Wed 24 Nov 2010
I spend time now and then investigating the livejournal shoals for interesting tidbits of brain food. There’s this writer who goes by the name Livia-Llewellyn over there that I started keepin’ an eye on, mostly because she has a certain kind of bleak attitude that I find appealing enough to listen to.
She wrote this four-part story and since I was listening I decided to read. Must have made some kind of impression, because here I am compelled to do an exploration about it. Spoilers are a cumin’ in, so ahroo!
Feel free to read first:
- Sometimes There’s No Poison Like a Dream
- I am the Stone the Builder Rejected
- Ride easy, lover: Surrender to the land / Your heart of anger
- I ride the wings of the morning sun, and dwell in the uttermost arms of the deep
Okay so what do we have here? The story follows Gillian, a sculptor of tombstones, who is about to receive a promotion (or a hek of an eternal demotion, depending on how you see it) for her fine work.
She has a talent for finding and expressing evocative character in the tombstones she carves. A talent she honed during her childhood years dowsing for coal in a mine, a job from which she escaped after a horrific mystical experience.
Basically she wants to be a good little doggie: work a 9-5 job in the city, gain some security, and provide for her son’s future.
The world she lives in is a nightmare planet. Otherworldly forces of unspeakable horror have bled into the world at large, expressed as rampant pollution, corruption, urban lifelessness, and environmental defilement.
Kind of like now.
Instead of a promotion, her talent brings her to the attention of a band of well-connected cultists. They want to use her talent to summon a god-monster-entity from a large boulder they’ve found. Just the sort of scary stuff she used to run into all the time when she worked in the mines, showing the machines where to dig.
Gillian is abducted and taken to the boulder. She betrays the cultists by turning the boulder into a stone elemental to smash them into jelly. Unfortunately, this means giving into the after-effects of that horrific experience from her past. She enters into the darkness of a mining tunnel in an ecstatic state of madness, experiencing it as a plunge into the depths and a spreading of monstrous wings to dark flight.
That’s all folks.
Here’s my beef: Gillian has no agency. In Part 1, it’s suggested that her promotion means taking on a difficult mission that will force her to confront her past. If she chooses to accept, she will be going on a journey that is both professionally challenging and personally dangerous. The alternative means giving up her upward mobility (so to speak). This is awesome.
The stakes are the new life she’s built for herself. This is stuff anybody struggling to survive in a post-industrial apogee world can understand. Debt-servitude makes for hard choices, and here’s one that promises to put her drive to escape to the test.
Once she is abducted, her choice is reduced to narrative zilchplay—there’s no tension as to what will happen. Gillian is certain everyone is going to die. We’re just waiting with her for the inevitable date with the boulder of destiny.
While we wait, she looks back at her life in the mines. Gillian grew up in dark tunnels under conditions of industrial servitude. Her special talent for locating hidden veins of coal may have led to an explosive encounter with a horrific underground entity.
At some point she decided to escape the mines by getting pregnant. She had a sexual encounter with a person who may have been an incarnation of the god-monster-entity the cultists hope to free and get goodies from.
Gillian left the mines behind to find a job carving tombstones in the city, but it’s a farce living on borrowed time. I get the feeling that if she ever had any major decisions to make in her life they were made back then, but it’s unclear to me what they were.
At this point it’s obvious Gillian is at best a hybrid human, may not have ever been human, and could be a simulacra cycling through various incarnations of mother and daughter in imitation of human life.
Even though the cultists suggest her son’s life is in danger should Gillian not cooperate, she is unconcerned. Her thoughts suggest he has abilities that allow him to escape capture and make it on his own. This detail basically ensures all stakes in the story are removed. We are on the exposition train from here on, where the character goes from one place to the next. She isn’t allowed to matter.
Without agency, the character just goes through the motions. Because we don’t know the details of her story in the mines—what she experienced and what it meant—the current story is just the last gasp of a person who died a long time ago. If she was ever even alive!
The villains are your standard black hat fanatics with no agency themselves. Led by the void-filling but unexciting and lying evil boyfriend. They exist simply to make the colossal mistake that sends them off a cliff screaming. Whatever!
The ending leaves us plunging into the unknown, which is an effective technique. However, what does it mean? Does she become a monster servant of the god-monster in the underworld? Has she succumbed to madness in which she imagines rebuilding her daughter? Has she fulfilled her instinctual purpose and will now wander around the fiery tunnels of a coal mine until she slowly expires?
Whatever the answer, I’m left with the feeling this is the end of Gillian’s own experience. That feels like a cop out; her monstrosity was her most human quality, the part worth exploring.
The story that matters is her previous life in the mines, but we don’t get that. It’s already in the past. If horror is about violation, Gillian experienced that long ago and didn’t survive. Or rather, she survived as a ghost long enough to drag others to their destruction. As readers, we’re robbed of an experience of her true horror.
One angle that might have been interesting would have been an approach towards the discovery that she had been made into one of those Lovecraft-based automatons one reads about. There are stories of unfortunates who delve too deeply into the Cthulhu Mythos and are never heard from again, save as eerie doubles of their bodies.
She might have been already dead, driven by her Chtulhu-infestation of the mind into building some kind of false life on the surface. Her “secret compulsion” would be like a locust of doom crawling overland, only to kill and then descend again into the depths to nurture a new brood of madness. She, her father’s mother. Leave the cultists out completely and make her boulder-job just another day at the office, as it’s originally suggested.
Then her lack of agency becomes a self-discovery as she learns not only is her new life a mask, but she never escaped to begin with. Slavery in the mines was replaced by something unspeakably worse—a veneer of hope designed to lure victims to their doom. I’d have left the cultists as a suggestion that they are behind the mining operations, using “canaries” like her to satisfy their simpleton understanding of their monster-god’s wishes. Profit becomes a means for maintaining the faith only.
Personally, I’d have gone the romantic adventure route. Gillian becomes half-Byakhee and half-woman. Something new and different, truly dangerous. Free to live her life more fully. Horror as violation that shows you who you really are. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the Rumplestiltskin?
Dang though, can Livia write some mutherscrathin’ prose. Her descriptions of the nightmare world of Obsidia are inescapably vivid. In one scene, as Gillian moves between train cars a piece of trash smacks her on the cheek, nearly missing her eye. I flinched when I read that, it was so visceral. This is the kind of putrid stuff that sticks in your mental craw, needing floss to pluck out.
Livia’s eye for detail and sense of place is relentless, with a charged slant toward the erotic. Strong stuff there. She is a master of setting, painting her world with soft and harsh touches in equal measure. The gargantuan mega-city of Obsidia as a setting ate me alive and doG bless it.