Engines of Desire by Livia Llewellyn
Reviewed by Stephen Studach
At this point in time there are more original writers in the speculative fiction genre finding print outlets than ever before. The reasons for this relate to population, the evolution of the imagination and the modes of publication. However, all that concerns us here is the fact that Livia Llewellyn is one whose words are worthy of attention.
I could not love except where Death
Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath—
Or Hymen, Time, and Destiny
Were stalking between her and me.
When the young Edgar Allan Poe composed those rather revealing lines, the areas of love, sex and all aspects of the sensual and the erotic were, as always, prime elements to be merged with the tale of horror. Having read Engines of Desire, Livia Llewellyn’s debut collection from Lethe Press, I can recommend her as another skilful proponent of the works of strange romance and deathly desire. Her often lush writing is informed via a deft mechanic working deep within the soft machinery. A place where Death’s out-take valve constantly sucks at the hot breaths of impassioned life, stealing the sighs of lovers, taking, but sometimes returning life in a bitter reflux.
Taking in Laird Barron’s introductory warning, we delve into some of the ten tales that make up this book; ranging from flash and short fiction to novelette and novella-length works.
“The head is pulp now, a sticky-dry mash of brain and bone slivers. The woman’s hair lies on the floor like silver-threaded silk, beaded with ivory teeth. Kingston admires it as she reaches down.”
Livia Llewellyn is a keen observer. “Horses” is a post-apocalypse bunker tale of horror, pain, fear and, yes, love; reluctantly and overwhelmingly embraced. Llewellyn uses desperate acts, blank white space, and the scent of bread to make this telling linger.
“As I rounded the corner, a whiff of cigarette smoke hit my nostrils. I breathed it in deeply, and the burn of it raced through my lungs and settled with my blood in all the little folds of flesh between my legs.”
“At the Edge of Ellensburg,” practically a mainstream-grounded piece of erotica, is an hallucinogen of desires, sex and other needs. A bad trip that wanders on the heat-shimmering border collapse of known reality.
“The bark secretes a creosote-like resin which, when exposed to autumn winds, hardens to amber and discharges a subsonic current felt only in the bones of prepubescent girls.”
“The Teslated Salishan Evergreen.” a piece of SF flash, gives us brief notes on a species of surreal botany; a hybrid growth of the arboreal and electrical.
“After so many years, desire has eaten her hollow, and now it flows from her like burning oil.”
In “The Engine of Desire” young girls are lured by a potent force that throbs and burns in the basement of a vacant home. The tactility of teenage sensuality and longing is minutely detailed, the bio-furnace that collects and amalgamates pubescent girls is not. This story metaphor hums and whispers and glides effortlessly along; flame in shadow, a wanton love child of Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker and a steampunk succubus.
“The creeping skyline of this city both fascinates and repels her. No matter where she looks, the sky seems to stop at the rooftops––and there is a space, a thin crack where reality does not quite knit together. She imagines something pulsating at the edge, watching and waiting. Waiting for a sign, a mark.”
“Jetsam” is the story of a survivor. It reads like a mainstream piece of fiction that just happens to have huge, cloud-like cosmic life forms from “the other side” within it. A story that is haunted by the 9/11 event, a story that, once again, can support the application of metaphors upon the strong bones of its frame.
“One building ripples with movement, then another, and another. It spreads, as if the canyon is a wound, bleeding drops of water that take on the colors of concrete and sky. . . . They push the air before them, and it carries the rustling of weaponry, the soft click of claws and guns, the scent of singed fur and leathered skin. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. They keep coming. Hundreds of thousands. Four hundred thousand. Four hundred thousand, and one.”
“The Four Hundred Thousand” concerns a future where the military biotech complex has weaponised the human reproductive system. It’s the old tale of The Gods and The Titans, ignored again by the powers that be, told through the observations of a young woman who is made the brood mother of a fresh batch of beastly super soldiers via her recruited, bought and paid for, ovaries. Underestimation and ignorance on the part of the power elite leads to a typical strategic fail of epic proportions.
