Review: Engines of Desire by Livia Llewellyn

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Landscapes, dreamscapes, love, and unwieldy desire. Such are a few of the obsessions coursing through Livia Llewellyn's fiction. As a newer writer to the supernatural genres, her name may escape many. This is likely an unfortunate, but temporary flaw, as Llewellyn's sophisticated style and control over diverse genres means she will soon gain a foothold in one of her niches, if not all of them.

Her first short story collection due in March, 2011, is Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors, from Lethe Press. This book is Llewellyn's literary debut, in places as varied as weird horror, dark fantasy, science fiction, and romance. The collection contains all these elements, which at times result in brilliantly imagined hybrids with chilling power, but also unbalanced stories that make for odd neighbors. In the coming years, readers and critics might look back at Engines of Desire as a Llewellyn sampler, but one with just enough gray delicacies to appeal to horror fans.

Dark science fiction comprises about half the collection. The opening tale, "Horses," might be considered one of these as well. Llewellyn chronicles the last few years experienced by a self-loathing missile base attendant, after apocalyptic conditions have sealed her in a tomb like bunker with several other nobodies and her unwanted child. This story introduces Llewellyn's captivating style, sexually charged imagery, and an unrelenting bleakness in her tormented characters' past, present, and future. Her occasional drives into unconventional narrative techniques, which are sometimes shocking and always engaging, are also glimpsed in this story.

"Her Deepness" and "The Four Hundred Thousand" continue the dark sci-fi setting in ways that are superior to "Horses." The novella length "Her Deepness" takes us to an ambiguous places called Obsidia, which may be a name for a nation far in the future, or another plant. Whatever the case, Llewellyn's story takes its cue from the memories, fantasies, and nightmares of a young girl forced to partake in her society's neo-industrial labors. Of course, more lurks beneath the surface, when a cult shows up hoping to use the girl's unique stone working talents to resurrect their malevolent god. This story, despite its fantastic cover, is horror through and through. Hints of Llewellyn's influence by H.P. Lovecraft show up here too, as they do elsewhere in the collection. "Her Deepness" is a vibrant blend of personal tragedies, alienation, and Obsidia's exotic underworld, each rendered in a way as memorable as having a hefty anthracite stone chained to one's ankle.

"The Four Hundred Thousand" is closer to being pure dark sci-fi than any other story. Here, a young girl living in a dystopian city on another world has her eggs sold by her parents to the military, who use harvested ova to spawn vast armies of super-human creatures. Llewellyn constructs a melancholy atmosphere with high tension as the procedure approaches, and a strange authoritarianism that seemingly towers over everything: family, society, and self. As in other stories, she brings forth seriously unsettling and original descriptions of nighted voids, from space and within the psyche. This effectively generates a claustrophobic air that only lifts with the surprise conclusion, where a rare glint of hope is offered, however bizarre, rather than the psychological or physiological doomed faced by most Llewellyn characters.

Other stories in Engines of Desire are more down to earth in their setting and horror elements - which are at times visceral thanks to added realism. In "The Engine of Desire," a housewife is unable to relinquish memories of a strange girl from her past, and a force beyond the five senses that tugs at the psyche and the libido. The story's gradual unfolding over many decades and its reserved treatment of the actual "engine of desire" leave a mysterious impression. By incorporating lesbianism into the frightful energy at work in this piece, Llewellyn activates an original theme not seen in most serious horror. "Jetsam" is another story that evokes the author's sense of the numinous. Memory loss is toyed with, and imagery that recalls the towering wrecks of 9/11 and broken ships runs lethally wild, as "Jay" struggles for cohesive identity.

Like "The Engine of Desire," unconventional and far more menacing sexuality is used in "Omphalos," where an incestuous family's plans to escape into a wretched paradise are challenged by the daughter's ghostly map. From title to text, this tale suggests knowledgeable roots to Livia Llewellyn's career, and skillfully balances intrusions by an uncertain supernatural element with real world horrors like rape and abduction. The ravenous void seen in other stories fills the prose here as well, with potent effect.

Regrettably, Llewellyn's collection contains one weak link: a story entitled "At the Edge of Ellensburg." A college student becomes obsessed with a drug dealer, and becomes little more than a puppet to her own desires for liaisons with this man. This piece may work as erotica, but it feels completely out of place in a book of strange horror and dark fantasy tales. Any supernatural element is fleeting and tenuous at best, and there's nothing weird or horrifying about hooking up with a narcotics trafficking oaf. It also has the most sexually explicit scenes of any story by several orders of magnitude. While there's nothing wrong with this per se, horror works far better when the erotic is explored with some depth of meaning, as in this collection's other tales, or when curled into a narrative with strangeness and subtlety - a technique mastered by writers like Stefan Grabinski and Robert Aickman.

"At the Edge of Ellensburg" may be jarring, but it does not break the collection. Tales like "Take Your Daughters to Work," a Lovecraftian piece set in Y'ha-Nthlei, realm of the Deep Ones, more than make up for it. This story merges weird fiction, humor, and Llewellyn's coming-of-age explorations in a thought provoking way. Two vignettes are included to round out the book: "Teslated Salihan Evergreen" and "Brimstone Orange." Both continue Llewellyn's inquiries into reaching maturity in harrowing and curious ways, involving strange trees with abilities that seem equally complimentary and threatening to womankind.

All in all, Livia Llewellyn's ability to write coherently and creatively across genres is something to be praised, not condemned. Unlike other writers, she has multiple avenues open to securing a literary identity, which should start to take shape in future books. Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors includes an introduction by Laird Barron, and is available for pre-order from Amazon. While strict purists may pass, readers of weird fiction and other speculative literature should pick up this collection for an original voice that records the unusual and painful without second guessing.

-Grim Blogger

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