When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom is a bind-up of two novellas, the titular and “Love is…”. Re-published under Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell imprint, this classic ’80s double feature is a tour de force of emotionally harrowing horror. Engstrom stands out among a lot of ’80s horror writers as one whose horrors are predicated on themes of grief, betrayal, abandonment, and other resonant ideas, as opposed to tropes and ultraviolence. She deserves more recognition, on the basis of When Darkness…, as one of the more original and powerful voices of the age.
The novella titled “When Darkness Loves Us” is the shorter of the two at around seventy pages, and while it’s hard to decide which story is the more ultimately devastating, “When Darkness…” harrows in a deep and intimate way. It’s about a teenage girl, a farmer’s daughter engaged to a local boy and pregnant, who’s messing about on her parents’ property one day when she walks into a tunnel and falls asleep on the steps. Her father unwittingly seals the entrance and she finds herself trapped, still pregnant, in an underground network of dank tunnels. For years.
Inspired by a thought Engstrom had while riding an underground attraction at Disneyland while pregnant herself, “When Darkness…” is one of the more haunting horror pieces you’re likely to read. It’s not just the pain and terror of the immediate situation that the author evokes. Her masterstroke is to expand it into an appalling tragedy of lost youth, grief, resentment, jealously, and how, when darkness loves us, we end up loving it back…
The tale is simply told, deceptively so, as it sprawls out over years, even decades. The main character’s survival might not be totally believable, but more so than you think it would be because of the emotional truth to the characterisation and development. If it was possible for a teenage girl to survive for such a long time in an underground network of dank tunnels, in pitch darkness, you get the feeling that she’d probably turn into the person that our heroine does. The story’s final twist is cruel, devastating, and painfully inevitable. It’ll haunt you.
The story of “Beauty Is…”, the longer and more narratively complex of the novellas, was inspired by an incident Engstrom read about wherein a mentally challenged woman found employment at a KFC, but was then befriended and taken advantage of by a group of men who exploited her for sex. Once again, the setting is Heartland, USA, and the main characters are a woman and her deformed, mentally challenged daughter, born with a hole where her nose should be. (Hence the cover illustration below.) The woman’s husband, a farmer, is disgusted and alienated by his daughter’s condition, and though he does terrible things in the story, Engstrom doesn’t make him a cartoon villain.
In the wake of her inheritance of her parents’ farm, the adult daughter trundles along with assistance from her local community, from which her mother largely protected her, but came to realise would be necessary in keeping the woman safe once she was alone. The woman is befriended by several young people, with varying degrees of ulterior motive, and the story builds towards a tragic conclusion.
The narrative structure of “Beauty Is…” is so ambitious that the novella deserves recognition alongside mainstream fiction, though is unlikely to ever receive it, given the critical establishment’s frequent dismissal of horror. The story alternates between the mother’s and the daughter’s, exploring the mother’s dotage as she plans for her child’s adulthood alone in scenes that are touching, sad, and imbued with love. The daughter’s story follows her adjustment to life lived independently, and how she copes with the challenges of managing her own affairs. Perspective switches between the two characters and also the townspeople, including the ne’er-do-well who will eventually be everyone’s undoing.
The horror elements are most pronounced in a supernatural tinge concerning the mother’s gifts as a healer, as well as dark and vivid dreamscapes as she arrives at the realisation of why her daughter is stuck in her condition, what she could have been if the right people had shown her the right support, and the dark secret at the heart of her father’s cruel neglect.
It’s anything but an easily forgettable story, and the book as a whole is a neglected classic of both general and women’s horror writing.