By Jesse Bullington
Llewellyn, Livia. Engines of Desire. Lethe Press (March 15, 2011). $18.00 paperback. ISBN-13: 978-1-59021-324-7.
This is a deliciously nasty little book. On a purely aesthetic level, Lethe has crafted a beautiful artifact – from the evocative cover by photographer Katharina Fösel to the handsome design by Alex Jeffers, there isn’t an off note. Fairly or not, a lovely mounting such as this raises expectations of the work’s quality before one even begins to read, but, blessed is the fortunate reader, Llewellyn is up to the task of surpassing even the loftiest anticipation.
The ten pieces that compose Engines of Desire range from the tantalizingly brief to the gluttonously long, by turns teasing the reader with fleeting images and gorging them on lush, luscious prose, but never fully sating the appetite Llewellyn whets from the start of her very first story. This apocalyptic opening selection, “Horses”, is bleak even by end-of-the-world standards, which makes its placement at the beginning all the more ominous. In this piece and throughout, she brings to life beautiful desolation and ugly desperation in such an easy, effortless manner as to make the reader freeze, an animal in the headlights, torn between recoiling from the page in revulsion and leaning in closer for a better look, a stronger whiff, of whatever it is smoldering down there at the bottom. Assuming, of course, there is even a bottom to be found in this gulf; the deeper into the collection one descends, the less likely that proposition seems.
Florid praise aside, this book is, if not the strongest debut collection in years, certainly the strongest this critic has been fortunate enough to stumble across. Laird Barron nails Llewellyn’s work in his introduction, but since one needs to pick up the book to read said introduction, we’ll see if we can’t cobble something together here to entice the wary. Images of blindingly bright strips of burning magnesium come to mind, as does the humble botfly – some stories, like the grim document of obsession “At the Edge of Ellensburg”, flare up immediately with their intensity, whereas others, like the profoundly disquieting tale of abuse “Omphalos”, lay a literary egg in readers, almost without their noticing, only to have a foul realization make it presence known as it worms its way through one’s head. Metaphorically speaking – what we’re shambling toward is that Llewellyn gets under one’s skin in a variety of ways, none of them comfortable.
The constant here is that each of these stories is elegantly written and deeply disturbing – a winning combination, if ever there was one. The worlds Llwellyn exhumes here are so fully realized and nuanced that one wonders just how the hell she’s able to do in ten or twenty pages what many authors fail to accomplish in five hundred. Then there are the characters that fill them, individuals who are every bit as contradictory and twisted as they are realistic and (often grotesquely) fascinating – mostly. There are admittedly a few stories where the characters are ciphers, but, for the most part, Llewellyn’s protagonists and victims – and they are often the same – manage to be strong even as they are frail, loving even as they are cruel, and luminous even as they succumb to darkness.
Shades of Clive Barker are here, as in the hypersexual “The Engine of Desire”, but also tinges of Kafka, such as in the urban nightmare “Jetsam”. There are also healthy dollops of Lovecraft, as in “Take Your Daughters To Work”. In barely four pages, it builds a world so exquisite the reader bitterly laments there isn’t more to explore – until one reaches the collection’s concluding story “Her Deepness”, which returns the reader to the doomed (or is it blessed?) city of Obsidia for Llewellyn’s crowning achievement, an essential read for fans of weird fiction. If we were to compartmentalize the stories by their ‘genre’, we would have everything from fantasy to science fiction to horror (both supernatural and mundane), but no matter what a plot synopsis might imply, each and all of these tales belong to a single realm – the imagination of Livia Llewellyn, an artist of razor-sharp skill and scalding intensity.
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Bio: Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, which will be released in the UK on March 3rd and the States on March 24th. His short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various magazines and websites, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, ChiZine, Jabberwocky, and Brain Harvest, as well as in anthologies such as Running with the Pack, The Best of All Flesh, The New Hero, and Historical Lovecraft. He currently resides in Colorado, and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.