By MARK BENEDICT
Livia Llewellyn makes other dark fantasy writers look downright sunny. Her short stories, though often set in the real world, are rife with secret sinister dimensions and violently lustful beasties. She depicts sex frequently and disturbingly. She puts the D in Darkness. Does your church have a book club? If so, it’s a safe bet that they’re not reading Livia Llewellyn.
It’s their loss. Llewellyn’s work is brilliantly crafted and highly acclaimed. Last month, in the midst of these strange pandemic times, she won the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story. Her winning tale, “One of These Nights,” is included in the anthology Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers (2019). Llewellyn’s story, one of her vicious best, involves two teenage girls conspiring against another girl at a public swimming pool. The writing is so sensuously immersive that you can feel the blazing sun and smell the foul chlorine. We’re thrilled to chat with Llewellyn by email about “One of These Nights” as well as about the stories in her Shirley Jackson Award-nominated collection Furnace (2016).
What was it like to win such an exciting award during such a dispiriting time? Hopefully you celebrated in some way.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t prepare for a celebration. I didn’t dress up in a fancy gown and have a giant glass of champagne at the ready, it didn’t feel right – not just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but also because I didn’t have any sense that I would win. So I sat on my couch in very comfortable clothing (re: pajamas) with my computer on my lap, refreshing the Twitter feed as each category was announced. When Mystery Writers of America posted the nominations graphic for Best Short Story, I waited the usual 15 seconds or so before refreshing, but realized just before refreshing that my notifications were exploding. That’s when I knew. I was a bit unprepared for everything that happened after. I spent the rest of the day online, posting thank you’s – in particular to Joyce Carol Oates, who invited me to contribute to Cutting Edge, and who was such a wonderful and gracious editor – and answering emails and texts. It was a very quiet celebration, the only time I spoke out loud the entire day was when I called my parents to let them know I’d won. It was a somewhat subdued day for me, but very much in keeping with these strange times.
“One of These Nights,” your award-winning story, at first seems like a tense but low-stakes drama about teenage girls having a pool day. In time, though, seemingly random details start synching up and we realize that a deadly scheme is in motion. Was it tricky to weave clues into the early passages without giving the whole thing away?
I’d had the beginning paragraph of the story for a long time (at least a decade), but it was only once I realized how and where the story was going to end that I was able to start writing my way to it, and that made the process of threading all those little clues and plot details into the text relatively smooth. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process – when I can pull it off, that is. I’ve also written stories where I’ve come to the end and realized I’d have to go back and rework the text to match it to what happens on the last page, and most times I have to either abandon the story or completely rewrite it.
I want to give a shout-out to Ramsey Campbell, who is a master at this kind of details-in-passing that turn out to be important clues and (you eventually realize) part of the story itself. A face in the crowd, a shadow against a wall, a certain way a cloud slips across the sky—I love finding these little moments in his novels over and over again and watching how they influence the atmosphere and propel the plot forward almost effortlessly. So, I’ve learned how to do the same by excellent example.
Many of the stories in Furnace, your most recent collection, feel detailed and expansive but aren’t actually that long. It makes me think of how some of the best movies seem to contain so much yet still clock in at under two hours. Is that something you actively strive for? To make your stories feel both vast and brisk?
Yes, absolutely. I’m very much influenced by movies, and by very specific moments in movies, moments that convey mystery and complexity and vastness, but that give you almost no information beyond the visual image – those moments give the audience the opportunity to fill in the blanks with as much world building as they want. For example: In Alien, the first time the crew of the Nostromo sees the alien spaceship on LV-426. It’s not necessary to give any information about who made that ship or who the navigator is or why it’s on the planet – the images are so powerful and compelling that to know more would remove the mystery, disrupt the growing unease and horror. Same for movies like Dark City, where you simply aren’t given any information beyond “this is a city in space, and humans are being experimented on by a dying alien race,” or Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, which each take place in very specific alternate versions of suburban and urban environments. Hints of vaster and stranger places beyond what’s being presented on the screen and on the page give a richness to what the characters are experiencing, and I think make it easier for audiences (viewers and readers alike) to engage with the story and connect to the protagonists on a deeper and more emotional level.
Your story “Stabilimentum” starts as a real-world tale of a young woman dealing with a spider infestation in her apartment. By the end, though, a shivery other world has been revealed. Are you frightened by the possibility of hidden secret worlds, or excited by it?
Both! I grew up in a very ordinary house in a very ordinary suburb, but at the same time, there was an explosion of construction going on all around our neighborhood. Forests would disappear and skeletons of houses would appear within days as if by magic, newly paved roads would lead to dead ends or clearings, waiting for houses and businesses to follow – entire sections of land would seem to morph into something entirely different without any warning. One summer I remember a number of large bulldozers and backhoes would gather every afternoon on the street outside our house, digging up and replacing sewer and water pipes. It was a magical time for me, because I saw all those half-built houses and giant holes in the ground and roads to nowhere as entryways into all the strange, secret worlds I would read about in books. I never lost that love for other worlds and how often they collide with our “real” world, how they seep into and infect our surroundings and bodies – but also how they provide us with the possibility of a different life, of escape and transformation and evolution, for better and for worse.
“I think joy is a big component of writing well, especially when you’re writing dark.”
In an earlier interview, you said that the order of stories in a collection is as crucial as the order of songs on an album. Which albums feel perfectly sequenced to you?
Oh, so many… Just off the top of my head: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Jack White’s Blunderbuss, all of Bowie’s albums of the seventies (honestly, all of his albums up to and including the magnificent Blackstar, but seventies Bowie is who I love the most), Madonna’s Ray of Light, The Verve’s Urban Hymns, Sade’s Promise, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, Tears For Fears’s Songs from the Big Chair, Blondie’s Autoamerican, Gustavo Santaolalla’s Ronroco, The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out. I know I’m leaving so many off this list (especially jazz, classical, and prog rock), but I’d be adding albums for days. For movie soundtrack albums, my “perfect” picks are Thomas Newman’s Revolutionary Road, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Arrival, Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight, Disasterpeace’s It Follows, Christopher Young’s Sinister, Paul Leonard-Morgan’s Dredd, Vangelis’ Blade Runner, and my absolute favorites, David Julyan’s The Descent and The Prestige. All of the albums I’ve listed have very specific and emotional prologues, journeys, climaxes, and endings—they tell complete stories.
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” is one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read. It’s told via the journal entries of a teenage girl on a rustic family vacation, a cozy format that makes the ritualized violence at the story’s center even more of a shock. The ritual is otherworldly but also, in a sense, entirely of our world; in a way, it’s just a supernatural amplification of real-life sexual assault. Do you think of the story in that way? In any case, which occurred to you first – the journal format or the horrific ritual?
Thank you! And, yes, it’s absolutely supernatural amplification of real-life sexual assault – I hadn’t originally intended to go as far as I did at the end, but to be honest, I became so angry while I was writing it, that I felt I couldn’t pull back during the final scenes, that I had to make myself as violated and disgusted and outraged as my protagonist. And I had to go that far to get my protagonist to the place she needed to be at the very end of the story. The protagonist starts out believing that she belongs in this world and is on board with these elaborate, important rituals that will usher her into womanhood, but what makes her a woman is realizing that the ceremony isn’t to honor her but to enslave and diminish her, to reduce the women to animals, incubators, and entertainment. It’s one of the few stories I started and finished in a day – I wrote the first journal entry in the morning, and then didn’t stop until I reached the end late that night. I had an idea of the ritual in my mind when I started the story, and what I wrote in the first draft is largely what is in the final version, but I added a lot of the truly vicious details in edits.
On your blog, you’ve mentioned facing resistance within the publishing industry because you’re a woman writing sexually explicit horror. Do you see “One of These Nights” as a workaround to that resistance? Although it’s as menacing and sexual as anything in Furnace, it’s an easier sell to mainstream readers because it’s entirely real-world and the sex occurs offstage.
I have to clarify that the resistance I’ve encountered is from my novels – most mainstream publishers need to market, sell-in, and publicize novels in very specific categories, because that’s how they can guarantee a certain level of sales. Most readers have been trained by market categories to expect certain things from thrillers, certain things from romance, certain things from literary novels, etc., and so they don’t often want to encounter explicit sexual situations unless they’re reading specifically for that kind of content. The manuscripts that I’ve sent around to agents and editors have crossed the line of what editorial, finance, sales, and publicity departments believe readers will tolerate – and so they’ve mostly received a hard pass. And I’ve always encountered a subtle level of deliberate disbelief that women can write horror that’s as hard and violent and intense as men – because what does it say about a woman who writes about terrible things, when many (most?) of us are still culturally conditioned to believe that something must be wrong with women who enjoy writing those kinds of stories, and something must be wrong with the people who read and enjoy horror written by women, because like all things that women do, it’s lesser, it’s diminished. It’s simply not as significant. And for those about to protest, male authors who write romance and urban fantasy often come up against this same stereotype and pushback, as if each genre in the industry is gendered for one type of person to write, and cannot be mastered by any other.
But, I’ve worked in publishing for many years, and I know that rejection isn’t an indicator of a lack of talent, and I know that my publication path can’t be the same as other authors. I’ve come to realize that mainstream success is probably not in my future, so I’ve been revising and reworking my expectations, and aiming in a different direction. You’re right that “One of These Nights” is part of that corrective course – when I got the invite for the anthology, I realized that this was an opportunity to try something different and challenge myself to write something as evocative and disturbing as any of my other stories, but without the supernatural elements and explicit imagery. I think it worked! And yes, I’ll probably start writing more fiction in the same vein, although I’m not abandoning horror by any means. I have a few shorter projects I’m finishing up that are similar in style to “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” (including a few erotic horror stories and a novella), but then I’ll start writing my next novel sometime in the fall, and it will absolutely be influenced by my style in “One of These Nights.” Once I got over the fear of doing something so different than what I was used to, I enjoyed writing it in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. And I think joy is a big component of writing well, especially when you’re writing dark. Darkness and joy are, for me, one and the same.
“The manuscripts that I’ve sent around to agents have crossed the line of what editorial, finance, sales, and publicity departments believe readers will tolerate.”