My first experience with Elizabeth Engstrom was a wildly surprising, horrifying set of novellas called When Darkness Loves Us. Her full-length novel Black Ambrosia, published in 1986, almost didn’t see the light of day. Haha, that’s a pun, and you’ll see why in a minute. Thanks to horror author Grady Hendrix, Engstrom’s books are finding new readers, like me, today.
Black Ambrosia is a confusing novel that made me feel more immersed the longer it went on. We start with Angela, a girl whose mother remarries. Then, the mother dies, and the step-father and Angela feel no need to stay together. He comes into her room at night, and while you expect something untoward, he simply cries for his late wife and asks Angela to pray with him. Later, we learn he had gone into her room to kill her, but lost the will, and he blames himself for not being stronger. What the heck?
Angela leaves town by hitchhiking for ages, like it’s her job. Yes, she runs into a perverted driver, but she takes care of him by ripping out his throat and drinking his blood. Eventually, she lives with a man who is in love with her, and somehow she works it out so that she sleeps all day, almost coma-like, and is awake at night — never going out in daylight. But one night she heads to a town dance while the man is away for a funeral and meets Boyd, and although it wasn’t obvious to me, in some way over the course of one day they are bound almost telepathically. Engstrom could have done better here, or not chosen Boyd, but the man Angela lived with. Nothing obvious happened in those twenty-four hours to make Boyd special.
At the town dance, out back where folks notoriously have sex in the bushes and smoke and drink, Angela sees a girl slap her boyfriend for saying something lewd, and sensing his pain, she gets him alone and tears out his throat, drinking his blood and bringing him what she sees as peace and love:
I hunted for pain. I found the confused, the hurting, the oppressed, and I loved them into death, into peace, into calm, into eternity.
The novel continues on with Angela tearing into people like a wild animal, filling them with “love” while she hears a song of sorts.
What is this song? Some entity — Her — is pleased when Angela kills, and when Angela comes to her senses to realize she’s a human being without friends, family, or home, She punishes Angela, crippling her, starving her, punishing her. The novel reaches its climax as Angela realizes those she takes leave their memories inside her, and the older a person, the more memories they have, which consume her. There is only one alternative, and this is why I won’t recommend this book to many of my readers: she begins killing children.
Engstrom is one of those writers who will “go there,” take you to the place that makes you so uncomfortable, whether it’s about death, sex, motherhood, whatever. I haven’t read anything contemporary that crosses that line and makes you live there for a long time in the book. When Darkness Loves Us was the same way.
Oddly, for much of the story I was confused; was Angela a person lured in by a queen vampire or demonic spirit, was she a person with mental illnesses, is she herself a vampire or a teen girl? Angela admits, “I certainly never intended to become a vampire,” but I don’t trust her. Angela longs to learn to be a person again:
The loneliness was suddenly overwhelming. I felt a need to share with someone the terrors of the night, the confusion about my past that strangled my thoughts. I needed someone to talk to, to be with. I needed to learn the definition of the word remorse, but to see how other people lived with it. And remorse wasn’t the only word I didn’t understand. Altruism was another. So were compromise and sacrifice. All those social words.
Boyd, who can see through Angela’s eyes in jolts, tracks her across the country to get her medical help. At times, Black Ambrosia reads like Angela is a drug addict who keeps hurting people and needs help. Other times, it’s like she’s the victim of a religious cult, like when she realizes, “I was pleasing Her, and surrounded by the protection of Her powerful influence, I felt safe.”
Engstrom isn’t clear, but what I do appreciate is the way I was lured in by Angela. What she’s doing, such as living in an apartment and working a third-shift job, seems so normal to her, but then Engstrom cuts in a brief interview with the police or a co-worker, and it’s revealed to readers that Angela is living in a rat-infested hovel full of feces, and that she was saying odd sexual things on the phone to customers. We don’t see any of that from Angela’s point of view, so Engstrom constantly plays with our reality.
A challenging read that hard-core horror fans who like movies like Hereditary will enjoy.