Written by: James Keen
“…they stood on a desert of faces that moved ceaselessly, minutely, like the incremental journey of a dune.” – Decay Inevitable. Conrad Williams.
Author Williams gets his proceedings off to a disorienting, twitchy and dreamlike start with a prologue of sorts, dealing with a young boy whose perception of the events around him might just qualify him as being insane. It’s a snappy opening to a novel that will have the indulgent reader feeling as if they are standing in a kind of literary quicksand as the book progresses. ‘Decay Inevitable’ is yet another example of Williams’ gloriously warped imagination; surreal in places, akin to a twisted amalgam of early Clive Barker fiction shot through with Cronenberg’s cinematic storytelling sensibility. This is fiction that often calls upon the reader to check characters mental bearings from from very early on in the text, as Williams overall conceit is a nightmarishly disturbing affair. A deliriously volute tale teeming with threat, ceaselessly daring to dart off into pure dark fantasy before erupting into jolting narrative devices that are positively febrile with violent, sanguinary imagery. It’s a wild ride with many of Williams subsequent set-pieces proving to be, by turns, stomach-turning and brilliantly rendered.
The book is headed up by three principals: first up we have Sean Redman, a young man whose career path as a policeman – “his job was dull but safe”- is brought to an abrupt halt by a horrific episode initially seems unrelated to Williams’ narrative proper, but later gains significance as the author weaves into his plot the other two major characters; Will and Cheke. The former is another young fellow who is anxiously awaiting the delivery of his first child; a thief and general ne’er do well who winds up on the run from the law after a disgusting and graphic event involving his current girlfriend. The third primary element in this tale is Cheke; a curious creature endowed with peculiarly grisly talents coupled with an appallingly horripilating appetite for accumulating the baser knowledge of what it means to be human from her victims. How Williams draws these three disparate narrative threads together is a tremendously rewarding reading experience, but perhaps only for those with a strong disposition, willing to indulge Williams’ seemingly whimsical interchange of narrative perspectives before arriving at his spectacularly gory and mind-bending conclusion.
‘Decay Inevitable’ showcases Conrad Williams flair for the visual – his descriptive talents are engaging and vivid, darkly poetic and subsequently often linger in the mind, like images from a barely remembered fever dream; “limp Christmas decorations hung from telegraph poles like ropes of phlegm”, “he saw a limb on the roadside, neatly encased in a pink cardigan sleeve. The fingers were gripping a half-eaten Chunky Kit Kat”. Even instances in the text where an anxiety-riddled Redman is described at one point as being “as brittle as the icing on a stale cake” resonate. Language and diction are ladled out with evident care, an attention to detail that is almost hypnotically compelling in places accompanied by a literary pace that rarely slips and coupled with a sense of humor that sensibly offsets the grim canvas that the author elects to paint.
There are, though, just a few complaints with this follow up to Williams’ ‘One’ and ‘Head Injuries’; there’s a tiresome chunk of one chapter that belabors the concept of biological ‘torpor’ and odd instances of plot exposition espoused by one character that come off as noticeably clunky in places and serve only to undermine the author’s ambitious conceit. One particular set-piece involving a dual hanging smacks of sacrificing reader investment in favor of gory spectacle.
This is a thought-provoking literary proposition from an author with a riotously fecund imagination, with a dizzying plot that invariably manages to dislodge any wary expectation the astute horror reader might develop. It’s the kind of book that challenges the reader’s perception of characters and the world they inhabit so that by the time the reader has made it to the novel’s finale, it’s all over much too soon. There’s a Patrick McGrath era ‘Spider’ type of unease evident in Williams’ ‘Decay…’, but it’s less pronounced than in say, something like his earlier novel ‘Head Injuries’, which is to say that the narrative through-line is less manipulatively opaque. This is a work bleeding out creativity and ideas, and not another example of an author merely content with pulling the literary rug out from under the bewildered reader for the sake of shallow, intemperate narrative shocks.