Engstrom, Elizabeth 1951-
ENGSTROM, Elizabeth 1951-
PERSONAL: Born Bette Lynn Gutzmer, May 11, 1951, in Elmhurst, IL; daughter of E. Robert and Dorothy Piper; married Evan Engstrom (marriage ended); married Alan Cratty; children: Nicole, Eron.
CAREER: Horror writer, 1984—; writing instructor, 1990—; director of Maui Writers School Department of Continuing Education. Has also worked as an advertising copywriter and executive. Military service: United States Naval Reserve, 1990-98.
MEMBER: Horror Writers Association.
When Darkness Loves Us, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.
Black Ambrosia, Tor (New York, NY), 1988.
Lizzie Borden, Tor (New York, NY), 1991.
Lizard Wine, Dell (New York, NY), 1995.
Black Leather, TripleTree (Eugene, OR), 2003.
Nightmare Flower, Tor (New York, NY), 1992.
The Alchemy of Love: A Collaborative Endeavor, illustrated by Alan M. Clark, TripleTree (Eugene, OR), 1998.
(Editor) Dead on Demand: The Best of Ghost StoryWeekend, TripleTree (Eugene, OR), 2001.
Suspicions, TripleTree (Eugene, OR), 2002.
(Compiler, with John Tullius) The Maui WritersConference Presents Word by Word: An Inspirational Look at the Craft of Writing, Writers House Books (Eugene, OR), 2000.
(Author of introduction) John Tullius, Pronto! Writings from Rome, TripleTree (Eugene, OR), 2002.
Contributor of numerous short stories and essays to magazines and anthologies.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Tackle Shop, chronicles of a fictional Midwestern town; Martini Moon, an Outward Bound-type of adventure gone wrong.
SIDELIGHTS: Although Elizabeth Engstrom is often described as a horror writer, her fiction is not so easily classified. In works of horror, mystery, and fantasy, Engstrom chooses to focus on psychological nuances rather than supernatural forces. Beginning in 1985 with When Darkness Loves Us, Engstrom has created characters that usually perpetrate their crimes because they are mentally unsound or emotionally crushed. When Darkness Loves Us is actually two novellas condensed into one package. The first, from which the book takes it name, is the story of a woman who is trapped in a cave for twenty years, then escapes to the earth's surface to find that a series of distressing changes have taken place in the world. The second of the book's novellas, entitled "Beauty Is," is a tale about middle-aged Martha Mannes, a woman who is both physically deformed and mentally retarded. Having spent her entire life living on her parents' farmstead, Martha faces a whole set of new challenges when her parents suddenly pass away. The critical response to When Darkness Loves Us was somewhat mixed. Several reviewers nixed the title novella, while enjoying "Beauty Is." However, in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, Don D'Ammassa did call the first tale a "dark fable," which he felt "[read] like a modern fairy tale with a perverse twist." D'Ammassa also wrote that the story had an "effective blend of rural realism and the surreal." James B. Hemesath of Library Journal, on the other hand, called the first story "an embarrassment" and "totally unbelievable." Hemesath went on to laud "Beauty Is," declaring it "worth the price of the book." Feeling the first tale was "weird and bizarre," Pam Spencer went on to write that it suffered "from clichéd writing, although this is not a problem with 'Beauty Is.'" A contributor to Publishers Weekly dismissed both of the stories, feeling that they may "demand a more arduous suspension of disbelief than most people may be able to achieve."
In 1988 Engstrom published Black Ambrosia, the tale of a deluded young woman who thinks she is a vampire. Black Ambrosia was Engstrom's first real critical success. Labeling the book "effective," a contributor to Science Fiction Chronicle went on to write that Engstrom's "development of atmosphere and mood is superior." Barbara Jo McKee of Voice of Youth Advocates called it a "story that draws you in with every horrible detail." D'Ammassa felt the main character's "madness is one of the most convincing characterizations to occur in a horror novel."
Engstrom ventured into historical fiction with her 1991 novel Lizzie Borden. Using trial transcripts and old newspaper reports, Engstrom pieces together the tale of the 1892 axe murderess and possible victim of multiple personalities. Lizzie Borden earned a warm response from critics. Joan Hinkemeyer of Library Journal called it a "fast-paced book," in which Engstrom has "woven a fascinating, fresh tale." A Kirkus Reviews critic felt that Engstrom's "rather stiff-kneed and openfaced style states horror more than tingles with it." The same contributor wrote that the book contained "a complex concept that needs subtler treatment." While D'Ammassa felt the book was "of peripheral interest," a Publishers Weekly contributor praised the author for the way she "skillfully and subtly builds a psychological plot."
In 1995 Engstrom published the novel Lizard Wine, a tale of three women's harrowing experience when they decide to go to a cowboy bar to drink and party. On their way to the bar, their car breaks down during a rainstorm. When they decide to head off, looking for a phone, the girls, all students at the University of Oregon, run into three social outcasts, one of whom fixes the car. Two of the girls head to the bar as originally planned, but the third, Tulie, decides to stay and party with the three men, who she thinks are just regular guys. In different ways, all the girls encounter their share of trouble and violence during the rest of the night. Lizard Wine caught the notice of some critics. Calling it a "mesmerizing read," Emily Melton of Booklist felt the work was "dark" and "disturbing," as well as "powerful and deeply affecting."
In addition to her novels, Engstrom has published numerous short stories. Her first compilation was 1992's Nightmare Flower, which contains twenty horror and fantasy stories. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called it a "genuinely imaginative and diverse collection," containing "subtle evocations of terror and evil." Calling the work "a horror collection in the classic vein," a Kirkus Reviews critic believed its stories were "inventive and fanciful, pat and pulpy, goose-bump yarns."
Engstrom is aware she is sometimes stereotyped as a "horror writer" because of her novels. "My work can be found, oddly enough, under horror, literature, biography, historical, mystery, and fiction," she said on the Writers Review Web site. "I would prefer that it was just found under 'fiction.'" In her 2002 collection Suspicions, the author demonstrates the versatility of her writing with stories that range from horror and fantasy to science fiction and even erotica. The author ties them together by examining themes of suspicion in each one. A Kirkus Reviews critic observed that the collection has "wide-ranging stories despite the theme that binds them, but unfortunately [they are] also wide-ranging in quality." Booklist contributor Regina Schroeder, however, praised the twists contained in Suspicions and concluded, "These stories make up a hefty, genre-crossing pie, spiced with images capable of snagging the imagination."
Engstrom returned to suspense in her 2003 novel Black Leather. The plot revolves around two very different sisters—Irene is an assertive, successful attorney, while her sister, Cynthia, is struggling with depression and a failing marriage. Cynthia follows her sister on a trip to Los Angeles, where she discovers Irene's secret life, haunting sleazy bars and indulging in sexual fetishes. When a Navajo man both Cynthia and Irene have slept with turns up dead, Cynthia is accused of his murder and Irene takes her case. Cynthia, however, believes Irene may have framed her and asks her estranged husband Joseph to investigate. As Joseph explores Irene's secret life, he becomes involved with his sister-in-law despite his growing suspicions. The erotic and psychological entanglements make for compelling reading, according to a Midwest Book Review critic, who called Black Leather "an artfully written and highly recommended erotic and psychological suspense from first page to last."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Booklist, January 1, 1996, Emily Melton, review of Lizard Wine, p. 786; January 1, 2002, Regina Schroeder, review of Suspicions, p. 824.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1990, review of LizzieBorden p. 1479; August 15, 1992, review of Nightmare Flower, pp. 1007-1008; February 1, 2002, review of Suspicions, p. 140.
Library Journal, February 1, 1985, James B. Hemesath, review of When Darkness Loves Us, p. 112; December, 1990, Joan Hinkemeyer, review of Lizzie Borden, p. 160; March 15, 2001, review of Dead on Demand: The Best of Ghost Story Weekend, p. 90.
Midwest Book Review, October, 2003, review of BlackLeather.
Publishers Weekly, December 14, 1984, review of When Darkness Loves Us, pp. 39-40; December 7, 1990, review of Lizzie Borden, p. 70; August 10, 1992, review of Nightmare Flower, p. 55; February 11, 2002, review of Suspicions, p. 167.
Science Fiction Chronicle, June, 1988, review of BlackAmbrosia, p. 52.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1988, Barbara Jo McKee, review of Black Ambrosia, p. 130.
Elizabeth Engstrom Web site,http://www.elizabethengstrom.com/ (October 24, 2003).
Writers Review, "An Interview with . . . Elizabeth Engstrom," http://jez.cc/writersreview/authors/elizabeth_engstrom.htm/ (October 24, 2003).*