SEPTEMBER 18, 2019
THE MOST TERRIFYING WORK of fiction you may read in 2019 — Elizabeth Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us — first crawled to life as a cheapo paperback in the mid-1980s. Now back in print as part of Valancourt’s Paperbacks from Hell series of ’70s and ’80s horror rediscoveries, Engstrom’s genre masterwork, comprising two harrowing novellas, exemplifies the rarest breed of horror stories: as tender as they are unsettling, as tragic as they are bloody, these are monster tales that sweep the reader along on currents of pained feeling rather than on the familiar beats of the ol’ Creature Feature.
The monsters in both the subterranean title novella and the longer, wrenching “Beauty Is” never recognize themselves as monsters. As the pages whip past, the reader may not see them that way, either, even after steeping in their pained perspectives. Engstrom’s first published works (from 1985), these stories turn on messy births, on daughters and mothers, on women seemingly powerless in the face of their miserable circumstances who still find the strength to reach for something more, for a chance to matter, for love, even if doing so means crawling deep into the bowels of the Earth.
That crawling, which comes early in “When Darkness Loves Us,” is a horrific event. In crisp, persuasive prose, Engstrom adeptly ties physical description to her characters’ psychological states, so that a woman’s accidental descent into an endless network of tunnels reads as a plunge into — well, not madness, exactly, since madness suggests there’s no emotional logic to the ways that a life in the dark changes her — but a new way of being and seeing. It’s a fundamental shift that the reader is forced to make along with her.
The effect is unnerving and extraordinary, more Nell Zink than Stephen King. In both this story and the wilder “Beauty Is,” time and perspective prove so slippery that the jolts, for the most part, don’t come from the bursts of violence that paperback horror fiction usually promises, but come instead from the disorientation of abruptly realizing that the whens and whys, and even the whos, of the stories have shifted. Suddenly the hero is the monster, and even if that comes as a surprise it’s at least understandable.
Offering Engstrom to new potential readers is cause enough to celebrate the Paperbacks from Hell series as a vicious little miracle. Inspired by Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson’s charming 2017 celebration Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, the imprint has brought five unjustly forgotten books back from the dead this summer, complete with killer cover art (often from the original paperback) and introductions by Hendrix and Errickson. (A second batch of reprints is planned for 2020.)
The quintet is, naturally, a mixed bag, with titles that live up to — or down to — the promise of their covers. The series is commendably honest about the grubby genre it surveys. If all the books were as fiercely intelligent as When Darkness Loves Us, or as rich in themes as Bari Wood’s golem-takes-Long-Island thriller The Tribe (from 1981), well, they wouldn’t be Paperbacks from Hell. A cockroach stands triumphant upon a mound of filth on the cover of Gregory A. Douglas’s The Nest (from 1980), and the story inside proves to be an equally exuberant heap of gross-outs nastier than anything a gang of 12-year-olds could dream up.
Just pages in, mutant cockroaches running amok on an island near Cape Cod eat the penis off a nude, drug-addled punk rocker. (“This was ‘a trip’ from which he would never return,” Douglas notes.) Later, that punk’s pal, hopped up on angel dust, flings himself onto a leafy patch of forest and, somewhat confusingly, humps the ground until he climaxes (“Hey, this wasn’t pussy but not bad at all, man!”). An army of cockroaches promptly delivers its own climax: “The man wanted to curse and howl, but there was no sound except hissing air because his throat was gone. It happened so quickly that the man’s body was still shuddering with orgasm when his final breath issued, a crimson foam out of his decapitated torso.”
Douglas clearly doesn’t expect the reader to like these punks — according to the logic of slasher movies popular at the time, these characters in some way deserve their gruesome ends. (If you think any of us is above that kind of primal response to a horror kill, recall how mainstream audiences clapped when the lawyer gets chomped on the toilet in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.) But Douglas doesn’t limit the carnage to unlikable characters, and he’s not afraid to have some fun, such as it is, with the setup. He goes for a sick laugh when his bugs — a “cloak of swarming death” — first sweep over a married couple having spontaneous sex in the bushes. “Harvey Tinton, you take your finger away from there right now!” the wife exclaims.
