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.