Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2020 February 26 • Wednesday

These two long stories or short novels are among the most riveting things I've ever read and Elizabeth Engstrom is one of the most unsettling and powerful writers I've ever come across. I don't suppose that everything under the Paperbacks from Hell banner is going to be up to this level, but it's shocking that she isn't better known.

When Darkness Loves Us starts with the title story, apparently the first thing Engstrom ever wrote, and continues with "Beauty Is …", a longer piece, long enough to be a novel by mid-century standards but perhaps more akin to a novella now.

The pace, economy, strength and horror of both texts are intense. This is the kind of writing that grabs you and sweeps you along. There are no dead spots, no inefficiencies. As a child Engstrom was reportedly a dedicated admirer of Shirley Jackson, and there is a similar perfection to be found here.

There are really only two minor faults that I can think of. One is the titles, which are not strongly connected to the stories, though they do appear in both of them, spoken by a character in one, thought by a character in another.

The other slight imperfection would be the endings. One of these stories ends so abruptly, after generating such incredible interest and suspense, that I turned the page and was genuinely baffled to discover that there wasn't more. That it was over. That's it? The ending of the other story comes at the right time, everything having built inexorably to a conclusion, but the ending itself was a bit of a disappointment. Engstrom is so good that I expected a heavier, more solid, more rigorous conclusion.

Also, this cover is stupid and has nothing to do with the book.

But no matter. This books is one of the most bizarre and exciting I've ever read and I look forward to reading more of her work.

"When Darkness Loves Us" is about a pregnant teenager who gets trapped underground and lost in a maze of tunnels and caverns. With the help of either the ghost or hallucination of her dead boyfriend, she has her baby and makes a life for herself down there in the darkness, where there is no light at all.

Her son grows up there and is quite content in his blind world. He doesn't believe in another world, in sunlight, in the outside, in his father or anything else. His mother thinks she must share this with him.

And all of that is just in the first dozen pages or so. She takes this idea and runs far with it. It's extraordinarily creepy and brilliantly crafted.

"Beauty Is …" goes back and forth between two timelines. In one, a developmentally disabled middle-aged woman named Martha attempts to navigate life on her own after her parents die.

She comprehends little and can communicate less but she can bake bread and feed the chickens and can go into town to buy the supplies she needs to survive.

On one such visit she attracts the attention of some cruel, violent and bored young men, who decide to make her the target of various impulses.

Sadly, this is based on a true story.

The other timeline begins in the past and tells the story of Martha's parents, particularly her mother, how they met and came to the farm in Morgan, Illinois, how her mother discovered that she had supernatural healing powers—deftly and persuasively handled by Engstrom, understatedly and convincingly presented—and how Martha was born and came to suffer a mysterious life-changing trauma.

This earlier timeline ends where the story begins, giving the story an elegant structure and shape.

The first line of "When Darkness Loves Us" is "Sally Ann Hixson, full with the blush of spring and gleeful playfulness as only sixteen-year-olds know it, hid around the side of the huge tree at the edge of the woods as the great tractor drove past her" and the first line of "Beauty Is …" is "Martha Mannes was forty-seven years old when her parents died".