A hand sprouting within a wallet. Jars of jam and something more sinister. Sounds that capture death. Elizabeth Engstrom’s Nightmare Flower offers a plentitude of strangeness in rapid succession. There’s no knowing what may happen next.
First published in 1992, Nightmare Flower presents 18 short tales and two longer pieces, including a novella. This Valancourt Books edition launches the independent press’ series highlighting overlooked horror literature by women in conjunction with the authors of Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction (2019), Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson. The Women of Weird Tales, set to release this year, and a book of short stories by Lisa Tuttle have been announced to follow. Valancourt is no stranger to Engstrom, however: her novels Black Ambrosia (1988) and When Darkness Loves Us (1985) feature in the press’s Paperbacks from Hell series.
Kröger’s introduction aptly identifies Engstrom’s charmingly macabre tone as “horror hygge”, both disarmingly cosy and unsettling. Pairing cannibalism, disembodied parts, and horror tales that come to presciently pass in the lives of her characters with the mundane distress of end of life care and broken marriages, Engstrom showcases the surreal everyday. Her stories are moreover attuned particularly to women in the larger framework of family life and individual struggle, reinforcing the horrors of domesticity in a manner reminiscent of Shirley Jackson. Likewise, several of her stories feature the psychological distress of women vying for composure and autonomy in a world riddled by violence, poverty, and loss. Indeed, the core of Nightmare Flower honours women, from a young girl keeping her family together after her father’s disappearance to an elderly woman’s thoughtful decision to end her life. In “A Living Legacy”, Engstrom writes, “The more she worked, the more she understood the heart of womanhood,” a sentiment that, though her plots and characters vary greatly, invigorates several stories across the book. Her depiction of eroticism further embellishes her analysis of womanhood; Engstrom never shies away from forthrightly portraying sex, or assault and its aftermath. The most prominent example is the titular story, which features a rather heavy-handed depiction of a phallic flower whose presence in a young couple’s garden induces the husband’s vicious masculinity. Though “Nightmare Flower” may benefit from more subtlety in its themes, the utter peculiarity makes it among the book’s most memorable.
Despite the brevity of much of Engstrom’s work in Nightmare Flower – the plurality is short vignettes, often only a few pages long – her dexterity in such tales is remarkable. The ordinary settings twist to reveal their dark underpinnings and chaotic, sometimes tragic, conclusions. Of her short tales, “Will Lunch Be Ready On Time?”, “The Jeweler’s Thumb is Turning Green”, and “Genetically Predisposed”, in addition to “Nightmare Flower”, illustrate Engstrom’s significant talent in weaving weird fiction with horror. Although the book tends toward the former genre, its moments of outright horror are splendidly disturbing.
The concluding novella largely diverges from weird fiction, and instead dips into science-fiction horror as Engstrom explores a government-funded town undergoing a secret and deadly experiment. Approximately a third of Nightmare Flower, “Project Stone” closes the book on a less powerful note than the earlier stories might provide. Though enjoyable in its own right, the novella lacks the verve and one-two punch her short tales achieve. Nevertheless, Nightmare Flower’s array of haunting imagery and attention to the complexity of women’s lives in the midst of such strangeness prove Engstrom to be a unique and utterly creative voice in twentieth-century speculative fiction.
Nightmare Flower by Elizabeth Engstrom is published by Valancourt Books.
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