Grady Hendrix is the horror gods’ gift to us all.
His coffee table tome, ‘Paperbacks From Hell’ tread where few dare, and gives us the lowdown on literally hundreds of the pulp horror books of the 70s and 80s. Lurid, gory, and mostly terrible, Hendrix read them all and, thanks to his partnership with Valancourt Books, we are being treated to new reprints of the best of these decades old, forgotten gems.
The second book in Valancourt’s recent reprints of lost classics of the era is Elizabeth Engstrom’s first book, ‘When Darkness Loves Us’. This is a collection of two novella length works originally published in 1985. I had never heard of Engstrom before picking up this book and, having read this collection, I’m embarrassed it took me this long, and amazed she isn’t better known.
The title novella is about Sally Ann, a newly-wed girl of seventeen who lives on her family farm with her husband. Finding herself bored one day, she decides to revisit a favourite childhood haunt of hers; an underground tunnel leading to a set of caverns. When she becomes trapped underground, alone and in the pitch black, becoming increasingly lost and disorientated, she fights to find her way out into the light to save both herself and her unborn child.
The above synopsis accounts for barely the first half dozen pages of this first story and less you know about the story going in, the better. Engstrom cleverly sets up expectations, and subverts them, and you can never be sure where the story is taking you.
The story, clocking in at a slim 65 pages, wastes no time in getting started. The writing itself is equally lean. The style reminded me a lot of the late, great Jack Ketchum, who was a master of writing that seemed simple and straightforward, but was incredibly honed with not a single word wasted. ‘When Darkness Loves Us’ pulls this off wonderfully. Much like Ketchum’s work, this story goes to (pardon the pun) some pretty dark places, and without falling victim to the absurd excess mass market horror often embraced. Powerfully bleak and brilliantly unpredictable, you couldn’t wish for a stronger opening statement from a new author.
The second, longer story of the two is ‘Beauty Is’ and focuses on Martha, a developmentally challenged woman of middle age, who lives alone after the recent passing of her mother and father. As Martha slowly grows accustomed to her new life on her own, she begins to unlock memories of a childhood that she had blocked out for forty years, and once those memories return her life, and those of the town that watch out for her, will be irrevocably changed.
This story had a lot to live up to after such an intense opening story but it managed to exceed even those lofty expectations and was probably the stronger story of the two. The focus here is character, and every person is the cast feels so well realised. ‘Beauty Is’ tells an interwoven story, switching each chapter to focus on Martha, and then her mother, effectively telling Martha’s story from birth by cleverly revealing snippets of Martha’s past that inform her actions, and those of the people around her, in the present. Much like the first story in this book, the story does not go where you expect it to, and being less overtly ‘horror’ than its predecessor, makes the story all the more harrowing when things take a dark turn. The ending will stay with you long after you put the book down.
Those expecting a typical 80s throwback horror book will be disappointed here. Unique, beautifully written, and with a strong focus on character driven story and opting for psychological horror over splatter, ‘When Darkness Loves Us’ is truly deserving of its new rediscovery.