Written by: James Keen
“And could we really be sure that this wasn’t all one huge shared nightmare, a folie à trois , that we had infected each other with.” – Conrad Williams. Head Injuries.
The setting for ‘Head Injuries’ is largely based around the town of Morecambe in the North West of the United Kingdom in the early 1990’s, it’s September and three old school friends find themselves drawn together by a strange series of circumstances that hint at something other than coincidence. Told from the perspective of David, a twenty-something character who has lost his direction in life, we are introduced to Shay and Helen, his peers from a life he’s barely managed to recall in any way that approximates a positive manner. Having shared a stop-start and decidedly miserable sex life with Helen, David is called back to Morecambe Bay for a rendezvous with not only his ex-lover but his old friend, the pot-holing, obituary-reading addicted Seamus. Still harbouring feelings for his beloved ex and weighted down with gloomy memories of their affair, David – experiencing a kind of numbing everyday limbo gravitates towards solving their apparently shared mystery but instead finding their shared quest to be an increasingly violent and terrifying proposition, threatening to undermine the sanity of all three.
Written in 1993 and published toward the end of 1998, Conrad Williams’ excellent and riveting horror thriller is a bracingly related, often unnerving experience, given what currently constitutes popular page-turning genre fiction. Other reviewers of this early novel by Williams predominantly hark on about the gloomy aspect of the town our principles find themselves in, it’s dull aspect and it’s patently evident that some reviewers have never had the misfortune to visit the seaside town of Morecambe in the early 1990’s. However this reviewer has experienced this rather dubious ‘delight’ of visiting the area around the time this novel is set, and it’s to Williams’ credit that he does an exemplary job of taking the execrable aspects of that time and that town and manages to ladle upon the place a compellingly grim literary ‘varnish’. To whit, the description of David’s temporary employment at one of the seaside town’s watering holes – ‘The Whistling Clam’ is described as “one of those homogenous fun pubs on the front which boast all the enticement of a dogshit flan” and manages to collectively sum up the weather-beaten ‘charms’ of the locale during that period.
In an interview conducted by author Jeff VanderMeer back in 2006, Conrad Williams was introduced thusly, “As a prose stylist, Williams is one of the most interesting new writers to emerge in recent years” – an assessment of his work that on the one hand highlights his importance in the speculative fiction genre and yet also perhaps hints at a more subtle criticism that his work is more wholly involved in fashioning artfully conceived swatches of text rather than concerning itself with the rigours of developing a compelling plot. An argument this reviewer can appreciate, but not wholly agree with. Williams relates his deceptively conventional tale of repressed guilt and the misery associated with not seeking atonement for one’s past deeds with an economy few authors seem to be content with today, a trend that perhaps the more well-known proponents of best-selling horror fiction would do well to pay more attention to and in the process avoiding the odious textual bloat that seems prevalent in the more indulgent writers out there today who seem blithely content to pad their books out with exposition that is entirely unnecessary. Reading fiction, in whatever genre, this reviewer argues, should not be reduced to being akin to a futile marathon of consuming moribund set-piece after set-piece without the reward of anything approximating a literary frisson.
Ronald Malfi, in his excellent novel, ‘Floating Staircase’, quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote of how the act of writing has as its analog the idea of swimming underwater, holding your breath; an exhaustive task that requires discipline, faith and a willingness to undergo plumbing the mental terrors of creative expression in the hope of surfacing and offering up art that is ultimately engaging and life-affirming. This reviewer argues that the same holds true for anyone interested in taking their valuable time to involve him or herself indulging in any work of fiction, in that the best works of fiction challenge the reader but that it should, in some way, reward that reader with, at the very least, a modicum of entertainment or even better, educate the reader in some way, instead of merely passing their time. Conrad Williams’ ‘Head Injuries’ manages to do both.