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I really liked Conrad William's debut novel Head Injuries, but somehow never got round to reading any of his later books, so I was delighted to see his latest effort, Separation Loss (2012) on the shelves of the Sheffield Central Library! (The horror collection there is tiny, but someone's obviously keeping their finger on the pulse..)

Separation Loss is about a civil aviation pilot called Paul who has just retired from his job after allowing his plane to get too close to another plane (the "separation loss" of the title), an experience that destroyed his nerves and confidence. He has come to Southwick, a little village on the Suffolk cost, in order to start a new life running a B&B with his beautiful Eastern European wife Tamara. But Williams is having none of that chronological narrative stuff, and the novel begins with an apocalyptic scene of carnage on a country road. We then meet Paul in Intensive Care, where he's just come out of a coma after being smashed up in a hit-and-run accident! On returning to the land of the living Paul discovers that Tamara appears to have deserted him, but luckily one of his nurses, Ruth, allows him to move into her house while he builds his strength up. The recovery process is agonisingly arduous, his wife is still missing and the neighbours are weird (they treat him as a sort of sin-eater, bringing him secret possessions to burn on the beach!) But so far Paul is just scraping the surface of the town's hidden horrors...(I do love my ellipses. Let's have another one...)

This is primarily a novel about relationships - romantic and sexual bonds (which are very dark and ambiguous in Williams world) but perhaps most importantly between the mind and the body. Though the various characters' hopes and fears concerning the opposite sex drive the action, body horror underpins everything as Paul struggles to recover from the physical and mental trauma of his accident - realising in the process that he will never fully recover. Disability is something most horror authors shy away from, even today, but Williams certainly can't be accused of that, and his insights into profound injury and its effects on the psyche are very interesting. I've never even come close to Paul's level of smashed-upness, but as someone who's had a chronic pain condition in the past I appreciated the presence of a hero who has to take 20+ painkillers a day just to keep going! Williams excels at describing pain - it is everywhere in this book, but he just keeps coming up with great metaphors and similies to describe it so you never get a feeling of repetitiousness And of course, in Britain's current political climate (our government's systematic persecution of the disabled has been directly responsible for the deaths of a dozen disabled people since the last election) just writing about disability and disfigurement at all is a pretty subversive act.

As the novel goes on the focus expands from personal trauma to a wider malaise. Psychogeographically speaking Separation Loss returns to the terrain of Head Injuries - the off-season (or never-in-season) English coastal town. This time, however, the town itself plays more of a part in the action, rather than just providing a convenient backdrop of atmospheric bleakness. This focus pull prevents the novel from being too samey but it also leads to my main (in fact my only) criticism of the book, which is that the town itself never really comes to life. The novel has a slightly cut-and-shunt feel and William's evocation of the town itself, its people and general vibe, seems a bit undercooked. The vast majority of the townspeople remain in shadow throughout, and details about the place are not really seeded early enough in the novel to allow full development of the genius locii that is so important in horror fiction. Of course, the townspeople's absence/blankness may be totally intentional, and I generally enjoy the alienation present in William's work, but if so I think it's a bit too much of a good thing this time around.

Even this criticism is something that is more apparent in retrospect. It didn't spoil the book too much for me while I was reading it, as there is so much else to captivate. The characterisation is superb, and Williams is unafraid to take on challenges like writing the internal monologue for Tamara, a woman for whom English is not the first language (he deals with this by having her think much as she would speak, which is cute but might seem condescending to some.) Stylistically, Separation Loss is superb. One thing I love about it is the use of technical English, the vocabulary of aviation often mixed in with more emotional, everyday language. This could so easily have been dorky or incongruous, but instead the result is original and really ratchets up the horror in places. I can't think of any other authors who use this blend of technological and casual language, though I am reminded of Gary Numan's early lyrics, if Numan's naivete was replaced by infinite sophistication. I did find the plot a bit predictable, and there's an awful lot of sugar at the very end of the book, but when the writing is this good that honestly doesn't matter. In summary, well done Solaris for putting out yet another affordable paperback work of classy modern horror.

I am thinking of reading some more Williams but am not sure which of his books I would like. None of his other novels have very attractive jacket descriptions (they all seem to be about the end of the world, and scientific dystopias, both themes that are pretty worn-out by now) but if any of these books really are good then I'd give them a whirl, so please let fly with the recommendations!
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