The Sticky Centre: Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace

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There are Weird writers who terrify me (Laird Barron, Michael Wehunt), who pierce me with awe (John Langan, Christopher Slatsky), who send me on an acid trip (John Claude Smith), and who break my heart (Nathan Ballingrud), but nobody has the effect that Livia Llewellyn does. Her work is the definition of Weird Fiction as I understand it, smushing fantasy and horror and science fiction (and not a small amount of erotica, in this case) all together into new and wonderful and terrifying hybrid forms. Every story in this outstanding collection goes to brave, raw places, and they’re full of as much fragile beauty as they are the human emotion that compels each small, yet vast, narrative.

I’ve read some of Llewellyn’s work here and there in the past, but Furnace is my first swim in a complete collection (this is her second, after Engines of Desire). It’s a dangerous journey, but a beautiful, rewarding one. Furnace effervesces even from the cover, which is a wet dream of design and imagination. Credit to Scott R. Jones, and the eerie photography of Mike Garlington, and especially to the always excellent Word Horde Press for producing yet another beautiful book. You can salivate over it and get yourself a copy over at Word Horde’s website.

Llewellyn’s prose is one of her strongest qualities; it’s delicious and heady and blood-warm, a gorgeous, raucous dance of biting violence and sensuality. A mist of sweat and blood beads on every word like condensation. It’s more than prose. It’s magic.

Sure, this all sounds like indulgent hyperbole, but tell me how you feel after reading this incredible collection of weirdness and heartache. Tell me if I’m wrong.

This collection seems to have two kinds of stories: the dream-like, stream-of-consciousness style that pulls you through the length of its insides like a biological process; and the more narratively conventional stories, in which expectations and tropes are nonetheless subverted to brilliant effect.

“Panopticon” kicks off the collection with very weird imagery, a treacle of poetic urban blight and heady arousal.

In terms of prose and narrative, “Stabilimentum” is a little more practical, but no less weird. This has to be one of my favourite short stories in the collection, the genre, the history of the written word. Llewellyn’s skill at exacerbating the lived-in horrors of the mundane – and capturing it with the clarity of memory and experience to the extent that it feels like my memory and experience – is on well-lit display here. In this case, the mundane takes the form of the protagonist, Thalia, discovering a spider in the corner of her bathroom, and the escalation that results. I winced as Thalia anticipated “feeling the body crunch and pop beneath the tissue.” I thought I knew the direction in which the story was going, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It takes a surprising and beautiful turn, veering the reader towards a revelation that perhaps the true horror is the mundane. “Stabilimentum” is breathtaking in its evocation of the otherworldly, and the human reaction to it. This is one that will linger in my memory for years to come, demanding far more than a single read.

“Wasp and Snake” is a delicious, tapas-sized bite that throws us into a science fiction universe that feels worn-in from the first sentence. Every word and its place within the ecosystem of sentence and paragraph and story seems so carefully considered here. The real magic here is that Llewellyn pulls off in four-and-a-half pages an idea that anybody else would turn into a novella or a novel or, hell, even a trilogy. In four-and-a-half pages. The control of this, the skill and restraint involved, boggles the mind, and the ending is a dark clever surprise I never saw coming.

“Yours is the Right to Begin” presents a retelling of – or just a shifting perspective on – Dracula, with a bittersweet focus on memory and sensation. Like many of the works collected here, the story has that heightened sensuousness that Llewellyn could craft to perfection in her sleep. The seasons play a major role here, much as they did when the world was younger, and this sense of quiet, bloody antiquity is beautifully evoked. Every paragraph is rich and dark; I found myself reading back over each one as I finished, relishing the syntax and all that it opened in me.

“Lord of the Hunt” and “In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982” are two of the more overtly erotic stories in the collection, both straddling the divide between sensual and skin-crawling.

The title story, “Furnace,” has more than an echo of Thomas Ligotti, with its decaying town and smoky, autumnal feel. The prose induces a lingering, unsettling quiet in both story and reader.

“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” has a Lovecraftian flavour to it, a story about rituals and worship told through the diary of a teenage girl whose family vacation turns out to be a whole lot more gelatinous and bloody than she expected. As with “Stabilimentum,” Llewellyn juxtaposes the weird/horrific with the everyday; for the characters here, the two are almost indistinguishable.

The erotic is present again in “The Unattainable,” a small, sad story about loneliness and need that pushes its characters into the foreground. Here Llewellyn’s strength for character building and interaction is at its best, and there is little of the supernatural or surreal at play.

Admittedly, there were occasions where the lush prose style, coupled with the esoteric goings-on, obscured my comprehension of some of the more experimental stories. At times I felt like whatever subtext or revelation a particular work promised was lurking just out of my reach.

Ultimately though, this is one of the strongest and most immersive Weird Fiction collections of the year, which is no easy feat in the current onslaught of impressive work we’re seeing almost every month in the genre.

Llewellyn is a writer who ingrains the weird into her writing, makes it as matter-of-fact as a rose or a house or rainfall. That we eagerly take her hand as she leads us down these dark, pulsing pathways, is a testament to her skill with the written word. We trust her wherever she takes us, however dangerous or unfamiliar that destination might be.

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