Book Review : Livia Llewellyn - Furnace (2016)
I don't know where they came from, but it was all of a sudden they were just there, standing under the bright yellow parking lot lights. It was two faceless men, although I could barely tell. They were naked except for very tall black top hats, with very shimmery pale skin, all scales, I think, or maybe skin like an alligator.
The work of Livia Llewellyn has been warmly recommended to me for horroctober when I requested female author suggestions. She is an American author of primarily short stories who appeared in countless magazines and anthologies and who has two collections to her name: Engines of Desire and the book we're interested in today Furnace, published this year by Word Horde. Now the million dollar question: does Livia Llewellyn write cosmic horror, goddamnit? The answer is once again: yes and no. Llewellyn's work might borrow a little from a handful of literary traditions (cosmic horror and dark fantasy among others), but it has a nature of its own. I might not have been the desired audience for this type of stories, but I will wholeheartedly admit their fierceness and originality.
My favorite aspect of Livia Llewellyn's stories is the rejection of reality. Lord of the Hunt was particularly interesting in that regard. The protagonist of the story, a lonely woman named Connie, purchases a statue on to which she projects her innermost desires for ten thousand dollars. Her desire now owned and freed from the prison of the self evades in a world it was the gateway to, showing that desire can never be fulfilled through reality. That it is bound to burn eternally in the unconscious and evade fulfillment. I thought Lord of the Hunt radiated a gorgeous melancholy and understood the erosion of reality caused by loneliness quite well. I haven't seen it named much in other reviews of Furnace but it was undoubtedly one of my favorite stories in the collection.
Two other stories I've really enjoyed in Furnace were The Last, Clean, Bright Summer and and Love shall have no Dominion. The former (quoted above) is one of the darkest things I've ever read about puberty, a subject most authors explore while wearing rose-colored glasses. Not Llewellyn. Loss of innocence, twisted rites of passage, distortion of a reality that once again fails to capture the horror and the heartbreak of its protagonist. It reads like transcripts of psychiatrist sessions under hypnosis. The latter is a series of love letters posted on Craigslist by what seems to be a demon. Despite its ambitious and poetic (not to say operatic) nature, and Love shall have no Dominion, the reason why it stood out to me was the struggle of this non-human entity with its nature as a desiring being. The suffering caused by absence and the creation of a poetic dimension through the most unpoetic means ever (Craigslist) to alleviate it. Some truly daring and boundary challenging material.
She cannot describe in her human language how it feels, to be so transformed, a hollowed-out girl reformed into fire, filling herself with the crippling desire of an unfathomable and vast being who moves through the human world as a strange skinny boy.
Livia Llewellyn's calling card is her ambitious, amorphous and somewhat spectacular use of language, which tears through her characters' reality like a cleaver through soft flesh. Llewellyn has this preternatural ability to stop time and deconstruct moments in her stories (as illustrated above) and expose their intensity through a reality only her abundant and kaleidoscopic use of language can create. Llewellyn's uncanny talent at creating linguistic realities was both a good and bad thing in Furnace. I may be wrong about that, but I feel like it's a bit of an untamed talent she has. While it sprung some stories to life, it sometimes completely dislocated the narratives and made other stories difficult to follow and when you're losing the highway in a Livia Llewellyn story, it's difficult to find again. Furnace definitely makes its case for a micro-reading. Its stories are long, byzantine and require your best reading self.
I liked Furnace. It stood far outside my comfort zone both in style and substance. To be fair, I don't think Livia Llewellyn's stories are comfort zones-friendly. Her creative paradigm is so fiercely original, it is bound to destabilize the majority of its readers. And it's a great thing if you ask me. I didn't appreciate every story equally, but it's not unheard of for short story collections that don't have an overarching theme. Livia Llewellyn's horror has this intimate, almost secretive quality to it which explores the ruptures between her protagonists and their unbearable reality. Furnace is one of the most original books I've read during horroctober alongside Autumn Christian's Ecstatic Inferno. Always count on the ladies to be fearless and to challenge the established paradigms of genre fiction. It's exactly what Livia Llewellyn's Furnace does.