I’ve read a lot of books. Some have been modest little stories; entertaining, but slight. And that’s fine. Others are written by craftspeople. Meticulous prose with riveting plots. Then there are writers who elevate fiction into works of art. Elizabeth Engstrom falls into the latter category.
I first encountered the work of Elizabeth Engstrom in a book called When Darkness Loves Us. I heard that Engstom had been mentored by the great Theodore Sturgeon, and that alone was enough to convince me to give it a try. When Darkness Loves Us is a collection of two novellas. That’s common today, but back in 1985 it was nearly unthinkable. Especially for a virtually unknown author.
Both stories in When Darkness Loves Us are excellent, but the title piece is more than that. It is a masterpiece.
As much as I love When Darkness Loves Us, it isn’t my favorite Engstrom. One of her novels hit me harder, in the places that really count. That novel is called Lizard Wine.
Lizard Wine was published in 1995, but I read it a couple of decades later, on a cold, very lonely Christmas Eve. Just last week I finished reading a long epic novel (Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, to be precise), and I wanted something very different. Lizard Wine is a tight, intimate, claustrophobic story.
The novel deals with six characters, all of whom are haunted by their pasts and tortured by their present lives. Three itinerant house painters are out to party on a frigid night. One is a thoughtful, decent guy who fled the constrictions of a normal 9-5 job and family. Another is amiable, but emotionally damaged. The third man is a sociopath with a history of violence against women.
Three coeds take off for a night of wild partying, on a road trip to a rural area where they can find some risky action. One hardened woman intends to turn some tricks for the thrill of it. A naive Mormon girl is in awe of her and will follow her lead. The third young woman is more sensible, but has a weakness for dangerous bad boys.
These lost souls wind up stuck together in an old station wagon, in the midst of an icy snowfall. Violence is in the air, as these desperate, broken individuals battle wits and wills as each of them try to survive the night.
Lizard Wine could almost work as a play, as most of the story takes place in and around a parked automobile. The story moves along with dialogue rather than a lot of action. There are, however, flashback chapters devoted to each character, detailing how and why each came to be in the desolate place in the car, as well as in their own lives.
This is a tense story that delves into the depths of human despair and misery, yet it is not without redemptive qualities.
Lizard Wine is one of those books that had a deeper resonance with upon re-reading it. The characters felt even more real, and while I certainly didn’t like them all, I ended up having sympathetic feelings toward each of them. All six are, in their own ways, victims, and while the actions of some are deplorable and unforgivable, sometimes understanding can bring about pity for even the reprehensible individuals.
Elizabeth Engstrom has quietly produced some of the best damned horror fiction on the planet, but I never seemed to hear a whole lot about her on the message boards or on social media. Thank God all that is changing, thanks to Valancourt Books and their Paperbacks From Hell line. When Darkness Loves Us and Black Ambrosia, both by Engstrom, have already been published, and you should buy them. I have little doubt that you will enjoy these books, and then I recommend that you hunt down a copy of Lizard Wine.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.