The sexualized invasion of bodies — including a revolting description of “narrow raping snouts” burrowing into a pair of young girls — is a theme throughout, and while scenes like these may have registered with nothing more than passing revulsion 40 years ago, these sorts of violations trigger much more expansive offense in today’s climate. In any case, it’s not as if the occasional patina of moral outrage actually fools us into not noticing that such passages have been crafted to excite. American artists and writers had secured an unprecedented freedom of expression in the previous decade and a half, and this is what Douglas wanted to do with it?
That’s the nadir of Hendrix and Errickson’s motley collection. Or, for some readers, it may be the apex, a raw provocation unburdened by the artistry of Engstrom’s novellas. Across its first batch of titles, the imprint celebrates the freedom some writers found in horror, which has always been a more elastic genre than literary gatekeepers have been willing to acknowledge. The Tribe and When Darkness Loves Us exhibit thrilling ambition (if Paperbacks from Hell hadn’t reprinted them, the folks at New York Review Books Classics could have), while The Nest reads like what worried parents of that era feared horror novels were like.
While it’s far and away the vilest, The Nest isn’t the only book in the series to emphasize sexualized violence, and men often go in for equal punishment. In four of the five books, at least one male character suffers what I’ve come to think of as the Erection of Doom: a swelling of intense arousal at the worst possible time. In Bernard Taylor’s dated yet riveting gothic The Reaping (from 1980), the EOD arises when an artist is brought to a matriarch’s decrepit mansion to paint a young beauty’s portrait only to find himself bestirred by a massage administered by another guy. In The Tribe, a police detective becomes engorged while hugging a widow still in shock over the recent death of her husband. The paperbacks pulse with anxieties sparked by reckless and untamable male desire — from the perspectives of the men feeling it and the women whose lives it can wreck.
Women’s desires, unsurprisingly, only move the story along in the books written by women: When Darkness Loves Us and The Tribe. Not coincidentally, these are the best, most rewarding volumes in the series so far, their horror rooted in the hearts of outcasts facing a pitiless world. These stories prove less programmatic than the men’s, less screenplay-ready, and it’s the choices the characters make that stir unease rather than the grisly details.
The Tribe mines the golem of Jewish folklore for a searching story of justice and revenge. It kicks off at Nuremberg, moves through the five boroughs of the early ’80s, and then white-flights to the suburbs. There, the avenging clay beast called to life by a “tribe” of Jewish mystics proves too brutal — its rampage suited the systemic terrors of the concentration camp where these men first summoned it, but it doesn’t fit the intimate neighborhood violence of Reagan’s America. Wood is thoughtful about cycles of brutality and life as an outsider; her protagonist, a black police detective, is forever forced to demonstrate to white people that they have no reason to fear him. In The Tribe, as in When Darkness Loves Us, what’s scariest is that the most monstrous acts are always recognizably human.
Thomas Page’s The Spirit (from 1977) also makes a stab at thoughtfulness, but its plot driver — a Native American character goes on a spirit quest — is pretty ham-handed. Still, the book stands as a brisk Bigfoot shocker, complete with a big storm bearing down on a ski resort and management unwilling to evacuate despite all the decapitations. The Nest, too, involves a storm and a refusal to evacuate; the calculated, Hollywood-style tension-raising makes both books tempting to skim.
Other elements common to these reprints include Vietnam trauma, fear of urban decay, a sense that nature has been wronged, and that evergreen terror familiar from most King novels and school shootings: the viciousness of unloved young men. The Reaping proves the smartest and most satisfying of the men’s novels, as it sharply satirizes, through its superb mystery plotting, the tendency of male paperback heroes to get laid every couple of chapters.
All five Paperbacks from Hell offer moments of fascination — and collectively expose Netflix’s Stranger Things as not nearly as strange as actual ’80s horror. The best work as urgent, singular novels, still scary after all these years — I creeped out my wife simply by describing the plot of When Darkness Loves Us. The rest catalog, in high-spirited (and in one case revolting) pulp, the secret obsessions of our not-too-distant past, horrors that, if not exactly mainstream, still somehow permeated the culture. Hendrix and Errickson have kicked up a rock, and what’s scuttling beneath is truly disturbing, in both the best way and the worst.