Virgin Books, 2009
Diver Richard Jane is off on a job repairing an oil rig when a mysterious cataclysm strikes seemingly reducing the world’s population (or at least England’s) to a bare handful of people. Escaping his remote location Jane makes his way back to England hopeing and believed that his son is still alive. Along the way he wanders through the devastated landscape that provides surprisingly limited clues into the truth of what happened. Jane meets other survivors along the way and when the totality of the destruction turns out to be only the beginning of the horror.
One, with its post-apocalyptic survivor story and strong reliance on the bond between father and son will might draw a direct comparison the more well-known, especially to the mainstream audience, The Road. Where The Road, the bits of it I managed to get through, seems a tad embarrassed by its genre roots and post-apocalyptic predecessors One embraces both of those aspects while at the same time tackling a similar relationship. Williams’ style, like-that of McCarthy, lends itself to a very dream-like state. Both novels employ a third person limited narrative though where McCarthy deliberately grays out his characters (from what I read both are deliberately drawn to represent the any-man or any-son) Williams is very careful to create a distinct personality for both Jane and his son. Similarly where McCarthy employs a very stark style to describe the world Williams employs a more detailed description to build a very specific world. Both employ those elements to excellent effect though, in my case, the more deeply descriptive language used by Williams is more tolerable.
I was particularly impressed with the opening of One. Williams’ apocalypse occurs while Jane, and several of his co-workers, are underwater repairing the cracked leg of an oil platform. Even before anything happens Williams conjures an excellent sense of isolation, of the pressure (both physical and emotional) of working deep underwater. Rather than describe the apocalyptic events as they occur in a large population center One follows the events, at the outset anyway, of an isolated few. The unique and specific elements that surround deep sea diving lend a element of originality to this opening sequence that sets it far apart from similar novels. The myriad of things that could go wrong, and those that do, as a result of this opening sequence’s setting provide added tension that highlights the horror and confusion of the apocalypse.
Indeed, while much of One is certainly familiar, it is sparkled with enough unique twists that let it stand out on its own. Williams is careful never to explain what exactly occurred to lay waste to everything. The world has become curiously gray, the land baked, the seas and rivers turned hot, the sky a strange mess of color and motion, dust storms plague the land, food has spoiled, and the dead are everywhere. None of which is ever explained. Most of the novel feels like a post-apocalyptic tour as Jane, and his eventual companions, wind their way towards London. There are only occasional threats, and those are of the familiar variety (i.e. other people), but these are interspersed with Jane’s dreams about his son and the strange offerings of bird skulls he continuously seems to find. Jane finds himself haunted by a mysterious figure whom he is never certain is real or part of his imagination. Williams’ manages one big directional shift with a curiously campy old-school horror cliffhanger moments that immediately presages a hop forward in time.
If you want to maintain your surprise skip the next paragraph.
That time shift introduces a new element of Williams’ post-apocalyptic landscape: zombies. Or as, the people of One call them: skinners. Before you all groan and move on due to zombie over-exposure let me just say that these aren’t your typical run-of-the-mill zombies. There is level of intelligence, or at least cunning, exhibited by the creatures that sets them apart from your regular zombies. Furthermore it seems that event absent of direct contact with the skinners there is risk of turning and that the change is held off mainly via a slowly dwindling supply of medication. To make matters even more interesting the skinners only kill males and drag female victims off into the unknown. This last bit is perhaps the most horrific element of Williams’ creation and certainly leads to the most visually disturbing section of the novel. In fact for all the bits of horror in the novel it was surprisingly tame when judged against my previous Williams experience; The Unblemished. I am…happy?…to report that the aforementioned scenes are equal to any of the more horrific elements of that novel and, in some respects, exceed them.
One is a solid horror novel that takes a personal look at the apocalypse and the power of love and devotion to drive us forward. While familiar in its approach to the end of the world Williams’ unique vision and evocative prose imbue what could have been a rote experience into something with a style and voice that sets it apart from similar titles. A cast of vividly realized and realistic characters balance out and, frequently serve to call to attention the more fantastic elements of post-apocalyptic Great Britain. While occasionally grew tired of protagonist Richard Jane’s internal monologue I found the strength of Williams’ writing, and his ability to evocatively describe a scene to more than make up for the occasional hiccup. While certainly not a fast read Williams’ One is deep, satisfying read that certainly will scratch your PA itch.