Black Ambrosia is Elizabeth Engstom's first novel. She scored big with a previous book called When Darkness Loves Us, which contains two novellas. Black Ambrosia was first published in 1988, and is now back in print as part of the Paperbacks From Hell line of titles from Valancourt Books.

In an Introduction, Paperbacks From Hell guru Grady Hendrix reveals that Engstrom had a difficult time getting Black Ambrosia published. I'm not surprised. It isn't traditional horror. It damned sure isn't splatterpunk, which was the flavor of the day back in '88. No, Black Ambrosia seems to me to have been a few years ahead of its time, and would have fit very nicely in the celebrated Dell/Abyss line of horror books in the 90's.

Black Ambrosia is one of those books that will infuriate some and please others. It has what some call an unreliable narrator. A young woman, Angelina, runs from her broken home and takes to the road on a killing spree. Angelina may be a vampire, she may be some sort of succubus, or she might be insane. It's a surreal journey as the reader inhabits her troubled mind and accompanies her on her violent path. Yet she never sees herself as a villain, or indeed as doing any harm. Instead Angelina believes she is bestowing love upon needy and deserving individuals.

The narrative is brought to earth with italicized segments that end every chapter which contain thoughts of others she encounters. Most of them are from a young man who seems to bear a kind of psychic bond with Angelina and is obsessivley pursuing her.

I don't feel that this is Engstom's best novel. While I still have not read all her work, I enjoyed books like Lizard Wine and Guys Named Bob more than Black Ambrosia. Not that this is a bad book. It's more than most genre authors are capable of producing. I did feel that the pacing dragged a bit here and there, and I fought temptations to skim. But I held on and soon the story got back into gear.

Black Ambrosia is the darkest book I've read so far from Elizabeth Engstrom. There are some truly nightmarish segments in the novel, yet she never lingers on the ghastly details and they never become exploitative. Angelina is a genuine monster, despite the innocence she believes she possesses. Engstrom imbues her damaged characters with such empathy that, so far, I've never been able to truly hate one of them. Her work may induce discomfort, but it always works on a profound emotional level.

Do I recommend Black Ambrosia? Hell yes. Maybe not as the starting gate for her work. When Darkness Loves Us is a genuine masterpiece, and Guys Named Bob is an astonishing novel. Either would be a better one to begin with.

Written by Mark Sieber

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