'Furnace' Burns With Horror And Wonder
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In Engines of Desire, Livia Llewellyn's debut collection of short stories from 2011, reality was just another raw material to be stretched and reworked. Llewellyn's follow-up collection, Furnace, is a slightly slimmer volume, but it doesn't skimp when it comes to her distorted vision. Beautiful and hideous in the same breath, its 13 tales of erotic, surreal, existential horror pack a logic-shattering punch.
Llewellyn is steeped in the eerie tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, and a sympathetic sense of dislocation and dread permeates Furnace. Unnervingly vivid, stories such as "Allochthon" — whose title is borrowed from a real-life geological phenomenon but sounds like something straight out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos — are full of the sounds and smells of decay. Set in Washington state during the Great Depression, it's the internal narrative of a housewife named Ruth whose unease about her humdrum life takes on supernatural dimensions as the mountains around her begin to feel mysteriously alive. Strange things happen, over and over, and they're not explained; instead, Llewellyn allows Ruth to slip into a feverish state of perception, caught somewhere between our world and whatever lies just a few degrees beyond.
Heavy on weird concept and grotesque atmosphere, Furnace doesn't dwell much on dialogue or psychological exposition. Llewellyn isn't as interested in fleshing out her characters as she is in their flesh itself. In "Cinereous," which is sort of like the Marquis de Sade wandering into a François Truffaut film, gruesome medical experimentation on feral children in 18th century France leads to unspeakable consequences. In elegant language — "images of each silky shining drop of blood out there in the dark, spurting and squirting from the bright flat mouths of open necks" — Llewellyn sketches depraved acts of violence and inhumanity, dancing back and forth over the line between obscenity and ecstasy. It's dark, but bewitchingly so.
As imaginative as her settings are, Llewellyn works well within the framework of established tropes. "Wasp & Snake" is a take on Aesop's fable "The Wasp and the Snake," only reconfigured as a flesh-warping revenge parable with a hellish twist. There's a similar theme of body horror in the lush Gothic story "Yours Is the Right to Begin," a poetically gory romance set between the lines of Bram Stoker's Dracula — an account of what Mina Harker might have fully experienced while hypnotized by Van Helsing.
Lust runs through Furnace like a torrent, but it mingles with numbness and confusion in the book's title story, where a slow-motion apocalypse has an anesthetic effect on a 13-year-old girl and the object of her crush. She lives in a small town paralyzed by uncanny occurrences — including the disappearance of a store full of shoppers and the appearance of the corpse of an impossible bird — and where a weird-eyed boy seems to be at the center of it all. Nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2013, Furnace is a tour de force of haunting imagery and mood, set during Llewellyn's favorite time of year: that fleeting, liminal state between the end of summer and the start of autumn, when colors fade and ripeness turns to ash. Furnace captures that time perfectly, not by trying to nail it down in a sentimental way, but by converting the energy of atrophy and loss into a nightmare of cosmic proportions.
"Spaces are meant to be filled," Llewellyn writes in "Panopticon," the book's opener. A bad dream that takes place in a debauched, glittering metropolis called Obsidia, it's not so much a story as it is a catalog of jaw-dropping phantasms, rendered in sumptuous prose; "Across the iron bridge and over the Mannequin Sea," she writes, "its million slow-eyed beauties jumbled below like broken teeth against a giant's fist." The girl in the title story has a grandfather who traces all the town's bizarre happenings on a map until the paper is practically saturated with ink. In a way, that's what Llewellyn herself does: fill the spaces of Furnace near to bursting with blood and shadow and dust, with horror and wonder.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.