When Darkness Loves Us, Elizabeth Engstrom - a review
Elizabeth Engstrom takes us beneath the surface of civilisation and asks us to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
The introduction helped put these two novellas into perspective. Both are unique tales of horror about how monsters are made, and both have strong female protagonists who become twisted by the environments they are trapped inside.
The title story (the shorter of the two) is about a young pregnant wife who is trapped underground, while her family assumes she ran away. She gives birth alone except for the ghost of a friend she loved and lost (who may or may not be an aspect of a mind fractured by trauma). She and her baby survive, but what remains becomes monstrous without the cushion and restrictions of family, comfort and civilisation. When she escapes in an impossible way and returns twenty years later she feels betrayed by those she loves and who loved her. The tale ends in twisted revenge. It's a satisfying story, albeit frequently ridiculous, which just adds to the reader's sense of WTF!?!
The second story "Beauty Is..." is another strange tale, as much dark fantasy as horror. Some of the terms used are hateful and offensive by 80's (when it was written) and modern standards, but I suspect (or hope) this was done for effect. It made me feel dirty and uncomfortable even glossing over the minds of some of the protagonists. It's told along two timelines, mother's and daughter's. The daughter, Martha, is taken care of by the small community who owe her mother a debt that can never be repaid. Although some of the younger members see her as prey. At the start it seems as though the mental capacity of Martha and her physical deformity were as a result of a difficult birth and have always been a part of her, but as the story progresses we are encouraged to question this assumption. The more Martha is loved and listened to the more beautiful and intelligent she seems.
Thus the theme of monsters being created by society (or lack thereof) spans across both stories. But Martha isn't a monster... well not until the very end.
Neither stories are perfect. Some of the events are difficult to swallow and the narratives feel rushed at times, but they are unique and they evoke strong emotional responses. I am very glad I discovered a new (to me) horror author who is also female.