Read The Unblemished Online

Authors: Conrad Williams

The Unblemished

BOOK: The Unblemished
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Table of Contents

CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR
THE UNBLEMISHED

'This book scared the crap out of me ... In my estimation, Williams does so many
things so well that there's really not much he can't do. He is one of the few writers
working in the area of horror and dark fantasy who has my full attention all of the time.
The Unblemished
is further evidence of his superlative talent.'

Jeff VanderMeer

'Williams is so good at what he does that he probably shouldn't be allowed to do it any
more, for the sake of everyone's sanity.'

Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

'Williams has built a whole mythology, one that makes the book feel like a cobwebbed
relic from another time. Dust it off, if you like. Just do it at, say, ten in the morning. In
a crowded room. In a military compound.'

Time Out

'[A] rich, emotionally engaging and extremely fast-paced novel ...
The Unblemished
achieves the admirable, tricky task of interweaving physical horror with spiritual terror
... an unapologetic white-knuckle thriller ...'

William P Simmons,
Infinity Plus

'Conrad Williams takes us on a roller-coaster ride through ancient buried secrets and
body-horror invasion into the pulsing gut of apocalyptic British horror.'

Christopher Fowler

'
The Unblemished
combines a carefully orchestrated accumulation of paranoid detail
reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell with passages of vividly described (and highly graphic)
transformations evocative of early Clive Barker ...'

Steve Rasnic Tem

'An apocalyptic nightmare narrated with great vigour, clarity and stylishness. Steel
yourself for some hideous sadism — there's awe along the way.'

Ramsey Campbell

'A tour de force. Awe-inspiring in its sheer unsparing, unflinching, grimly horrifying
view. One nasty piece of work.'

Ed Bryant,
Locus

FURTHER PRAISE FOR CONRAD WILLIAMS

'... rivals the nastiest imagery of Edgar Allan Poe.'

Maxim

'A writer of extraordinary talent; stories that shine dark light into the world's
shadows.'

Michael Marshall Smith

'The flights of his fiction are dazzling and dangerous.'

Graham Joyce

'Incendiary stuff ... A writer of rare – if warped – imagination.'
John O'Connell,
Time Out

'Conrad Williams does desperate depraved characters like they've just been invented, in
authentic London locations that ooze evil and despair. His prose is muscular and
beautiful, his narrative drive locked in fifth gear. Weird fiction just got weirder.

Squeamish? Forget it.'

Nicholas Royle

'Conrad Williams is one of the unsung heroes of fantastic fiction. Williams has the
unnerving ability of depicting the most appalling human atrocities in achingly lyrical
prose, which has the effect of making them more disturbing still.'

Mark Morris

'Williams may be in the process of developing a new genre.'
M John Harrison

'I loved it. His portraits of everyday loneliness are brilliant. Altogether I thought it one
of the finest and most haunting modern spectral novels I've read.'

Ramsey Campbell on
Head Injuries

'... beautiful prose in this brooding and mysterious tale ... A first class novel.'
Peter Crowther,
Interzone
on
Head Injuries

'Lean, compelling prose marks this out as a thriller of real distinction.'
Crime Time
on
Head Injuries

'Conrad Williams' debut novel casts an irresistible spell.'
Andrew Hedgecock,
Time Out Net Books
on
Head Injuries

'An impressive tour de force that ranges from grimy magic realism to outright horror.'
David Langford,
SFX
on
London Revenant

'Williams creates existentialist horror with hallucinatory imagery and prose that is as
muscular as it is tender, and laced at times with quite extraordinary beauty.'
Nicholas Royle,
City Life
(Book of the Week) on
London Revenant

'The book moves from moments of lyricism to moments of utter disgust with little
clashing of gears.'

Roz Kaveney,
Time Out
on
London Revenant

'
Use Once, Then Destroy
is one of the most solid collections of disturbing but engaging
work you're likely to find on the shelves today.'