“The men spread out across the beach, directing their daughters to the edge of the tide line. Before them, dark shapes rise from receding waves––cobblestone roads slick with foam, low houses clustered like rotting mushrooms, and beyond. . . . The sandy ridge breaks off and free-falls into the rift. Sadie spies chimney stacks peeking up from the depths, bioluminescent smoke coiling in the air, freed of the weight of water. Soft movements appear, as flippers and webbed feet emerge from gaping doors.”
“Take Your Daughters to Work” gives us a ritual, this one of sacrificial death-birth, in a crafted setting that could be industrial Mythos.
“She was going to tell him more, tell him how they would send her into the newly-made tunnels, after the colossal drilling machines had pulled out of them like satisfied lovers; how she wandered the subterranean labyrinth searching for coal seams with no light, no mask, no water; how her hands pressed against stone walls still smoking from the bite of the drills, how she heard and felt and smelled the living earth; how she always found the coal. How she woke up screaming at night, dreaming that the seam had somehow seen her, had found her first. . . .”
The final story in the volume is a novella, well placed in the contents order and, for my money, the most interesting work in the book. It inhabits the same territory featured in “Take Your Daughters to Work.” I can see the world of Obsidia easily gaining novel-length dimensions.
“Highgate Station clings to the lowest slopes of the mountain that forms the southern edge of Marketplace––which is to say, it towers above anything else in this part of Obsidia, save the forest of factory chimneys. In the pitch of night, the gothic-spired building glows like the translucent skull of a dragon, jagged maw opened wide to disgorge twenty-odd trains to all points across the city: suburban enclaves, bustling business districts, and industrial sections––even through the miles of elevated train yards that divide the entire metropolis neatly in half, keeping the slums underneath festering in a perpetual twilight of iron and steel.”
Akin to something partly drafted, and reached, through the fever dreams of Horace Walpole and Mervyn Peake, it is a lavishly configured realm that the author gives us here, but one free of over-adornment.
An artisan in stone is sent to the ghost of a cemetery in a dead and distant region to draw the spawn of a god from its prisoning stone. A marvellously envisaged steam train ride takes Gillian Gobaith Jessamine to Feldspar, a disused mining district abandoned as a subsurface furnace which lies on the outskirts of the vast metropolis of Obsidia. The stone artist, purportedly, spent most of the early part of her life down in mines, existing as a “canary,” warning the miners of dangerous fumes and gases and finding rich seams with her particular, dark talent. However, the acolytes who have brought her to Feldspar and the assumed repository of their “god” have no true knowledge of the secrets and the depths of which the stone shaper in their charge is central. She is gifted, and that gift reaches beyond the ability to transform stone and locate valuable lodes and survive in the deepest black of subterranean night. She mines her own deeps and dredges up the horrible truths.
This final story is a true and satisfying climax to the seduction and doomed lovers’ tryst that is this collection, the storyteller loading it with rich, baroque descriptions and vivid panoramas that will pique, possibly inflame, any true reader’s imagination. Survival, death and transformation are the radium marrow in the black bones of this tale.
“The flame—the flame—beyond body, beyond life—in the earth—oh, God! ...”
—The Thing on the Doorstep by H.P. Lovecraft
This is what new Mythos should be. Not gigantic tentacles and action heroes in stories that are like special-effects films (fun as those can be), the narrow avenue of lesser writers. Not the cephalopod’s tentacles, nor even its shell, but the cephalopod mind. The true strangeness and hideousness of the Mythos provinces. One need only go back to Lovecraft’s foundation works to see this.
Not all of Llewellyn’s work here is concerned with the eroticism of the horrible or the hideously erotic. Some of it is about the sensuality of the strange. The last work “Her Deepness” is one such story. Rock solid weirdness, like scorched pages snatched from Asenath Waite’s dreams of burning caverns and submarine green vastnesses.
Mystery, yearning, curiosity and need power the turbines of Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire.