Childgrave (1982) by Ken Greenhall

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As placenames go, Childgrave is a pretty ominous one. That however doesn’t deter Jonathan the single-parent photographer as he tracks down Sara the honestly a bit dull harpist in his quest to win her heart. The price of passion, oh, just your daughter for the town’s annual cannibalistic sacrifice.

Ken Greenhall, occasionally writing as Jessica Hamilton, cornered the smart narrator market pretty well between this and his novel Elizabeth, the one about the unhinged witch-child in training. Here, the narrator is a smartass newyorker, something like a less nebbish seventies’ Woody Allen (and without the accusations). Yes, there’s humour in a horror novel, although the horror side of things is pretty mild for the first two thirds of the novel.

This is a slow burn, with things beginning to get out of whack only when photographs of Sara and Jonathan’s daughter Joanne reveal spectral apparitions of people who Joanne has been talking to since meeting Sara for the first time. The pace quickens more when Jonathan travels to the titular town and reaches its peak when the history behind the town’s naming is revealed. It’s good stuff, although Jonathan’s jocular manner does begin to grate just a little bit before it fades away in favour of some old-timey horrors.

Some of the character motivations are also a bit dodgy, with Jonathan’s quest for love feeling just a little bit silly for a supposedly adult character. And curiously Sara, the object of his desire, is barely elevated above just that, an object. The tiny cast is rounded up by Jonathan’s agent, a lifelong bachelor who finds love in Sara’s female agent. Yes, it’s a lot like a Woody Allen film, with birds of a feather flocking together in old New York and so on.

Greenhall’s writing is entertaining and above par for sure, but it does become a little much. Occasionally, he seems more interested in showing off rather than telling the story. For Elizabeth, a more contained and effective one-two punch, it worked. Here, it begins to feel inauthentic. Whatever Childgrave’s flaws may be, there is enough suspense here to last the whole novel, and the payoff is as nice as a cupful of child’s blood served with slices of tender meat.

**** (4/5)

Elizabeth (1976) by Ken Greenhall

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Elizabeth is a teenage witch, but not the fun kind. Instead she’s a cold, calculating young lady who knows what she wants and how to get it. And she’s the narrator of her tale, which makes this trip into her fourteen-year old mind a somewhat disquieting read.

Elizabeth discovers her inherited talents through Frances, her ancestor and a condemned witch, who appears to her as a ghost in mirrors. For a while it seems Elizabeth might just have an overactive imagination, but as things keep escalating, the novel takes a hard turn towards the supernatural. There’s a reason and a background to Elizabeth’s discoveries, and unlike some of her female relatives, Elizabeth embraces her heritage with relish. Getting her parents killed is only the beginning as she begins to unveil her forbidden talents while living at her grandmother’s house in lower Manhattan.

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Swedish edition

Written by Ken Greenhall under a pseudonym, Elizabeth is a wonderfully written, sharp, short novel of just the perfect length, rich with detail and idea. Elizabeth’s cool voice is pitch-perfect, almost charming, enticing compassion from the reader, but always reminding, in the end, that she’s not really worth it. It’s not that she’s evil, more that she lacks a moral compass. Probably that’s also inherited, since her relatives seem like a questionable bunch as well, especially her married uncle, with whom she regularly engages in sex in the attic of the house. For the unflappable Elizabeth, sex is also just one more tool to make things go her way.

Elizabeth is a classic, although it’s never enjoyed wide recognition. Perhaps if there’d been a movie version back in the day? In any case, Elizabeth is essential reading, a deceptively simple tale so very well told that its impact far exceeds the sum total of its parts.

***** (5/5)