Tom Piccirilli

'Williams is without doubt one of the finest fantasists writing today.'
Tim Lebbon

'... one of the more inventive and gifted writers of horror and dark fantasy to emerge
in the past decade.'

Tim Pratt,
Locus

'... depraved and elegantly ambivalent stories ... Williams writes with a poetic
brutality that definitely makes him a dark voice to note.'

Publishers Weekly
(starred review) on
Use Once Then Destroy.

'... a genuine, deeply macabre spellbinder.'
Ray Olson,
Booklist
on
London Revenant

'A gritty, phantasmagoric tour de force.'
Locus
on
London Revenant

'Powerful and tragic. Five out of five stars.'
Horror-Web
on
London Revenant

'Pacy, hard-edged, and almost feverish in the intensity with which it moves towards its
blood-soaked and righteous climax.'

The Alien Online
on
Game

'Conrad Williams possesses a ruthless imagination and the sensibility of a poet.'
William P Simmons,
Infinity Plus
on
Game

'A ferocious adventure. It is amazing.'
Cemetery Dance
on
Game

'Like Hieronymus Bosch or M John Harrison, he is a painter of infernos, his torments
always briskly inventive, his grotesquerie always delineated with flair; pure visionary
acid.
Nearly People
is cruelly brilliant, a dagger in the vitals.'

Nick Gevers,
Infinity Plus

'Conrad Williams delivers a tour de force experience with
Nearly People.
This is a
tremendous piece of writing, destined for great things.'

David Howe,
Shivers

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Conrad Williams is the author of two previous novels,
Head Injuries
and
London Revenant
, as well as the novellas
Nearly People
,
Game
,
The Scalding Rooms
and
Rain
, and a collection of his short fiction,
Use Once, Then Destroy.

Born in 1969, he sold his first short story at the age of eighteen and
has gone on to sell over 80 more to a variety of small presses, professional
magazines and critically acclaimed anthologies.

In 1993 he won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer.

His work has since been shortlisted for awards by the British Fantasy
Society and the International Horror Guild, the latter proclaiming
The Unblemished
as Best Novel.

He is married to the writer Rhonda Carrier and they live with their
three sons and a monster Maine Coon cat in Manchester, where
Conrad teaches creative writing at a local university.

THE UNBLEMISHED

CONRAD WILLIAMS

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9780753516263

Version 1.0

www.randomhouse.co.uk

First published in paperback in Great Britain in 2008 by
Virgin Books Ltd
Thames Wharf Studios
Rainville Rd
London W6 9HA

First published in the US in hardback by Earthling

Copyright © Conrad Williams 2006, 2008

The right of Conrad Williams to be identified as the
Author of the Work has been asserted by him in
accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act
1988.

This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

A catalogue record for this book is available from the
British Library.

ISBN: 9780753516263

Version 1.0

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I couldn't have written this without the love and support of my
selfless wife and our beautiful sons Ethan, Ripley and Zachary.

Thanks also to Jeff VanderMeer, Jim Frenkel, Joel Lane, Paul
Miller, Robert Kirby and Adam Nevill.

The title of Chapter Twenty Two is a line of dialogue from the film
Blade Runner
(1982), written by Hampton Fancher and David
Peoples, directed by Ridley Scott.

For Ripley
I love you, squawker

PROLOGUE

Horror and reverence are declensions of the same bewilderment – the
bewilderment of being fully alive. When one is fully alive, the entire
world is alive. The observed observes. The forest becomes a congeries of
eyes.

Robert Pogue Harrison,
Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation

What scared Claire more than the encroaching trees and the
worsening state of the road was that the immutable faith she
had in her map had proved misplaced. According to the atlas, the
B4525 ought still to be carrying on merrily squirming like a
tapeworm through the guts of Northamptonshire. She was a good
map reader, but something had gone wrong within the last hour and
she couldn't figure out what it was. Her boyfriend, Oliver, had run
the gamut from mild irritation to apoplexy, via sarcasm and exasperation.

