“and Love shall have no Dominion” by Livia Llewellyn

You think, at first, that it’s going to be funny. You think it’s a joke. Here’s the first line of the story:

craigslist > hell > district unknown > personals > missed connections > d4hf”

Craigslist in Hell? Okay. I settled in for something light.

And then the first paragraph:

human star, are u my gate to the world? – (central park west, August 2003)

it was the night of the blackout–do u remember? time is as one to me time is nothing to me time is nothing, but in ur linear existence it was Then, it was the night the city closed her hundred million eyes. one hundred degrees and still rising as heat bled up from the buildings and streets, anxious to escape into the cool of space, never again to be bound. u were walking up the western edge of that man-made forest in the hard pitch of night, humans stumbling all around, flailing and quaking under an unfolding sky of stars they had never before seen, or simply forgotten existed. humans, brilliant with the Creator’s life like star fire and u the brightest of all, but red and gold and white like my fallen Majesty, my sweet Prince, shining in the cesspools of earth he eternally spirals through, a necklace of diamonds crashing over shit-covered stone. and i? i was wandering to and fro upon and over the world, as our divine Prince taught us, and as i glanced down i caught the faint flash of a spark. that is what drew me down and in, the force and fuse of life that comprises ur soul. u felt it 2. do not deny: i know u saw the thick branches of the trees bend and toss in my wake, rippling and bowing before my unseen passage. i saw ur eyes widen, and the bright gold fuse of stargodfire coil in ur heart, darken and drop lower. u quickened ur pace, but u never stopped staring into the primal green mass, ur desire rising with the heat with the wind with every thunderous vibration of my coming. mystery power and the unseen currents of un-nature, revealed in the absence of confusion of un-light and machines–these things drew ur most inner self toward me even as u turned away walking up the long walled side of the forest, running ur hand against the ancient rock, fingers catching thick moss and small weeds, soft fingers scrabbling over hard cold granite sparkling-veined with the crushed bones of things long past. and the wall became my body my horns my mind and i lapped at ur creamy thoughts and the city shuddered in unease, and so did u.”

Even now, reading over that paragraph for perhaps the dozenth time, I get goosebumps. It’s one of the most audacious, commanding openings to a horror story I have ever read. The prose is a rough current: you step inside and you’re gone. We know immediately that this is the voice of something old, and dark, something to which time and space mean almost nothing as it is “wandering to and fro upon and over the world.” There is a sense of amoral entitlement: the disregard for the woman’s distress, the interpretation of that distress as an excitement, and an enticement. And there is a terrible beauty, conveyed both through language and through the sense of deep time: the city described in terms of organic life, shutting her hundred million eyes, unspooling its heat into the sky, like a thing dying; the woman dragging soft fingers across “cold hard granite sparkling-veined with the crushed bones of things long past.”

It is this beauty, I think, which gives this story its moral weight.

“and Love shall have no Dominion” is about a demon who falls in love with a woman. It never once succumbs to the temptations of camp, which it teases you with in the opening line, and flirts with throughout with the use of internet-conventional spellings and disdain for capitalization. Instead, it takes two brave risks. It plays the story straight, trying to imagine how such a love would manifest; and it tells its story from the point of view of the demon, who is genuinely in love, genuinely moved to obsessive action, but can only speak its love in the language of pain and debasement. It is unaware of this as a failing, or as a limitation. It’s the only language it knows.

“do u remember Catala, on the beach, thirty-six years ago, before it sank into the sands? u were only twelve, and u fell through the rotting deck of the beached ship while looking for treasure. i stayed with u for a day and night, until they found u. i made the cold ocean waters warm and kept the crabs and gulls at bay, and i put my hand on ur heart and held u ever so tight, my horns and wings ur shelter, my body ur bed. i thought u saw me, through the veil of your tears. i thought u smiled. i thought i kissed ur lips. i may be wrong.

no, that memory is gone. it never happened. i ate it away; and then i broke ur legs.”

I believe that horror fiction serves its function best as the literature of antagonism. It’s trite to say that it makes the reader uncomfortable, or that it attacks conventions of society. That is all true, but it’s easy to write about catastrophic violence or the degradation of the human body and mistake the feeling of disgust this causes in the reader as a successful assault on convention. This is a mistake too much self-desribed horror fiction falls into. Stories like that actually achieve the opposite of their intent: they bolster societal convention because the reader is not provoked into any kind of self-appraisal; the reader is only sickened, and the story is forgotten.

“and Love shall have no Dominion” succeeds in this regard because it takes its narrator seriously, and because it infuses the narrator’s intent and speech with a troubling beauty. The reader engages with the demon, apprehends its perspective, and is implicated. I don’t know if that was the author’s intent, and I don’t presume to speak to that. But this is how I read it, and this is what gives it so much of its power for me. This horror story offers no catharsis because it does not permit us the comfort of keeping evil separate from ourselves. It brings us into its heart, and though we are stunned and diminished by its cruelty, we are also entranced by its beauty.

And at the story’s end, when the demon performs the story’s final action, whether it is the ultimate cruelty or an act of breathtaking grace is an open question.

This is a ferocious story. It was published in an anthology edited by John Skipp, called Demons. To my knowledge, it hasn’t garnered much attention or acclaim. In some ways this is understandable. Reading it, like reading many of Livia Llewellyn’s stories, is an emotionally taxing experience. It offers the reader no consolation or catharsis. Llewellyn is also a woman writing in a genre which has an ugly history of being an unwelcoming place for women. There is still a thriving, troglodytic subculture in the field which will never take a woman seriously; the horror genre’s reputation for misogyny is not unearned, and will take time and effort to shed.

But there are more than enough of us out there who love powerful writing and who love the vast potentials of this genre to counteract all that. This writer, and this story, deserve your undivided attention. I hope it gets anthologized, recirculated, and read. It’s one of the best and most emotionally honest horror stories I’ve read. I don’t know how classics are made; but this one deserves the title.

“do u remember it, that single slow moment when our eyes met, when u truly saw me, when u touched and whispered to me as a lover? i think i no longer do. i think it was a human infection, a trick of the Creator, a cancerous dream.”

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4 Responses to “and Love shall have no Dominion” by Livia Llewellyn

  1. Dale Bailey says:

    I love the idea of horror fiction as the fiction of antagonism–but I would go a step further (is it a step further?) and say that horror fiction forces us to examine the true nature of reality. It’s more than implicating us in the evil. The most misogynistic story does that simply by virtue that we are reading it. It’s that it’s a pretty dark world out there and that there’s not a hell of a lot of help to be had. I fear that we too often get tangled up in the sticky web of genre when we talk about these things–and the misogyny tends to fade outside the publishing category. The most terrifying vision of reality I know is Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

    • Nathan says:

      I agree with your assessment of the Crane story. And I would posit that forcing us to re-examine the nature of reality is in completely antagonistic, at least in the parameters of my suggested definition here. It is meant, in some sense, to overturn your own personal applecart. An implication in evil is only one facet of that. I’ll go further and say that many stories — of which “The Open Boat” is one — qualify as horror fiction to me, regardless of how they are marketed (I think immediately of Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockenstiff, which seems undeniably a collection of horror stories). Many stories marketed as horror fiction are nothing of the sort.

  2. Alexa Duncan says:

    Ugh, the excerpts you quoted give me the chills. I need to go track this story down.

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