Paperbacks From Hell: Black Ambrosia

The top of Angelina's cane. A closer look at the cover of Black Ambrosia.

Angelina Watson wasn’t bitten by a vampire.

She didn’t wake up to find a bat hanging in the shadowed corner of her room. She didn’t wander through a cemetery at night or succumb to the hypnotic song of an undead siren. And yet, after reading Elizabeth Engstrom’s Black Ambrosia (available from Valancourt Books), I’m still fairly certain that she wasn’t born a vampire, but became a vampire. 

After the death of her mother, fifteen-year-old Angelina sets out on her own to explore the world and find her place in it. But what starts as an On the Road-style hitchhike turns sour when she meets two degenerate hillbillies out in the woods. After a bit of wary banter, the men invite Angelina to join them for supper, and against her better judgement, she says yes. Of course, they never intended to feed her, and Angelina soon finds herself trapped with the two creeps far off the road near a secluded lake.

What none of them know is that Angelina isn’t just any young woman. When one of the men tries to force himself on her, Angelina fights back with near supernatural strength, flinging the man with more power than her skinny arms could ever muster. It’s as if some primal force had awoken inside her. Something she didn’t know she possessed.

When Angelina wakes the next morning, the man is dead, his throat shredded. Could she have done such a thing? Of course she could.

And thus begins Angelina’s life-long battle with Her. 

You see, that primal force isn’t just a feeling. It’s a being. A supernatural something that appears as a pair of hungry red lips whispering eagerly into the young woman’s ear. Although She wants blood, her promises of pleasure and fulfillment aren’t all that different than the urge to have one more drink at the end of the night or the internal bargain to over cheating on your diet just one more time.

As Angelina makes her way from town to town, a pattern begins to emerge. At first she tries to integrate with society. She gets a job, an apartment, a pet cat. But it’s only a matter of time before the promise of bloody pleasure lures her back to more primal activities.

It’s the same pattern writ large. An addiction she just can’t seem to break. And as her crimes begin to catch up with her, Angelina finds herself faced with a choice: she can continue fighting her desires or let go and become the monster she seems destined to become.

Black Ambrosia is a masterclass in dark fiction writing. Whether it’s balancing the casual dialogue of the townsfolk with heightened internal monologues (“The night was new and I was a lover.”) or describing the intricate logic of increasing madness, Elizabeth Engstrom wields her power over the written word with the ease of someone completely in the zone. She knows this story so well it’s like she’s lived it, and in a way, perhaps she has.

In the forward to When Darkness Loves Us (released by Valancourt Books in May 2019), Grady Hendrix shares some of Engstrom’s history, including her struggle with an alcohol addiction that lead her into some unsavory territories.

“I hung with the underbelly of society,” she told Hendrix. “And the worse they were, the better I felt about myself. I had friends in really low places, and they were the people I was comfortable with. No identity, living in the shadows, only coming out at night.”

This journey with addiction is woven into the very fabric of Black Ambrosia, and its inclusion makes the book so very much more than vampire tale you see on the surface. As opposed to writers like Stephen King who put their struggles front and center in their stories, Engstrom’s use of addiction is more elemental. In Black Ambrosia, Engstrom peels away the specifics of any one addiction to show the fundamental hunger for destruction living in us all. 

With addiction, “you start to become the monster a little bit,” Engstrom told Hendrix. “You become the monster, then you justify the monster, then you glorify the monster.”

The story of Angelina Watson isn’t really the story of a vampire. It’s the story of our fear of ourselves and the terror of what that monster inside, given the chance, could be. 

***

I’m forever grateful to Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson for bringing Paperbacks from Hell into the world. Thanks to them, these treasures from the history of horror fiction have found a new, mainstream life. 

But they’re not doing it alone. It’s the incredible people at Valancourt Books who took this passion for paperbacks and breathed new life into it with their limited series of releases, also named Paperbacks from Hell.

Each book is beautifully produced with original artwork and forwards by Hendrix and Errickson. If you like your fiction dark, deep, and a little bit depraved, please go support them and pick up one (or two, or three, or 10) of these books.

Front cover for Grady Hendrix history of horror fiction, "Paperbacks from Hell."

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