Now he was hunched over the wheel, trying to peer through
the imbroglio, his throat clicking whenever he swallowed. Darkness
was coming on, and the possibility that they might have to spend the
night in the car was growing firmer by the minute.

She wondered again why they had decided to do this. Oliver had
pointed out their lack of funds when she suggested a holiday, even
though her idea – a week in a tent on the French coast near Arcachon
– had been modest and well within their means. She guessed he had
been waiting for her to offer her plan, just so he could trump it with
his own. The fact that he gave what seemed almost a presentation on
the benefits of remaining in the UK – all that was missing was a
PowerPoint display and photocopied handouts – exposed his
extensive preparations. He bullied her into agreeing.
How much of
our own country do you really know?
he'd asked her.
How much of
it have you actually visited?

Her rejoinder, that Skegness in the wet would have the same
attraction as the Lakes in the wet, or Dartmoor in the wet, was
dismissed. And after all, it was his car they would be using had she
won the vacation argument; his tent too. She felt she had to go along
with him. She supposed she could refuse. But where would that leave
them? Further down the road to the end of their relationship. And she
didn't want that. Not since she discovered she was pregnant. This
holiday was meant to provide a peaceful, neutral arena where she
could feel comfortable enough to tell him he was to be a father. She
didn't know him well enough yet to gauge how he might take the
news. He was a difficult winkle to prize from the shell. But she felt
she ought to share the news with him first before letting her mother
know. God, there was a happy moment awaiting her. It had been
tough enough trying to get her to agree to this little break. Her mum
was sweating panic so hard over her debt and the wanker that was
chasing them for it that Claire was convinced she could see it leaving
acid tracks in her skin. She wanted to wrestle her down to the sofa,
give her some hot tea, tell her to slow down, to breathe. That way, at
least, Claire supposed, she would be getting some practice in at being
mother.

She looked at Oliver and thought about reaching out a conciliatory
hand. But then he glanced at her with that disgusted, dismissive
expression that he always seemed to wear in her company. She felt a
stitch of dread, certain that it was on his tongue, this talk of finishing
it, of moving on. He was tasting the flavour of it, that was sure. She
wanted to tell him that he gave her a jolt whenever she saw him, as if
he was someone she were seeing for the first time. She never seemed
to recognise him. She wondered if this in itself was a good thing. She
wondered why she couldn't open her mouth to try to help seal some
cracks. There was a big one in their age difference, one that she
hadn't even considered until it became clear there was something of
him growing inside her. Eighteen and twenty-five. Suddenly she felt
as if she were being driven around by an uncle.

The long, white beaches of western France seemed further away
than ever now. Rain began to fall, inviting the squeaking, metronomic
rhythm of the wipers that irritated her, but at least they cut into the
terrible silence building between them. Thunder was a distant godly
footprint, that of something determined to track them down.
All we
need now,
she thought,
is a flat tyre.

'When was it that you lost the plot?' Oliver asked suddenly. Claire
felt it was a cruel question, full of the kind of ambiguity that he
seemed to enjoy. He liked playing with people, tying them in knots.

'We haven't turned off the B road,' she replied, refusing to fall for
the bait. Arguing wasn't going to magic them back on track. 'So the
map must be wrong.'

'Yeah, right,' he said. 'How does that saying go, the one about
craftsmen and tools?' His voice wasn't right, though. He wouldn't
look at her. He uttered his insults flatly, without any of the chiding,
bitter humour, the come-ons that she sometimes found bizarrely
attractive. His eyes flashed at the rear-view mirror more often than
seemed prudent. Something in his actions reminded her of a bird. It
was a nervous, jerky routine.

Claire checked the publication date of the atlas, in case it was out
of date, but it was the latest edition. 'Maybe we should just turn
around,' she said. 'I vaguely remember seeing a pub before things
started going wrong. About half an hour ago. We might find we
know where we are if we get back there. And if not, we can always
stop for a drink. Ask for directions.'

