams. I attended a panel discussion at the 2008 alt.fiction Day, during which Williams exuded an intelligent and passionate commitment to the mode that encouraged me to seek out his work in future. Over a year passed before time commitments and a fortuitous release date allowed me to follow my inclination and review Williams's latest novel, One. This sombre, darkly majestic story of one man's journey into a post-apocalyptic Hell on Earth confirmed that my interest in the author's work was well placed.
The novel begins in the gloom deep under the North Sea, as protagonist Richard Jane attempts to repair a fault in one of the legs of an oil platform. Having established a sense of place, Williams spares scant pages before unleashing the cataclysmic, yet enigmatic, Event: a scalding heat that ravages the Earth, which can be felt by Jane at 600 feet beneath the surface. Alongside a fellow diver, Jane makes his way back to the surface, the enormity of what has occurred revealed by the increasing proliferation of descending corpses, sinking into the chill depths from which they are escaping. On the surface they find that an interminable storm rages, the tormented sea seething and lashing at the deck of the platform; and this hostile vista sets the tone for Williams's post-apocalyptic world. Jane's friend cannot cope with the enormity of what has happened and chooses to end his life rather than experience the encroaching nightmare. Escaping in a life boat, Jane is washed ashore on the east coast of Scotland, which has been utterly ravaged by the cataclysm.
Alone and afraid, Jane decides to head for London in the hope of finding his estranged wife, Cherry, and son, Stanley. The third person narration is focalised through Jane, and the reader is given access to his dreams of a family reunion as well as hallucinatory passages that reveal his deepest fears. Before too long, it becomes clear that Jane's seemingly benevolent quest swiftly develops into an obsession; the reunion, into a fantasy in which to hide from the traumatic scenes that assault his senses. Williams forces the reader to acknowledge the horrors of this ruined world, managing to portray visceral, grisly scenes without ever seeming gratuitous; which is no mean feat in a novel filled with melted, eviscerated, mutilated, and cannibalized human corpses. Instead, their grisly presence reminds the reader of the human cost of the Event and prevents, rather than encourages, desensitization.
The first section of the book deals with Jane's journey down to London. As he makes his way through the blasted countryside and urban environments, his comprehension of the extent of the devastation expands with every step he takes. Along the way he meets a handful of survivors who join his pilgrimage, as well as gangs who have been so severely mentally or physically deformed and damaged by the Event that their only purpose now is to kill those evidently more fortunate than themselves. Though the tone is relentlessly bleak, Williams's prose evokes a sense of diabolic sublime; as Jane wanders through this nightmarish landscape its polluted desolation is given a macabre, poetic beauty:
Clouds had formed, despite the wind, pinguid and low, like something thick in a mixing bowl, streaked with the colours of decay. (p. 22)
The sea was an urgent incessant booming to his left, restless beneath a sky that, even at night, roiled with sombre colours, a melancholy oil painting failing to dry. (p. 43)
Upon arriving at his house with radiographer Becky Bass and Aidan, a boy the same age as the missing Stanley, Jane finds it an empty, despoiled ruin. We feel Jane's disappointment at this pivotal moment intensely: his character has been meticulously crafted. Though he may act heroically on occasion, Jane is simply not equipped to deal with the burden of hope required of the survivors. A troubled man, he finds himself in circumstances greater than he can endure, and when he realizes that the Event has claimed the life he once knew, and with it his hopes and dreams, his pain is palpable.
The second section is set ten years later. Jane has formed something of a romance with Becky and together they have attempted to raise Aidan. The years have not been kind to Jane, and his obsession with the missing Stanley warps his mind and personality to make him a selfish, introspective and, ultimately, pitiable creature. As he retreats further into an imagined communication with his son it is increasingly apparent that Jane has no future on this desolate Earth; the further he sinks into insanity, the clearer it becomes that he sees Becky and Aidan as poor substitutes for Cherry and Stanley. This builds to a confrontation with Aidan of striking intensity; here again, Williams's characterization, and the suffering of his characters in particular, is extremely convincing.
The three survivors have joined a group called the Shaded, who work to maintain a sense of order amongst those who are left and counter the threat posed by the Skinners, creatures that were brought by the Event to inhabit the bodies of the dead and living alike. Thought to be alien in origin, their physiology, motivation, and actions remain shrouded in secrecy. Only their method of gestation is known for certain:
The seed that had been laid down by whatever cosmic wind had swooped upon the planet was germinating not only in the ready fertilizer of the dead but in the living too. [. . . ] There was a rumour that you could feel the shape of the body that was growing inside you, slowly devouring you from the inside out before you died. An inner shadow worming itself into your hollows and crevices like a hermit crab tucking into a new shell. You'd feel the unholy pain of your bones melting, your organs gnawed; a contained explosion. Creatures filled the casing of your skin, growing to whatever limits surrounded them: cat, horse, man. (p. 225)
Williams's monster creation is simply superb: the Skinners are a nebulous, polymorphous cosmic threat that recalls the mysterious xenomorph of Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien (1979). They earn their name by brutally flaying the men they prey upon, whilst dragging the female survivors to an even worse fate. They represent a delightfully weird miscegenation between the fleshy monstrosities dreamed up by such exemplars of body horror as Clive Barker and China Miéville and the cold, alien otherworldliness of the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Indeed, the cosmic horror inspired by the deep time of their interstellar journey to find a world that they can consume is extremely evocative of the most science fictional of H. P. Lovecraft's oeuvre:
How many millennia had these things drifted through the stars, waiting to find food? How many dead planets had they impacted upon, waiting for an atmosphere, a primordial scenario, an evolution that would never come? (p. 361)
I do not reference these figureheads of horror merely for lazy comparison, but to point out that Williams is able to generate a comparable sense of the dark, majestic horror that supports their rightful positions as masters of the craft.
The only way to save oneself from the pervasive spores that carry the parasitic Skinner threat is to regularly take drugs such as omeprazole, designed to relieve heartburn, in order to suppress the growth of the creatures that reside within the bodies of all survivors. Such pharmaceutical suppression of a parasitic organism reminded me of computer game I played on the Amiga as a child called Dark Seed (1992), in which the playable character has the embryo of an alien creature implanted within his skull by beings from a darker dimension than our own, the gestation of which can only be delayed through frequently taking aspirin. In both the game and Williams's novel, this generates a sense of being tainted and violated, a feeling of revulsion and alienation that is extremely effective in sustaining a sensation of doom and ever present threat.
Towards the end of the novel, the narrative focuses on the hope offered by a raft that is rumoured to be under construction off the coast of Kent. As an exodus from London commences, Jane reluctantly gives up his vigil at his former home, where he hoped that if Stanley survived he might return and join them in their search for a new world. However, their plans are threatened by the alien intelligence of the Skinners. A large force encircle London in an effort to entrap the survivors, while a few enter the safe zones in order to stalk their prey; once a Skinner has your scent they will hunt you implacably for as long as they live. Jane must battle through these adversities, encumbered by his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, in order to stand a chance of fleeing the United Kingdom to a dubious safety. The final section revolves around an escalating violence between humans and Skinners, with a touching ending that resolves Jane's quest to be reunited with Stanley, whilst retaining the sense of hopelessness that has persisted throughout the novel.
One is a significant contribution to an illustrious post-apocalyptic tradition that includes Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002). Whereas there is often a sense of distance between the reader and the devastated world of the protagonist in post-apocalyptic narratives, Williams grabs you by the hair and forces you to stare at the more grisly elements of this mortally wounded world. As a result One packs an enormous emotional punch. In short, One is an absolute triumph: a novel that shows that literary horror still holds enormous potential to move and challenge its readership.
David is an English Literature graduate from Liverpool who has returned to his home city for an MA in Science Fiction Studies. He has also reviewed for the Interzone website.