Reading horror paperbacks from the 80s is like buying drugs off the street. You wind up with so many bags of oregano that you lose hope, and then, suddenly, you’re clutching the real deal and the top of your head is lifting off and you can’t remember your name, your address, or whether you’re biologically human.
But finding the real deal brings its own flavor of depression because it raises questions like, “Why isn’t this author better known?” and “What happened to their careers?” Which is exactly how I felt when I stumbled across Elizabeth Engstrom’s Black Ambrosia and When Darkness Loves Us and realized I had never heard of them, or their author, before. It made me want to scream to the heavens, “Who’s responsible this???”
Hot off an advertising career in Hawaii, Engstrom ditched corporate copyrighting to take a fiction workshop with Theodore Sturgeon and out of that workshop came her novella When Darkness Loves Us (1985) which Sturgeon insisted should be paired with her other novella, Beauty Is, and published. And so it came to pass. Sparked by a bout of claustrophobia while riding the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Disneyland, Darkness is as twisted and sharp as a corkscrew jammed in your ear.
Sally Ann Hixson is 16, newly married to simple, studly farmboy Michael Hixson, relishing her first taste of sex, and definitely pregnant. One afternoon, fueled by memories of playing there when she was a child, she ventures down a long-abandoned set of stairs on their property that leads to an underground tunnel. Before she can wallow in too much nostalgia, she’s accidentally locked in. Unable to open the door to the surface, she follows the unexplored tunnels deeper, figuring they have to come out somewhere.
Cut to: eight years later. Sally Ann lives in total darkness, eating slugs and blind crayfish, her son sleeping with her and occasionally nursing. Determined that he’ll meet his father (whom he doesn’t believe in—he also doesn’t believe in sight) she finds an old well and claws her way to the surface, and discovers it hasn’t been eight years, it’s been 20. She emerges from underground a hot mess (“Breasts were sunken into the ribs and the toes were worn down to raw wounds on her feet. Strands of blonde hair remained but most of her head was bald and raw.”). Her husband has remarried with four kids, and before long Sally Ann, feeling like an intruder, returns underground, taking her husband’s four-year-old daughter, Mary, with her.
What follows involves incest, cross-species breeding, and elaborate and humiliating revenge schemes. Engstrom has since said she’d be interested in expanding the novella to chronicle the next generation of Sally Ann’s spawn. For the sake of my sanity, I hope she doesn’t.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum she delivers Beauty Is, the story of Martha, a developmentally disabled adult born without a nose. Unfolding simultaneously in the past, telling the story of Martha’s mother, a faith healer, and in the present as Martha bumbles into a group of drunks who take advantage of her (it’s based on a real incident Engstrom observed), the book evolves into a beautiful mediation on love, physical appearance, romance, and devotion. I was actually getting teary-eyed and feeling warm when Engstrom yanked the rug out from under me, dumping me hard on my ass.
Engstrom writes like an Anne Rice who is actually interested in real people. Deeply rooted in the details of hardscrabble lives, her language is heady and romantic, occasionally dissolving into a dreamlike haze, but she never loses sight of, or interest in, the fact that even half-humanoid, underground incest-monsters need to eat, sleep, and poop. Unlike Rice, who’s mostly interested in rich fancy people, Engstrom’s writing is most uncomfortably alive in its unflinching descriptions of the drab, humdrum existence of people living on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Her cast of barflies and drifters, hitchhikers and those who prey on them, of country women clawing a living out of the red dirt, feels like something right out of James M. Cain.
Black Ambrosia (1986) is the book where the comparison with Anne Rice becomes almost unbearable because it’s about *gag* vampires. Given a choice between reading about vampires and eating slugs, I’ll happily dish up a bucket of slimy gastropods any day, but Engstrom does something different here, bashing the dust and rust off the traditional tropes, and boy howdy are they traditional. Engstrom’s vampire, Angelina Watson, doesn’t like crucifixes, can turn into fog, controls the minds of men, sleeps in a coffin, and she sucks the blood of her lovers. But Engstrom manages to twist these clichés into something new.
We never know why Angelina’s a vampire, she’s just born that way. Unable to relate to human beings or navigate emotional interactions easily, Angelina seems more autistic than vampiric. Her coffins are makeshift sleeping boxes she cobbles together out of garbage, and even her ability to control minds feels more like a biological trait than sexy vampire mesmerism.
Angelina bums around the country, an outcast on the margins of the human race, resisting her bloodhunger with varying degrees of success. Hot on her heels comes an ex-lover who knows what she is and is determined to destroy her because he assumes she can’t stand herself. It sounds like standard-issue Anne Rice, but Engstrom refuses to take the conventions for granted, and her attention to the mundane details of getting from town-to-town, of the dangers of hitchhiking on the open road, and of the crummy blue collar underbelly of Eighties-era smalltown America gets underneath your skin. You can practically feel the hard-packed frozen dirt beneath your heels as you walk down some shitty shoulder of a trash-choked highway.
But what makes Black Ambrosia and When Darkness Loves Us linger in your head like echoes of a creepy nursery rhyme is that Engstrom tells her stories from the point-of-view of her monsters. While she never lets us forget that their actions, no matter how understandable, are thoroughly monstrous, it’s these voices of women on the margins, pushed aside, hungry for lives they’ve been robbed of, beating their hands on the glass and trying to force their way inside to take what’s owed to them—which is often little more than basic human dignity—it’s these voices that carry the books. And it’s these voices, like Engstrom herself, that often seem to have been forgotten.