‘The Pike’ by Conrad Williams

There never seemed to be any great stretch between closing his eyes and opening them again. He couldn’t remember his dreams anymore. It was his skin, rather than the alarm clock, that brought him back. Skin so tight and dry it must belong to another body. It itched constantly, no matter how much of the cream he applied, or how often. The doctor wanted him to go for surgery, but Lostock had a thing about scars. Scars changed the way you looked. You became someone else, and he was only just coming to terms with the person that he had been shaped into. But then, maybe, it would be for the best if he did change. To be physically altered, to be at some part removed from the cast of his ancestors. The slightly prominent forehead. The downward slope of the mouth. It would help him to forget that he was the sum of a number of parts that were at best defective.

Conrad Williams’s use of language at the service of works of the uncanny is second to none. I know he has written crime thrillers such as Blonde of a Stick, full of the gnarly linguistic invention I’d expect, but I would hail him as being one of the authors most inspiring to me in terms of pushing the literary boundary of what horror means, or can achieve. His stories always startle as well as sparkle. There is wit in the wounds he inflicts. And rarely is there a story in his magisterial collections, such as Born With Teeth or I Will Surround You that doesn’t take the breath away or stick in the craw of your complacency. Like many of the best writers, he paints a truthful landscape, then leaves the most horrific thing off screen, bidding you to picture it on your own. In the dark. Forever. Yes, he really is that nasty. But I love him for it. More than that, though, he shows that there can be beauty in the agonizing, seeds of survival in the bleakest of places, and gut-twisting terror in the most mundane. As his brilliant novel One shows, every shadowy path can be lit by hope, and in ‘The Pike’ his superbly evocative language records, unerringly, yet again, who we are as human beings, as vulnerable to what is inside our heads as we are to the world around us.

First published in the collection Born With Teeth, PS Publishing 2012; can be read online at Nightmare (Issue 72) Sept 2018. It can be read online here

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