Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors by Livia Llewellyn
Reviewed by Lila Garrott
12 October 2011
Engines of Desire, Livia Llewellyn's first collection, is packaged as dark erotica; there's a quote from Freud on the back cover discussing the role of the libido in calming self-destructive impulses, and the subtitle is Tales of Love & Other Horrors.
Indeed, one of the book's longest stories appeared originally in an erotica market (the novella "At the Edge of Ellensburg," from the anthology Short and Sweet (2006)). There's certainly a lot of explicit sexual content, both in that story and in several of the others. However, Llewellyn's real strengths lie on the side of darkness, rather than the side of well-rendered sexuality: the subtitle of this book should be taken literally. Love is a horror for Llewellyn's characters, and sex is one of the tools the writer uses to produce an atmosphere of claustrophobia and madness.
Based on this collection, it's a tool she uses well, and it's not the only one in her workbox. Llewellyn's work here has an impressive range of subject matter and length, while staying fairly close to a set of basic themes. Her protagonists are invariably female, sometimes girls and sometimes young women. Often they are pregnant or mothers, if not at the beginning of the story, then by its end. Many of them live in the Pacific Northwest, usually in eastern Washington State, in the desert on the landward side of the Olympic Mountains (this is a surprisingly regional book for a collection in which no stories share characters and only two might even take place in the same universe). These girls and women are living in appalling situations, sometimes supernatural and sometimes not, in which the things that have been done to them are surpassed in grotesquerie only by the things they've done to themselves. This is psychological horror, centered in the ways the characters deform and destroy themselves and others in order to cope with the outside world. Llewellyn's is not a worldview in which Lovecraftian monstrosities from beyond the wall of space can destroy your sanity with their mere appearances, but in which you might destroy your own sanity as a protective measure if those Lovecraftian monstrosities should happen to turn up. This is, in fact, the premise of the short story "Jetsam," a heavily 9/11-influenced piece in which the unnamed protagonist has survived what can only be described as a Lovecraftian terrorist attack.
Sex, then, is a weapon for and against Llewellyn's women, a woundingly double-edged sword. "At the Edge of Ellensburg" illustrates this through an interesting genre collision; its protagonist is a college student who becomes erotically obsessed with a local drug dealer. The story uses the language and modes of pornography—extremely detailed and graphic descriptions of each sexual encounter; sexual activity taking place in open and public areas without consequences; the characters having sex with others in the cast for reasons that do not actually have emotional justifications (in pornography, named characters will have sex with each other because they exist in the same universe, and that is reason enough)—and its adherence to these conventions hides a double underlayer. Just beneath the surface, there's a metaphor of dragons and dragon scales. The protagonist finds a scale on a necklace in the desert, continuously compares the drug dealer to mythical beasts, is constantly using metaphors for him (and for her obsession) involving the sun and power and fire, eating and engulfment. We are prepared for him to be some kind of draconic monster, dangerous to be around and never able to reciprocate her affections. As it turns out, he's a perfectly non-supernatural serial killer, and the pattern of that sort of horror story, the woman in peril because of a sexually insane and dangerous man, has been lurking underneath the entire time. But the piece's other two genres, porn and paranormal romance, have patterns of their own, and the denouement simultaneously brings all three genre expectations into play, turning them back on themselves in a knot of lacerating irony: who, in this story, was really the crazy one? And who turned out to be the genuine dragon?
This is very finely patterned, carefully wrought work, using multiple dimensions and intentionally playing on reader expectations for shock value. The effect is very close to nihilism, and in fact this is an extremely dark book; the vast majority of its stories plunge the characters into catastrophe without even a sense of apocalyptic glee. The first story, "Horses," is about a woman who finds out that she is pregnant on the day that her superiors in the military give the order for her squadron to launch their nuclear missiles, and the narrative explicitly and carefully goes out of its way to deny even the faintest breath of conventional hope. The main character uses her pregnancy as a bartering chip for shelter, and when that is turned down, offers to abort in the same breath; she shoots the people one would not expect her to shoot and ignores or subverts every tenet of the conventional post-nuclear-war, post-apocalyptic survival genre—even the one which suggests that she ought to be badass enough to take down anything in her way, that if she can shoot once, she can certainly manage it again. It's frustrating and depressing beyond belief, but it also reads as far more realistic than most other stories of its general outline. And that's the beginning. It doesn't get lighter from there.
The element of realism is what keeps the darkness from ever letting up, what makes Llewellyn's horror so effective. In "Take Your Daughters to Work," a young girl is being offered as sacrifice to the Deep Ones: well, that's actually what happens, nothing comes at the last minute to save her, and she is pleased and proud about it because she has been taught to be by her culture. A different young girl's parents, in "The Four Hundred Thousand," have donated her ovaries to the military to produce soldiers for an endless, dystopian war: the procedure takes place, and she's told that in a year she'll have four hundred thousand supersoldier children, none entirely human, crossbred with aliens and bred for fighting. And, in fact, she does. In "Omphalos," yet another young girl's parents have taken her on vacation in the mountains, where she desperately tries to find an escape from her incestuously abusive father. In a fine touch, he's given her a book called Mythology of Yore:
"This will explain everything," Father had said when he gave it to you. "This will explain why we do what we do, and why it's not wrong. Why it is as old as mankind itself, beautiful, divine."
He must not have read all the stories in the book. (p. 135)
The quoted passage is a fine example of Llewellyn's irony, irony which cuts to the bone subtly, in several directions: the protagonist is, in fact, in love with her brother, and her parents are siblings. Her father's attentions bother her because he began to molest her before she was pubescent, not because he is her father. When she refers to the stories in the book and his ignorance of them, she's talking about cross-generational taboos as explained through mythology, not about the taboo the reader finds obvious. For a girl as caught up in her background as this one is, there's only one way out, a way the reader will find as problematic as her original situation—a situation in which consensual incest would have been a happy ending.
Llewellyn's surprisingly understated touch and beautiful yet unobtrusive style don't hold up very well at extremely short lengths, and two of the stories here are under two pages ("Teslated Salishan Evergreen" and "Brimstone Oranges"). Both read as insubstantial vignettes which might have developed into something, given sufficient length and more characters. Oddly enough, both are about girls being swallowed by trees, a theme it would be interesting to see Llewellyn expand upon.
Apart from that, however, this is a collection full of effective, distressing, individual horror, utilizing a female perspective which gives its women agency and depth, and dealing with female reproductive biology in a way that is more complex and less depersonalized than standard body horror tropes. It's a strong book, with only the two short-shorts notably weaker than the rest, and hopefully heralds more work in longer lengths from the author, whose complexity would be well-served by the format of a novel. Persons who come to this book looking for erotica are probably not going to be happy with it, but fans of horror in which supernatural and human elements uneasily coexist, and in which there is more evil inside the human heart than out of it, should take note of this as a noteworthy debut by an up-and-coming talent.