Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Blogger: Jeffrey Thomas Reviews "Engines of Desire" by Livia Llewellyn

On this eve of long promised, righteous destruction, The Cosmicomicon continues its much talked about, days old tradition of bringing you the best guest bloggers working and lurking in the murky biz. 
This week is no different, as noted author/artist and Punktown creator Jeffrey Thomas (featured recently in Alex Luggo's guest blog review on pages prior) marvels at the roar and hum of Livia Llewellyn's widely celebrated Engines of Desire: 
A Review of ENGINES OF DESIRE by Livia Llewellyn
- Jeffrey Thomas

     It’s no novel observation that it’s always exciting to discover a writer you’ve never read before; what greater satisfaction could account for one’s love of reading? Sometimes the pleasure comes from discovering someone others discovered quite a while before you. Last month, for instance, I completed BRAVE NEW WORLD, and in January I came across this guy named Cormac McCarthy. (I always feel a bit late to the game when it comes to movies and music, too -- but better than never, and all that.) Other times, the author you discovered is relatively new, or at least wholly new to you. Recently, writers who became favorites of mine with just one book were Richard Gavin (with OMENS) in 2009, Otsuichi (ZOO) in 2010, and Simon Strantzas (BENEATH THE SURFACE), earlier this year. And now, maybe not too late this time, here I am discovering Livia Llewellyn, via her new collection ENGINES OF DESIRE (Lethe Press).

     There’s a lot to admire here, and where to begin? I’m always impressed when a writer can work confidently within multiple genres or subgenres, and the stories in ENGINES OF DESIRE could be called a mix of horror, dark fantasy, science fiction -- though I wouldn’t blame Llewellyn if she’s as uncomfortable with such limiting categorizations as I am. Better to say, then, that she’s unfettered by genre. The stories tend to be either quite long or quite short, which again impresses; she’s going to let this story be the length it wants to be, whereas many other writers seem to weigh their efforts on the scale of whatever is going to fit the word range of the next zombie anthology. And where so many writers go through the motions of being shocking and edgy, Llewellyn makes them look like posers, writing as she does unflinchingly of infanticide, incest, madness and self-destruction. Her female protagonists are both empowered and compromised. Childbirth is a repeated subject matter, and repeatedly viewed not as a means of bringing joy and promise into the world but perpetuating the suffering of the doomed and damned.

     Among the standouts in these ten stories, we have the grim, apocalyptic “Horses” (and I’ll just stop introducing each story as grim right now -- that’s a given; this is not a feel-good bunch of tales), about a woman discovering the most basic imperatives of a human being, at the hour of human extinction; “The Engine of Desire,” a chilling tale of erotic obsession, the reading of which is like watching a film of a tornado brewing in reverse, from terrible aftermath to the first churning storm clouds; the increasingly nightmarish “Jetsam,” one of my favorites, about the resonance of 9/11; “The Four Hundred Thousand,” about a future civilization where young women are used to spawn whole armies that serve as a metaphor for the pointless sacrifices of war; the eerie, icky, enigmatic “Omphalos,” about the implosion of a most insular family; and easily my favorite, the concluding novella “Her Deepness.”

     “Her Deepness” is about as New Weird as New Weird can be, and again I hate categorizing here. That subgenre has been declared dead before it was even declared legitimate. I think some of those pronouncing it dead did so for their own purposes, owing to their competition with or envy of other authors whose future work they hoped to thwart by labeling it passé in advance. Politics, don’t you know. But categories do have their use when taken with a grain of salt, helping us stumble into the vicinity of things we’re going to like, and I was pleasantly surprised to find something of this particular flavor in Llewellyn’s book. “Her Deepness” could also be called Lovecraftian, but again that would be limiting it too much. It’s a dense, complex story about a sculptress with mysterious powers of shaping stone, called to the outer reaches of an impossibly vast, gritty, alternate Earth megalopolis to release a god-like being said to be trapped within rock, like some sentient fossil. In this tale most especially, Llewellyn indulges her considerable powers of description and setting, her ability to craft hard-edged characters who might not often be likable but are all the more fully real for that, her abundant and fresh imagination, her ability to generate an atmosphere heavy with a true sense of doom, and a prose voice full of glittering black poetry. Like many of the stories here, “Her Deepness” flirts with and ultimately plunges into the hallucinatory. It’s a heady experience. Forget I called it New Weird. Writing like this can never be passé, so I don’t want to run the risk of giving the wrong impression. I will say, I think Livia Llewellyn can hold her own alongside a China Mieville or a Jeff VanderMeer. I will say that much.

     And I will say this: I have another favorite writer. Ah…so this is why I read.


  1. Thanks for running this, Ted! Ah, no matter how many times I proof something, seeing it in another form always helps the typos spring out. That should be "giving the wrong impression" at the end, there. ;-) Anyway, it was fun guest starring on your final blog post -- see you on the other side, I hope!

  2. Behold, the power of the "edit" button. :)

    Sorry that I missed the typo, as well. I'm a pretty lousy editor.

    Thanks again, Jeffrey! The Cosmicomicon is made better by your - and Livia's - work!