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Friday, April 14, 2017

An Appreciation of Livia Llewellyn

Image result for livia llewellyn the engines of desireImage result for livia llewellyn the engines of desire

An appreciation of Livia Llewellyn - Or, The Womb, Center of Mystery.

Livia Llewellyn burst on the Weird Horror scene in 2011 with her collection Engines of Desire. Critics and fans were all talking about this book and it’s heralding of an exciting new voice. And then a couple years later she returned in 2016 with her second collection Furnace, cementing her role as one of the most important writers in the field today. With each new collection it seems her powers as a writer strengthens. Her writing blends a sense of unease and ambiguity, a deep rooted joy in surrealism and perversity, and an existential need for an understanding of oneself. She writes in many modes: At The Edge of Ellensburg and The Unattainable are tales of obsession and self destruction, Stabilimentum and Allochthon are creeping tales of domestic surrealism, and Her Deepness and Cinereous are great exercises in dark fantasy world building. All of these from a very well defined and pointedly female point of view. All told with a sensuous prose style and a commitment to explore its themes as deep and as far as they need to go. She writes in the tradition, and furthers the tradition, of such groundbreaking authors as Clive Barker ( The Books of Blood, Imajica ) and Caitlin Kiernan ( The Ammonite Violin, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart ). A style of writing that probes the inner thoughts of the writer, the secret things that turn them on and also disgust them, and brings into light subject matter that is normally not talked about in mainstream Horror literature. In a time where Weird Horror becomes formula and fashion, where every month a new Cthulhu Mythos inspired collection comes out to further flood the field with mediocre writing and stale ideas, Livia Llewellyn brings it back to its roots; the exploration of personal and social taboos, and the pleasurable erotics of a dark and pessimistic poetry.

There seems to be a lack of critical writing on this author, and on Weird Horror as a literary scene in general. So I will highlight two of my favorite Livia Llewellyn fictions and hopefully encourage others to give a read of this, seemingly to me, criminally overlooked writer. Each of her collections are named after a story in their respective collection, and for good reason, these are arguably the best stories in their collections, and those are the ones I will focus on here.

The Engine of Desire

The Engine of Desire was first published in 2008 the anthology Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, and is a true rarity in the strangely usually too conservative field of Weird Horror, a transgressive homoerotic tale of lust and obsession among young teenage girls just blossoming into puberty, stumbling into forces bigger than them and how to deal with the unleashed sexuality threatening to overtake them. The story focuses on Megan, a housewife, dissatisfied with her life, and is haunted by a secret regret and fixation. When Megan was a young teen, a mysterious girl from “ the far end of the cul-de-sac “, already smoking cigarettes and arousing the interest of the local neighborhood girls, the girl named Kelly, came into Megan’s life as one of her sister Lisa’s friends. She watches, jealous, as Lisa is seduced and taken away, never to be seen again, by the tenebrous creature named Kelly. Many of the town’s girls have been disappearing. And Kelly was around for, and ultimately is responsible for, their disappearing, taking them into some unreal corner of town, forever. The story takes place as Megan looks back and recalls her life and how Kelly has seeped into and taken over her dreams and her inner life. She longs, she aches, to have been chosen and stole away by Kelly, and hurts from knowing that she never wanted her. Kelly had taken all the pretty girls. “All the cream has been skimmed, youth and desire siphoned away, leaving only human husks. Not enough left for the engine to feed on, and so it’s gone, along with the mystery girl who charmed its prey and fed them bit by bit into its maw.” So Megan schemes to have a daughter, a attractive daughter, to draw Kelly back to her house, and force her to take Megan with her instead of her daughter Sophie. “Megan runs her nose over her daughter’s skin, breathes the scent in deep. She smells the girl on Sophie, that sharp undertone of fuel mixed with lemons and cigarettes. And under that, the smell of the engine. Hot burning blood and smoking bone, dismembered limbs whirling in a gasoline gyre.”

Kelly is kind of an unearthly figure, a vampiric creature of seduction and damnation. At the conclusion of the story Kelly brings Megan to an old house to show Megan where she had took Lisa and the other girls. Kelly had brought them to a basement and shows them the secret heart of the world, a vast engine of flesh and hunger, made of all the girls Kelly has seduced away, where they get absorbed into the infernal machine. Megan runs away screaming, not wanting to be a part of something that involves everyone, only wanting something unique between her and Kelly.  Megan wants Kelly all to herself, but partnership is not what Kelly brings. What Kelly offers is an escape from the drudgery and lies of everyday life, to be lost in an eternal erotics of the flesh, to become one with the flesh machine that drives us, to give in to our most primal of urges, the perverse drive to mutate and corrupt forever and without end. Kelly shows us, unveils for us, the driving code written in our DNA, our real reason to exist, the life urge. Millions of years ago there came into being a thing, a primal urge that awoke, that gave consciousness and movement to insentient matter. Across a landscape of unfathomable oceans and shores of molten rock it arose. Against a cold, barren universe it clinged to life. And kept moving, and evolving, and changing. Microbes to fungus to monkeys it fought to survive. And it still exists, hidden in our modern lives, still pushing us, still at the center of our passions and our ruin. You can hear the engine in shopping centers and apartment buildings, colleges and prisons. Where this force came from or why it exists is unknown to us. We are puppets in a eons old drama. This striving, this desiring in the dark, is at the bedrock of Livia Llewellyn’s exploration of self, and in her story The Engine of Desire, she shows us the perverse combustion at the core of our hungers.


Furnace was first published in 2013 in a tribute anthology to one of the masters of Weird Horror, Thomas Ligotti, in Grimscribe’s Puppets. Livia used this opportunity to write a story that is a modern day classic and can stand up to the best of Ligotti’s work. Furnace centers on an unnamed young girl who helplessly watches as her family and her unnamed hometown spiral downward into an unreal and hellish mockery of what seems to be normal small town life. Like how the young girl in The Engine of Desire wanted, and was trapped, by an all consuming life urge, in Furnace the young girl is trapped by the all annihilating force of breakdown and entropy, nightmare made real. The town is falling from order and into chaos, insane outbursts of strange deaths and mutilations are spreading like a plague throughout town and everyone carries on like nothing is happening, except her grandfather, who has sensed something was amiss for a long time, works on a map highlighting the bizarre incidents that are increasing in frequency everyday, trying to make some kind of sense to it, to put some kind of pattern to it. The story begins with the girl and her mother driving through town looking to do some shopping, but whole parts of town are now deserted, a bunch of stores have all of a sudden closed down and locked their doors. A smell of old moth balls permeates the air, a chill in the air signals the coming of the dark months. They see a figure standing by one of the darkened shops, the young shop owner that the girl used to have a crush on, and they approach him to ask him what has happened, only to find him holding a strange bundle, “ I started in shock to realize it was not a bolt of fabric, but a length of thick grey wool wrapped around the stiff body of a large bird with two beaks twisted into a hideous spiral and a spider-like cluster of lidless coal-colored eyes.” He stands there warning them to not look too deep into that is happening, not to look into the blackened windows of the shops, but of course they look, and the girls starts to sense, too grasp, the nightmare behind everything seeping out and penetrating into the world. But maybe the nightmare has always been there,is in fact the true face of reality? Like a cancer it always lurked under the surface of things, silently corrupting everything until it took over the body and sent it into one final horrific death throe. To be born is to exist in a world of strange creatures that both desire and decay, parents that created you and try to mold you into their own failed and desperate dreams. “ This, this is my mother’s suffocating desire, slowing time down around us, winding it back, back, until it becomes the amber-boned river in which I am always and only her little girl, eternal and alone.” The nightmare of life is a curse put onto children by their parents, as the girl figures out, a slow decent into sickness and madness. “And I ran to the edges of my northern town and past it and slipped beyond into the world, as all the bright skeletons of who I could have been swarmed behind me, plunging into the quivering moist mountains of putrescent flesh that had birthed us all, sinking into the road where she lost me, all of them dying within her desire like little miscarried dreams.” But the protagonist of Furnace comes to learn there is a way out. A breaking of her Mother’s wishes and dreams for her, that in fact, doom her. A saving act of self destruction, a breaking of ties that bind her to the biological horror we call existence on Earth, the willful taking of her own life.

Livia Llewellyn writes about the deep fear that we may not actually own our bodies and their strange cravings may be beyond our control. Like bodies adrift on a ocean of darkness, we are tossed here and there by forces that were here millennia before us and we have no chance at ever understanding. Mysteries of deep time and the ennui of meaningless existence, the desire to escape, to be free of the eternal cycle of all of our most precious perversions and fantasies falling into the annihilating black void that lurks, unheeded, under the everyday world. Unseen, nebulous forces try to control and dominate our passions and our reasons for existence in Livia’s prose. Her characters try to break free of these systems of control by either giving in to the erotic thrill, by submitting, to the engine of desire, or by turning away from it, by turning away from the system and letting it all burn away in the slow decay of the cosmic furnace. Livia is one of the strongest prose stylists and a true poet of the weird and erotic. Every time I see a new story from her in a collection or online I consider it a must read. I can’t wait to see where Livia goes from here and what strange and beautiful sights she has to show us. Watching her grow and develop as an author is exciting and I have no doubt that her work will be read for as long as Weird Horror is read. I strongly urge anyone who enjoys walking down the more shadowy and sensual paths of Horror literature to give Livia a try.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Interview: Stop Motion Filmmaker Robert Morgan

           Today we have one of the great artists working in film today, Robert Morgan! A stop motion filmmaker, Robert Morgan has created some of the most vital and important works of the modern era. Some of his masterworks include The Separation, The Cat with Hands, Bobby Yeah, and his D is for Deloused was in the horror anthology film The ABC's of Death. He has also directed a couple of masterful shorts that pay tribute to some of the great horror films, you can find his Belial's Dream short on the Basketcase Blu Ray and Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt on the Schramm Blu Ray. 

           Plutonian: Hello and thanks for stopping by The Plutonian! It is a true honor to have you here! Stop motion animation has to be the most obsessive style of filmmaking. Normally making a film involves dozens, if not hundreds, of contributors, but stop motion is a solitary, detail-oriented, and extremely personal artform. Manipulating puppets and creating scenery and sets in private is a mysterious and fetishistic thing to do. What compelled you to want to become a stop motion filmmaker? 

        RM: I came from an art background so I was always used to making things on my own. Doing a painting or a sculpture does not involve a whole team, so I was used to expressing myself in that way. I never had a burning desire to be an animator, but I did want to make films. Coming from an art background, it was a simple step to make those paintings or sculptures move, rather than having to find a whole team to work with. So I applied to do a degree in animation. And when I started doing stop-motion, I found that I had a natural affinity for it. So that was how I started. I never had a compulsion to make animation in particular though. I really see it as an extension of what I was doing when I made paintings and sculptures, except in a time-based form. 

        Plutonian: A lot of your work has to do with mutations of the body and the infinite variations of the organic form. Bodies explode into different shapes, animals have mismatched limbs, and different realities exist within bodily orifices. It is all a sort of a surrealism of the body. How do you view the mutating body and the quivering flesh sacs we call life? 

        RM: I see it as exactly that – as a mass of weird, quivering flesh sacs! Existence is a pretty weird and mysterious thing when you think about it. And if you think about it too much it can become really quite disturbing. I totally understand people like Thomas Ligotti who see life as fundamentally uncanny and weird. And we’re always changing, physically and mentally. It’s all just one big constantly transforming march towards non-existence. Hopefully, you can have some fun along the way. Also, I had really bad acne when I was a teenager so I was acutely aware of physical mutation from quite early on… I think it definitely had an influence on my films. 


         Plutonian: The history of stop motion animation is a truly fascinating and under-discussed topic. What would you say are some of the most important works in the field of stop motion film? What are some of your personal favorites? 

        RM: Most people think of very twee things when the word stop-motion is mentioned. For me, it was always a dark, uncanny art form though. And the process itself always felt obsessive and ritualistic to me. The real art of stop-motion is very rarely discussed in the mainstream world. It’s all just “oh wow it’s so painstaking” and that’s as far as it goes. But the history of stop-motion is full of amazing pieces of art that should be more widely known. I guess people know about Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers, both of whom I’d definitely call important. Also, there’s the films of Ladislaw Starevicz and Charlie Bowers, who made some beautiful films early on. Plus I always enjoyed seeing bits of stop-motion in live-action films, like the stuff in Basket Case, Fiend Without a Face, Tetsuo, etc. That stuff is just as important to me as the more highbrow classics. 

        Plutonian: I think it could be agreed that stop motion, as an art form, is better suited to the short film than the more traditional feature-length film. Most stop motion feature films are live-action films with some stop motion sequences thrown in. I mean, there are feature-length films like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that use zero live-action, but his films come off to me as too slick and produced. There is something about the shaky, low-budget, off-kilter quality of stop motion that Tim Burton just misses by miles. Take for instance The Quay Brothers. The Quay Brothers are definitely geniuses in stop motion and their short films are classics. But I feel their motion-length pictures miss the feverish inspiration and occulted beauty of their short films. Institute Benjamina is a wonderful film, but the little doses of stop motion don’t really add much to it. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes to me had really interesting ideas but fell flat in execution. I think there are stronger uses of stop motion sequences in Lynch’s Eraserhead and in Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man. But of course Svankmajer’s film Alice is a masterpiece of the form. You have done some work with live-action filmmaking in addition to stop motion. What do you feel about feature-length live action/stop motion hybrid films? 

        RM: I would agree with your opening statement about feature-length animation in general. I’ve very rarely seen an animated feature film of any kind that I liked. Maybe a handful. But I’ve seen amazing short films. That’s where the real masterpieces of animation are found; in the short form. I also think it’s difficult to get funding for really interesting animated features because there’s a bias towards them being broad, family films, at least in the West. Personally, I think the idea of mixing live-action and stop-motion animation in a feature film is a more fruitful one (I’m developing one of my own). I think there’s a nice gray area between the forms that is under-explored. I think the quality of the finished result is a question of artistic execution rather than a problem intrinsically to do with mixing the forms. I love Institute Benjamenta but I agree Piano Tuner was not as good, but from what I know, I think that was more to do with outside pressures from financiers than anything else. 


         Plutonian: It seems your filmography is moving from a more traditional brand of narrative storytelling ( The Cat with Hands, The Separation ) to a more gonzo attack of surreal delirium and transgressive humor ( Bobby Yeah, D is for Deloused ). Would you say that is a fair assessment? Could you talk about your growth as a filmmaker and how what you are trying to achieve with your films has evolved? 

        RM: That’s just the way things have gone with the last few films. I’m not particularly moving away from more traditional forms in a bigger sense. I’m developing a couple of features that are a bit more traditional, for example. I think when you work alone, like with Bobby Yeah and Deloused, there’s just a certain insular quality that comes out. I’d ultimately like to be a fairly rounded filmmaker who has made lots of different types of films, all with a similar sensibility maybe. But when I’m making stuff on my own, I need to keep myself entertained, which is why I guess they’re so far out. 

        Plutonian: Can you talk about your process? Do you have a finished film in your mind you try to recreate? Or do you perhaps have a more experimental ‘play it by ear’ approach? 

        RM: It depends on the project. Sometimes I’ve done the whole traditional process of writing a script, gathering a production together, working with collaborators, etc. Other times, it’s just me in a room, and in that case, I’ve quite enjoyed just playing by ear recently. Bobby Yeah was not planned in any way, just improvised from start to finish. Deloused was similar, although I had a rough treatment. The joy of stop-motion is that it very often takes on a life of its own once you start animating. It tells you what it wants to be, so you need to be open to following it, and then it can lead to some really weird and interesting places. I enjoy both processes though because collaboration also brings lots of amazing things too. 

        Plutonian: What do puppets offer a filmmaker that they can’t get from a flesh and blood actor? What do puppets mean to you? Can you talk about what goes into creating a character who is a puppet? 

        RM: It’s just a whole different type of expression. An actor needs to make it real on some level. But puppets are metaphors. They’re objects that the audience projects human emotions onto. So they exist on a different plane of non-reality. They don’t have to be credible in any way. They can be incredible. The way I build a puppet character is to start by sculpting it. And in sculpting it, I’m looking for a demeanor or a facial expression that holds an emotion of some kind; or that can seem to hold multiple emotions, the more complex the better. Once I’ve got that demeanor that interests or fascinates me, then I know that puppet can carry a film. 

        Plutonian: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to talk about? Where would you like to see your artistic career head in the future? 

        RM: Where I’d like to see my career go is one thing, where it actually will go is something else! But I’ve gota few projects floating around at the moment. I’m just starting a new short that will come out later this year; it’s connected to a well-known cult film, but I can’t say too much about it right now. It will be revealed in due course. As for other projects, I don’t like to say too much about them in case they don’t happen. But there’s definitely some plans afoot!