Oliver wasn't answering, and she looked at him. She almost
instantly turned her attention back to the road, convinced that the
person she had got into the car with, all those miles and hours ago,
was no longer the same. His face was utterly alien to her. The light
from the dashboard had picked out punctures and hollows that
shouldn't have been there, and perhaps hadn't, before the tension of
their situation had started to dig in. She wondered if she appeared the
same way to him.

'Turn around,' she whispered. She didn't like the way the road
ahead was failing beneath the weather, as if it was being erased. She
wanted to be with her mother. She wanted that controllable sense of
hysteria. Domestic madness.

Sweat crept out from beneath her fingertips where she clutched the
edges of the atlas. She was pressing half-moons into the paper. The
blackness beyond the windows was so complete that she was no
longer certain they were on any kind of road at all, and suffered an
awful, vertiginous pang that lit upon the nerves in her legs as she
imagined the car falling through space. She flipped down the vanity
mirror in the sunshield above her head. Now she saw what it was that
Oliver was so intent on, what had robbed him of his ability to speak
to her. Now she saw why they could not retreat. In the occasional red
wash from the brakelights she saw hundreds of figures squirming in
their wake on to the rubble-strewn road, many of them limbless, eyes
reflecting as pale discs of silver. She yelled involuntarily, a nonsense
sound that caused Oliver to flinch. 'What are they doing?' she
shouted. 'Why are they chasing us?' Her hand went to the door
handle and jerked it open. Oliver screamed at her to shut it.

'What do they want?' she asked. She could not recognise her own
voice above the grind of the engine, the slam of her own heart.

'I don't know,' Oliver said. 'But what are we going to do? Reason
with them? Look at them. I mean,
fucking look at them.
'

There were so many of them wriggling over the embankment it
seemed that at some point they would be engulfed. The car jounced
as it crunched over bodies that slithered beneath the wheels. Claire
screamed. And then she heard Oliver swear and ram his foot on the
brakes. A fallen tree, twenty feet ahead, blocking their path. Oliver
reached out and squeezed her hand. Sweat cellophaned him. He was
all tendons and cords and failing intent. He opened the door and the
howling wind and rain swirled into the car. He did not look back at
her. He said: 'Run.'

Immediately Claire lost him in the squall. She guessed he must
have moved in a straight line as soon as his foot hit the soil, hoping
that, once over it, the tree would act as a barrier to the crawling
hordes behind them. She didn't for one second consider his
behaviour, his abandonment of her. Neither did she consider the
identity of the creatures hunting them down. All she thought about
was catching up with him, not wanting to be out here on her own
while whatever it was slid and slithered at her heels through the mud.

'Oli?' It was her first and last cry to him. The storm turned her
words into confetti that fell around her ears. She decided to save her
breath and follow the route she guessed he must have taken. She lost a
shoe to the mud. Her leg rippled with fire where a stinger danced along
it. She felt the rain almost instantly permeate her clothes and set about
her skin. Finding Oliver was her task, her be-all and end-all. Sanctuary
was now as fantastical an idea to her as heaven. Her determination to
track him down before succumbing to whatever was closing in around
her helped her to keep going. Dying out here seemed a given, all of a
sudden, a fate instantly assimilated. What she must rage against was
doing so without making some effort to reconnect with the person she
loved. The fear of being alone at the end outweighed the terror of death
to a point that she found almost amusing.

The headlights of the car helped her to see where to put her feet as
she scrambled over the tree, although a protrusion of some kind tore
a hole in her blouse and scored a breast with pain. Beyond it the light
was less helpful, and she had to rely on the flashes of lightning to give
her moments in which to reorient herself. Within one, she believed
she saw Oliver pinwheeling through a clump of trees to her right, so
she altered her course and gave chase.

The lightning was coming more frequently, scattering across
different parts of the sky in sheets, as if searching for a seamstress to
stitch them all together. Thunder filled in the gaps, shockingly close,
at one point seeming to vibrate within her. The adrenaline, the storm,
the hunt, all of it was conspiring to excite her. For the first time in her
life, she felt alive. She screamed and laughed. Terror purged her of
any logic. Instinct reduced her to the basest animal. She sprinted, a
forgotten joy, and no longer felt any nettle or knock. She was
suddenly insane, and loving every second.

She reached the trees where she thought she'd spotted Oliver.
There was no point in trying to search for his tracks. The rain had
already turned the ground to nonsense. She heard something
breathing hard and wet not too far behind her and pushed on,
knowing that to stop was to die and she mustn't allow that until she
knew what had become of her man. The synapses of the sky flared
with another packet of energy. She saw the land fall away rapidly. At
the bottom of the hill light glanced off what could only be a barbed
wire fence. She must get through that and hinder their progress some
more. She needed time.

She started a gingerly descent, but knew how she would reach the
bottom. It didn't take long before she lost her footing. Part of her
wished that she might clout her head against a rock to inure her
against whatever they were planning for her. But the fall was muddy
and nothing else. Back on her feet she found a sagging portion of
barbed wire and picked a way through it: she entered a zone
protected from the worst of the storm by a thick canopy overhead.

The deluge had failed to find a way through and the sudden lack
of rain was as shocking as it was welcome. Even the thunder and
lightning seemed subdued. The rich smells of damp bark and fungus
hung thickly in the air. Broad, waxy leaves, Mesozoic in their size,
sweated pungent sap that stuck like syrup to Claire's skin. There was
the breath of something old in the forest, a stale atmosphere filtered
through centuries of shadow and heat. The air seemed to have been
recycled to the point where there was no oxygen left. Claire sucked
the stink and fumes into lungs that were working so hard, so
shallowly, that it didn't really matter what was in the air. The silence
was not compromised by any rustles of animals in the undergrowth.
There were none of the kind of caws or cackles she thought she might
hear on any ordinary tramp through the woods. That concerned her
more than she expected.

Her mind was fixed hard on Oliver, trying to put up a barricade
against the dark, which was deepening, and putting pressure on her
flimsy defences. Terror, she was learning, was like gorging yourself at
the dining table: it filled you up and threatened to move outside of
you, as if it could affect your surroundings too. It became more than
what you were.

She had always loved the forest and cherished the memories she had
of playing there with her father when she was a child. But she pushed
through the undergrowth now, panicked and confused by this old
friend of hers, this betrayer. Her fear was so great that she was
oblivious to the thorns and stingers that stood in her way. Her legs
became striped with welts; a spine on a creeper scratched her eyelid.
Blinking furiously, tears ruining half of her vision, she misjudged the
space around her and careened into a tree, knocking herself off balance.
She went down hard and winded herself against a fist of rock in the
slippery earth. Her left leg caught beneath her and she was forced on to
her front. The torrent had loosened a thin scree of rubble and mud; she
travelled with it, her mouth filling with grit. Bottoming out, she was
able to steady herself and get upright. Pain flew up her right side; her
shin was bathed in blood.

Queasily she felt around for a bone protruding through the flesh,
but it was only a deep cut. She could walk. She became aware, as she
angrily swiped at the tears and grime on her face, that the rain had
stopped, replaced by an enormous heat; it was similar to the time she
had stepped from a jet on to a Bahrain runway. The smells of
vegetable mould were uppercuts punching through the heat. The
canopy curved over her head, complete and unbroken, as if the trees
were ganging up on her. They blotted out the black anvils of cloud to
the extent that she questioned whether it had rained at all. A hissing
sound, so low as to be almost subsonic, rose around her. It reminded
her dimly of sprinkler hoses in her grandmother's garden.

BOOK: The Unblemished
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Wind Rose by B. Roman
Broken Harmony by Roz Southey
The Runaways by Victor Canning
Out of Left Field: Marlee's Story by Barbara L. Clanton
Joanna Davis - Knights In Shining Armor by Haven; Taken By The Soldier
Fearful Symmetries by Ellen Datlow
Prophet's Prey by Sam Brower
Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist