Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: The Mountains, The City, The Void

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been reading through every single entry in “The H Word,” trying to spark an idea for my contribution to the column. As a whole, the archives make up an impressive body of histories, theories, and deconstructions of dark literature—it is, in a way, an entity of its own, a dynamic and mutable collaboration between a group of writers whose individual entries in the series actually form a long-running conversation. It’s a virtual city not unlike the wandering giants of Clive Barker’s story “In The Hills, The Cities”—communal and collaborative, with each writing and the sum of their experience and knowledge shaping the past, present and future of the conversation about horror. I spent quite a bit of time—several months, actually—wondering what my contribution to the conversation would look like, how it would mutate and move it forward. All that knowledge and experience. All the things those writers know. What form did I think my unique relationship with horror might take? What experiences and thoughts could I add to this body of knowledge, and what did it mean to me, what did it say about me? I didn’t know.

I still don’t know. I never will.

My very first memory is of my father in the front yard of our yellow cottage in Tacoma, Washington, planting flowers in the dirt as I watched. It was a warm spring day in 1966, and I wore a pleated plaid dress and Mary Jane shoes. I remember looking up at the evergreens in our yard, the tall telephone poles and the long wires that crossed back and forth in the sky. Everywhere, vastness and a surly silence—in the great reach of the branches, the masses of gray clouds casting long shadows that rippled across the emerald lawn. The yard was neat and the houses in our neighborhood were bright and orderly, but just beyond the straight backyard fences and clipped rhododendrons, the land reverted back to its true nature, erupting in a dark tangle of Jurassic-sized trees and ferns, and then gathering mass and height until it exploded into the Cascades and Mount Rainier to one side of us, and the Olympic Mountain Range on the other. For the first half of my life, there was not a day when I did not see those jagged snowy peaks floating along the horizon, when I did not feel completely encompassed by a geological presence, sleeping but sentient, ready at any minute to shake all our little cars and houses and flowers off of its wide spine and slide into the black waters of the Puget Sound.

My life was as significant as the life of any other girl in suburbia—which is to say, only ordinary, and filled with all the surface details and noise and detritus of human life. But it was also insignificant and tiny and easily extinguished: somewhere in the inaccessible folds of my being, deep beneath my surface, the landscape infected me, reformed me, made my life its own. There was a part of me, I realized, that belonged to something else—a part of myself that I would never discover or recover, that I would never know.

When people ask me how long I’ve lived in the NYC area, I always give a start date of 1994, the year I left Tacoma and started graduate school at New York University. The year is the truth, of a sort—I’ve lived on the East Coast continuously since that date, and although no longer an actual New Yorker (Jersey City, despite its proximity and the protestation of its gentrifying residents, is not the Sixth Borough), I still consider myself, in the words of Arthur Rimbaud, “an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern.” So, half a lifetime in the city, long enough for me to have been radically transmuted into something far beyond what I was when I left the Pacific Northwest.

Which to a certain surface extent, is truth, of a sort—for twenty-six years I have fallen asleep under starless skies, woken up to the machines’ constant drone. For twenty-six years there has never been a moment when I have not been swimming in the wake of twelve million other lives. Here the natural landscape has been obliterated, completely and thoroughly, by the unbending will and work of humanity—it is a cathedral against wilderness, a steel and flesh hive. I see no inclines in the land that were not created by architects and engineers, no outcroppings of rock or clusters of trees that have not been even slightly reshaped by human eyes. Nothing is undiscovered in this city, no corner is unmapped, unknown; and I know my place in all of it. I know by instinct the circuit of my commute to and from work, I know the habits and routines that get me through the day, I know all the cruelties and beauty and monstrosities this metropolis has to offer. I am ephemeral, and not too discontented: I know myself.

And yet.

The woman who moved to this tenement building ten years ago, a woman with a different job, a different body, a different name, is gone. The actress who lived in a sprawling Inwood block apartment sixteen years ago, who stood on a subway platform in complete silence with ten thousand other New Yorkers, all of us smelling of smoke and ash, has vanished. The seamstress who spent a summer in a small New Jersey town in the early nineties, sewing costumes for Shakespearean actors by day and constructing conjure circles and sex magic rituals in the old growth forests by night has been left far behind in the night, so far I cannot see her anymore. And there are other, older permutations of myself, whole years that are little more than dark smudges in my mind, layers of geologic strata that are now so alien to me that I would not know these women if they were to appear in front of me this second. And all the people who once knew me, friends and relatives and lovers, are gone. No one who knew those versions of myself exists anymore. My life is a Frankensteinian patchwork of lost moments and experiences. The joys, the triumphs, the silences, the assaults, the love, the violence, the shame, the struggles, the pleasures, the pain, the beauty, the monstrosities: the act of working my way through life toward death has erased it all, year by methodical year. I know nothing.

Except when I write.

I wish I could give you—and myself—a definition of horror or a description of my relationship with horror with a few very well-thought-out sentences, something inspirational and quotable. I wish I could talk about the future of the genre as if the act of writing has gifted me with the powers of the seer. And I wish I could couch everything in terms that might make the both of us believe that the horror I write is universal, is written with everyone in mind; that is part of a long shared experience, a river or road we readers and writers all journey upon, a collaborative collective event that will hopefully transcend our lives and live on through those who come after us.

I can’t tell you any of that. I write about myself and for myself, as a form of obscene self-exploratory surgery, as a desperate archaeological attempt to find some vestiges of the woman I once was and discover what happened, what went sideways, what went wrong. I open my flesh and stare at my entrails, move them about and arrange them on the paper, wait for the signals and signs. I am a multitude of disintegrating fragments, and therefore must be monstrously singular and selfish in my writing. Every day I wake up knowing less, further from my last self, further from my Ur-self than the day before: the mountains are the same and the city is the same, but the void inside my mind has grown.

What is horror? What is it to me? It is: I don’t know. An emptiness at the center of my being that I am desperately trying to fill. All the lost versions of myself I am, defiantly and against the order of all things, trying to bring back to life one last time. The center of a dead civilization, covered in a long-lost language that I once knew, that I once created, and can now only haphazardly decipher. All the better and worse versions of myself that I neglected and abandoned. Shells and skins. The title that I had originally picked for this essay has been wiped away, already assigned to a novella which will tell you more about how I navigate the dark and the deep than these twelve paragraphs ever could. Everything you need to know of my relationship with horror is in my writing; and someday you will know more that I do, and I will be somewhere else, still searching for that center, that intact and undiminished knowledge I tell myself exists beyond the limits of what we think we know. And then, someday, even the stories and the conversations will be gone. And you with them. And everything we know.

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Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series, Years Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica. Her first collection, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors (2011, Lethe Press), received two Shirley Jackson Award nominations, for Best Collection, and for Best Novelette (for “Omphalos”). Her story “Furnace” received a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Short Story. Her second collection, Furnace (2016, Word Horde Press), was published this year. You can find her online at liviallewellyn.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.