Thanks to Grady Hendrix’s compendium of horror from the 1970s and 1980s, interest was renewed in many novels that were out of print or forgotten. As a result, readers can now easily get their hands on When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom.
Published in 1985, Engstrom’s book includes two tales of horror. The first, “When Darkness Loves Us,” is a longer short story. Sally Ann is a teen newlywed blushing with her physical attraction to her husband, a young farmer named Michael. Playing a bit of a game one day, she sneaks around the field while he’s working to investigate an odd door that leads into the ground. She’s heard it used to be a hiding place for slaves, and down she goes. In complete darkness, she is quickly lost in the seemingly unending caves and tunnels. Just as she sees the light to get out, she hears Michael close and lock the door, claiming no future child of his will get lost down there. Is Michael simply a safety-first man? Was the door always open? Because it being open did not signal to him someone had gone down!
What readers quickly realize is that Sally Ann is newly pregnant, though it seems as if she’s very pregnant in quick order. Time feels slippery, and I wondered if she wasn’t pregnant at all, just hallucinating in the complete dark. To calm her loneliness, Sally Ann conjures up not Michael, but her first fiance, who died in Vietnam name Jackie. As time passes, the baby is born and Jackie helps her raise the boy, a boy who has never not lived in the dark.
Engstrom plays with fear. What can’t Sally Ann see? What is that noise? Is she having a mental health breakdown? I questioned if the author was leaning toward cerebral horror or reality, which drove me to keep reading. I constantly found myself uttering “Please Don’t” as Sally Ann navigated the story, but she failed to hear my pleas. As the young woman acclimates to a horrifying setting, I started to ask why she was doing certain things, which also pushed the story along. Does she get out? Is there a son? What the heck is Michael doing all this time? Then ending had me a bit freaked out!
The second part of the book is a novella entitled “Beauty Is…” Martha is a special needs woman in her 50s. She has cognitive delays that prevent her from basic reasoning, like using money, avoiding a dirty house, and mowing. The entire town is extremely kind to her, which readers see in a multitude of examples. Of course, this being a horror novella, you’re thinking they’re going to use her. She seems to have money from somewhere, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Engstrom builds a strong trust with readers over many chapters, and seeing such kindness, even in fiction, was something I didn’t know I needed.
“Beauty Is…” moves back and forth in time every other chapter. First, there’s Martha. Then, we get her mother, Fern, and how Fern came to live in the town after marrying a farmer’s son. Things are hard, but Fern proves herself a determined, caring wife, and I liked her immediately. But early on we learn Fern has a gift she didn’t know she had: the ability to see inside a body, find exactly what’s wrong, and remove the sickness. Her husband feels threatened that she’s paid so well in gifts and money after everyone in town uses her services in emergency situations, and he’s convinced that all good things come with a price. Their future children, he claims, will be unwell because she’s making people well. And when little Martha is born with only a membrane where a nose should be, but is healthy otherwise, he feels anger, outright rejecting his child and avoiding his family by working.
To be clear, the father and a couple of other characters heap abuse on Martha her whole life, calling her slurs. But Fern’s love for her daughter does not deter her, and she has the warm support of almost everyone in town. The tension between the mother and father is the horror in this novella. And, when Fern leaves to help with a double car collision, telling Martha she’ll be right back and don’t move, things come to a head. Martha is found in the barn unable to speak or reason, must be trained again to walk, use the toilet, to speak.
Finding out what happened to Martha is a big motivation to finish the novella, but the present time line is just as interesting. When a man in his twenties begins helping Martha fix up her house, and eventually moves in, her disability slowly dissolves. No one can believe it. But is he using a woman more than twice his age for money? Is it a real relationship? Or is he staying to protect her from the town punk, who is hellbent on harassing Martha?
At first I thought Engstrom chose certain twists because they were the scarier choice, but I realized that she hadn’t twisted anything. Kindness begets beauty, and hatred is an ugliness that gets stored away. “Beauty Is…” doesn’t sound so much like a horror tale, but Engstrom does include some graphic scenes, including little Martha’s birth and what happens the first time she cried. I gagged a wee bit. There was always a subtle feeling of discomfort as I read, which is right where I like to be.
A highly recommended collection with two great scary stories sure to keep you on the edge of your seat!