Right now, paperback horror is all I can stomach reading, so I decided to check out Ken Greenhall’s stuff as I had heard he was one of the best. All three of these books were originally published under Greenhall’s ‘Jessica Hamilton’ pseudonym, and Valancourt reissued all three under the author’s real name in 2017.
Hell Hound – Originally published 1977
This is the story of an evil dog. The dog is bad by himself, but halfway through the book, he gets adopted by a teenage Nazi. I had read some glowing reviews of Greenhall’s work before reading this book, and I had pretty high expectations. It was certainly well written and entertaining, but large chunks of the narration are presented from the dog’s perspective. I know it’s stupid, but there was a little part of my brain that had a problem accepting this, even for the sake of a horror story. Whenever the dog would start to speak, I started to think of the scene in Derek Jarman’s movie about Wittgenstein where the philosopher explains the linguistic limitations of dogs. This was a fine horror novel though. It kept me entertained for an afternoon in quarantine.
Elizabeth – Originally published 1976
This one was quite creepy. Elizabeth is the story of a teenage girl who starts to see a woman in the mirrors around her house. The woman starts telling her what to do, and pretty soon, her family members start dying. The general consensus on Ken Greenhall is that he is a terribly underrated and forgotten writer, and this book convinced me of that. This is an extremely well written novel. The characters are super interesting, and there’s an impressive amount of atmosphere. There are also quite a few paragraphs throughout that require rereading, not because they’re complicated, but because they’re brilliant. I started this one afternoon and stayed up late that night to finish it. After reading it, I felt uncomfortable walking around my apartment with the lights off. This is a great horror novel, and I reckon it’s the best of Greenhall’s books.
Childgrave – Originally published 1982
The title of this book put me off. Call me a wuss, but I don’t want to read about dead or dying children. When I started reading about a father and his 4 year old daughter, I felt uncomfortable and anxious. (I have a little girl, and it was hard to read this without picturing us as the characters.) This anxiety faded as I got further into the novel; the narrative voice is very self aware and quite funny, and this makes it seem unlikely that the protagonist will allow anything truly awful to happen. By the halfway point of the book, Childgrave feels like a comic, well-written, paranormal love story.
It’s not though. It gets very, very dark at the end. Grady Hendrix claims that stylistically Greenhall “was a direct heir to Shirley Jackson”. I don’t think Jackson’s influence on Greenhall was limited to style. Without giving too much away, I can say that the ending of Childgrave is only a few steps removed from one of Jackson’s most famous tales.
I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I found the last few chapters of the book hard to stomach. They didn’t feel believable. The narrator makes a choice that seems completely unrealistic and out of character. He comes across as mildly unhinged throughout the book, but the choice he makes near the end violates human nature. It’s not believable. The whole book leads up to this choice too, and I found it hard to enjoy the rest of the story after that point.
Childgrave is the longest of the three novels by Greenhall that I read, and I can say that I probably enjoyed reading the first 5/6ths of this one more than the others. The characters are good, the plot is interesting and the writing is great. Unfortunately, I thought the ending made the whole book feel a bit dumb. I’m sure lots of Greenhall fans will disagree, but I’d bet the ones that do don’t have kids of their own. Come on, he wouldn’t do that! No way.
Greenhall wrote a few other books, but these were the ones that Valancourt chose to reissue, so I assume they’re the best. I enjoyed them, and I agree that Greenhall deserves more recognition as a writer. These are objectively better books than some of the tripe I’ve been reviewing recently.