A few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.” After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.
Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.
Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave. In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:
She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies? was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?
Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:
The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.
Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.
Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read. And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.