So many great female writers are working in the horror/weird genre. We celebrate their achievements with Women-in-Horror Month on the Conqueror Weird.
by Livia Llewellyn
Some people believe it is impossible to find beauty in horror. It is certainly easy to understand why they should think so – one appeals to the sensation of, for lack of a better word, love, or happiness; the other instead causing fear and disgust. I should make it clear that I am not referring to beauty in the sense of awe, wonder, or amazement – I mean beauty, human beauty, love and compassion and comfort. A lot of people find that this particular emotion cannot be found in the depths of fear. And yet some have managed to find a point where the scales are equal.
Livia Llewellyn is a master of the horror genre. Her stories (often featuring strongly female viewpoints and heavy sexual elements) are hard-hitting and personal, brutal stories that haunt their reader long after they have finished the tale. Her second collection, Furnace, comes out on February 15th from the excellent Word Horde of Ross E. Lockhart, and it features an impressive oeuvre of stories to toy with the reader’s psyche.
Take the first tale, “Panopticon”, a grim prose poem set in Llewellyn’s locale of Obsidia. Word Horde is notoriously good at assembling the structure of their books, and Furnace is no exception. A perfect tone-setter, it features key elements of Llewellyn’s work – a female viewpoint, urban decay (rivaling the very best of Ramsey Campbell), and explicity grisly erotic moments. The prose is of the finest quality, the language a perfect evocation of the filth and decay and depravity of a decayed urban backwater. Though I currently live on Long Island, I was born in NYC and have visited it quite often, so her descriptions – in particular those of the subway – resonated me. While the surreality of the writing does not allow much in the way of a plot summary, the prose is absolutely stunning.
A later tale , “Wasp and Snake”, certainly succeeds a bit better with its similarly stylistic approach. The story, a little more coherent, follows an assassin (equipped with a nifty interdimensional stinger) hunting down her prey. Unfortunately, there’s a little more to the job then she expected. Clocking in very short, the story (which has fascinating sci-fi/fantasy elements) still managed to pack a strong punch. This gorgeously evocative poetic language forms the basis of the collection – most of the tales are written in the same style. This is not a bad thing; it is often a good thing. I just saw it as the shape of the collection.
Other tales are more plot-driven, and these are generally my favorites. A particular treat was “Stabilimentum” (Latin for “Stay”). I have a dreadful fear of spiders, so this might not disturb you as much as it disturbed me, but I honestly think it will. A young woman, having recently moved into an expensive New York apartment, has a spider problem in her bathroom. It rapidly escalates beyond her control, but don’t think you know where this story is going, because trust me, you don’t. While the characterization is really well done (Thalia’s sense of vertigo is excellently described), it’s all-in-all a plot-driven tale – in the sense that it focuses on the horror and the characters, with little room for other details. The story also features more wonderfully evocative descriptions of urbanity (in this case, New York City as opposed to rotting Obsidia) – perhaps a little less gruesome than the ones found in the prose poems. The descriptions of spiders literally had me itching all night – Llewellyn knows how to capture those nasty little buggers in all their hairy, bristly, prickly…agh. I’m creeping myself out. I promised never to do that here. But the descriptions are spot-on and capture the dreadful fears of an arachnophobe. Hopefully some newcomers to the story will walk away arachnophobes; either way, nobody can deny that it’s a fantastic, creepy story – one of my favorites in the collection for sure.
“Cinereous” forms a nice equilibrium between the eloquent language/surrealism of the prose poems and the plot/character of “Stabilimentum”. Llewellyn combines various chilling elements (all based in fact) – feral children, the ghastly executions in 18th century France, and the awareness of the head after abrupt decapitation – and combines them into a unique and grisly story of blasphemous experiments and unflinching ambition. It’s also the first story in the book that seems to have no fantasy/sci-fi/weird elements, though it is certainly an intensely disturbing story wonderfully executed by Llewellyn.
More poetic tour-de-forces follow. “Yours is the Right to Begin” is an interesting play on Dracula (the original Stoker novel, of course) – the story takes the form of three monologues delivered to Mina in her hypnotic trance by the Three Sisters. While there certainly are stunningly gruesome moments, as there are in almost all of Llewellyn’s work, the overall tone is not horrifying but more haunting, a bleak rumination on life, death, immortality, and love. It certainly takes some inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version of the story (full disclosure: I LOVE that movie with the strongest of nostalgia, since it was my first horror movie EVER. Even though Keanu Reaves is one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen, I feel like the film makes up for it in other departments.), with its intensely visual nature, its heavy erotic undercurrents, and its depiction of Dracula himself (including the fact that his wife leapt from the window, also depicted in the movie – a story with factual basis in the life of Vlad the Impaler). A depressing piece about the sadness of immortality and the depths to which one can sink, “Yours is the Right to Begin” is a fitting homage to the most influential horror novel of all time (Dracula, an abridged version, anyway, was really my first exposure to horror literature).
My favorite of the collection is undoubtedly “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” (a story I originally encountered in The Monstrous, ed. Ellen Datlow). It is a jaw-dropping epic of horror storytelling, terrifying on many more levels than its initial shock. It takes the form of a diary – the diary of a fourteen year old girl, Hailee, who’s involved in some rather unusual coming-of-age activities with her family. Influence from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Machen’s “The White People” are clear, but Llewellyn runs with these stories in her own unique way – an exceedingly bloodier, nastier way. Oh yes, it is quite horrifying, with some complex backstory that Llewellyn cleverly dodges around and hints at. This is made even more jarring by the firm YA voice. She goes to places Lovecraft wouldn’t even think about, but moreover there are more deeply rooted concerns than a witch cult. Disturbing psychosexual concepts are explored, fears that we need to have a discussion about but are too afraid to touch. Fears about the oppression of women while men just stand around with their cocks in their hands, teenage fears about rape and unwanted pregnancy, fears that women – and, indeed, some men – hold in their hearts. It is an important story, however, because it starts a discussion. I loaned a copy of this story to a friend of mine – a girl – and the next day we had a deep discussion about this topic. That is imperative. That a horror story, a stomach-churning, gut-wrenching horror story, started a discussion. An important discussion, one that we only hope can continue.
Now, friends, do you see why Livia Llewellyn is certainly one of the most important writers of horror fiction, living or dead? Do you see why Furnace is such a masterpiece, such a triumph? It brings to light things we SHOULD be talking about but are too afraid to touch in beautiful prose, in stark brutality, in blood and filth. And, if you look under the billions of layers you can search through in these amazing stories, you will find the beauty in horror.