Conrad Williams, Use Once, Then Destroy (Night Shade Books, 2004)

"It was a place that needed people in order for it to come alive." — from "City in Aspic"

Seventeen prose pieces carve slices of urban decay from the mind of Conrad Williams, a terrifyingly evocative writer who throws images at the reader with a kind of underhandedness that, when it works, leaves behind a warning of just how bad things could get. "The Machine" opens this collection, asking the question, if the price of perfection were your own blood, would you pay it? Beneath the surface, this first story contains all the themes that continue to run throughout the book, of man's relationship to the past, to the machinery of civilization, to disease, decay, and old age.

Next is "Supple Bodies," where a woman returns to her hometown, desperate to shake a coldness that grows within her after an abortion. Then, in "The Light that Passes Through You," a guy rescues his ex-girlfriend from addiction and despair, but in nursing her back to health he finds himself somehow infected by her hallucinations. "Nest of Salt" follows, describing a murderous quest to find a forgotten street in the heart of London; it is first of the three pieces unique to this collection.

A discarded glove takes on a deeply sinister aspect as a killer stalks the city of "City in Aspic," and a boy grows into a man while watching a tree grow from his mother's grave in the poignant tale "Other Skins." In "The Windmill," two young lovers, uncertain of their relationship's future, unfortunately stop to talk things out under the shadow of a skeletal windmill. A son's relationship to his parents is explored in the short piece "Wire," as his mother survives a serial killer's nightly rampage and his father succumbs to a town's suspicion.

As a burn heals, a man wonders if he's married in "The Burn," a prose fantasia that doesn't deliver so much as insinuate. (I re-read the ending in an attempt to figure out if anything happened, and I'm still uncertain, although it does compliment "Supple Bodies" very nicely.)

"The Owl" is the second previously unpublished piece. This vicious little piece begins innocently enough — a young couple buying a house to raise a family in the country — as if Mr. Williams wants to remind us that bad things don't just happen in the city. Sometimes, we carry them with us. The last of the previously unpublished stories, "The Night Before" is set at a party the night before a wedding where what's most important is what isn't being said.

Next up, a drug-addled road trip leads a young couple to the very edge of their relationship in "Edge," and a young punk turns from lusting after his friend's women to his friend's bike in "MacCreadle's Bike," a short piece, heavy on dialogue and character.

The last four stories bring the metropolis and its horrors into full view, beginning with "Known," where graffiti leads a man through a city that seems to have forgotten him. Then, in "The Suicide Pit" an archivist of subway suicides working for the city becomes haunted by his own dopplegänger. Discarding traditional horror elements but keeping the grim prose and sinister mood, "Excuse The Unusual Approach" is a twisted psychological spy piece set against a metropolis threatened by a war whose battlefield lies only miles away. And "Nearly People," the final story of a mile-square quarantine at an urban center's heart, calls to mind both Dante's Divine Comedy and Delany's Dhalgren, a biological horror piece that becomes a meditation on sacrifice that goes for the brain rather than the gut. Loaded with scenes of intense disaffection, across cityscape where life itself is infested, infected and cancerous, this piece seems a fitting summation of the themes that float throughout the previous stories.

This guy is good, and he's only going to get better. He's transposed elements of science-fiction onto traditional horror, creating stories that look to what we are now on the cusp of fearing, and he does so with an ear for language scarce in the genre. Use Once, Then Destroy is thoughtful, toxic, and very, very hard to put down.


[Wes Unruh]

Conrad Williams has a Web site