I feel like, by this point, my love of all things Paperbacks From Hell and Valancourt Books is well-established. If you follow that first link you’ll see my review for the book that started me down this path as well as the first installment in Valancourt’s PFH series, The Nest. I’ve also written about the imprint’s Stage Fright as well Manhattan Ghost Story, which I first found out about through the original book. Now I’m getting back to the original series with the second installment in Valancourt’s Paperbacks From Hell line, When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom. Wow, it was good.
I actually started this one about a month back when we were visiting my in-laws. One of the kids was having a hard time falling asleep, so I offered to stay in the room. At the time I was reading a paperback (Dreamcatcher, I think) and needed to keep the lights off, so I perused the possibilities on my iPad. There I saw the shattered doll of Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us staring back at me. Since I had ordered a physical copy to go with the digital version I already had, it seemed like a good choice. And boy, was it.
This book actually features two separate stories: “When Darkness Loves Us” and “Beauty Is…” As it happened, I read “Darkness” all in one sitting in that near-dark New England bedroom. It may only be just over 60 pages, but it floored me. This story follows the harrowing story of a young newlywed named Sally who accidentally gets trapped in a series of caves on her family property. Worse yet? She’s pregnant.
Maybe it was the dark setting I read this story by, but I could just FEEL the claustrophobia oozing from my tablet. You’ve got this mind-melting situation, but Sally makes the very conscious decision not to let the circumstances break her. I really don’t want to give away very much, because Engstrom weaves an expert tale that constantly reminded me of my favorite quote from Crime and Punishment: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.”
Sally does her best to raise her son Clint in this subterranean world, the only one he has ever known. This leads to several struggles and more than a few behaviors that break the rules of the surface world, but who’s to say that those laws should be followed by two people in a different realm? Engstrom deals with issues like this and expands on them to create a beautiful, ugly, heartbreaking story not just about surviving, but thriving in unorthodox circumstances and what that does to you mentally. As the kids say, I was shook when I finished this story, but in all the right ways!
“Beauty Is…” is the longer of the two tales, but I still went through that one fairly quickly too. In it we meet a woman named Martha who seems to suffer from a learning disability of some sort. She’s been taken care of by her parents her whole life into adulthood, but they’re both dead now and she’s trying to figure out how to live on her own. She bakes too much bread and feeds it to chickens who are dying from malnutrition and she didn’t like going in the barn, so all the livestock died.
But, after Martha starts going into town on her own and making friends, especially with folks like Leon being nice to her and taking an actual interest, life starts to change for her. This positive attention seems to open up her mind and she begins to learn more about the world. Meanwhile, we learn about the extraordinary gift her mother had and how it never sat well with her father. Things turned dark in the household when baby Martha was born without a proper nose. Doctors tried to fix it, but it didn’t seem to take and she was left with a face that kids ridiculed. Unfortunately, it’s not just children who can be cruel.
With “Beauty,” Engstrom once again builds a fascinating character who will not let mounting circumstances destroy her. Martha reminds me of that basic idea that you can’t ask for what you don’t know exists. Once the world is opened up to her, she finds so much joy in it, but also danger from external and internal sources. I’m still not sure how I feel about this story’s ending, which elicited a pitying, “Oh no…” but I respect Engstrom’s choices and the way she crafted a yarn I’m still thinking about all this time later.
As Grady Hendrix points out in the fantastic intro, both of these stories deal with monsters and how they’re made. When folks are disenfranchised, they can feel like there’s not much point in following the rules. More than that, it seems like every monster can be traced back to a bigger monster in their past. It’s a fascinating exploration of what some might call evil and what others might see as pure survival.
I am now a huge Elizabeth Engstrom fan and not just because she liked one of my tweets and even followed me on Twitter, which BLEW MY MIND (you can follow her here)! Right now I have Engstrom’s short story collection Nightmare Flower sitting on my To-Read shelf. That’s part of Valancourt’s Monster, She Wrote series which, like Paperbacks From Hell, spins out of the book of the same that chronicles female horror and genre writers from the 1600s through to the modern day. I’m making my way through that right now. I also very seriously considered breaking my self-imposed rule and buying her later PFH entry Black Ambrosia, but I’m trying to at least buy those in order.
I guess we’ll have to see how things shake out as this Halloween season moves along. I’m not the fastest reader in the world, but I just finished Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied, which I’ll be posting about soon, and have so many options after that!