Of the many authors to emerge from the horror boom of the 1970s, Ken
Greenhall remains one of the most unfairly neglected--and also one of
the most mysterious. Precious little is known about Greenhall’s life
(given that he hasn’t published anything since 1996, I’m guessing he’s
deceased) outside the basics: he was a retired professional when he
commenced his writing career, which explains the concern with aging and
death that suffuses his novels, and was possessed of a highly learned,
questing mind, and a worldview that was decidedly bleak.
The fact that Greenhall was so unprolific in
his output--in the course of a 20 year career he published just six
books--no doubt contributed to the widespread neglect that befell his
novels. So too the fact that he never compromised the grimness of his
vision: unlike the majority of his fellow horror scribes, Greenhall had
little use for happy endings or leavening romance. The latter, in fact,
was as destructive a force in his world as the horror business: as the
narrator of Greenhall’s CHILDGRAVE proclaims, “I’ve been in love twice,
and regardless of what you’ve heard elsewhere about the experience, I’m
not sure I recommend it.”
But the most virulent factor in the neglect
of Ken Greenhall’s fiction was likely much simpler. That factor, I
contend, is the lurid cover art and misleading plot descriptions with
which Greenhall’s publishers insisted on defiling his books.
Ken Greenhall’s first novel ELIZABETH,
published in 1976 under the pseudonym “Jessica Hamilton,” was the least
trashily packaged of his novels. I don’t know the reason Greenhall
utilized a female pseudonym (which was also employed on the UK
publications of his two subsequent novels), but ELIZABETH is one of the
few truly convincing attempts by a male author at capturing the voice
and thoughts of a member of the opposite sex.
Indeed, ELIZABETH’S primary selling point is its
sinuous narrative voice, belonging to an unusually articulate
fourteen-year-old girl who finds herself in contact with Francis, a long
dead relative who practiced witchcraft while alive. Under Francis’
supernaturally endowed influence Elizabeth causes the deaths of her
parents, her grandmother, her uncle James (who is admittedly in love
with her) and her unborn child. Francis, it seems, comes in and out of
Elizabeth’s life via a magic locket, which is stolen at least twice by a
meddling woman who knows the heroine’s secret.
If this all sounds like a prime recipe for pulp horror,
be advised that ELIZABETH is an unerringly elegant and refined affair.
It may perhaps be a bit too refined for its own good, with a narrative
that’s somewhat lacking in variety and invention. That’s a flaw
Greenhall remedied quite dramatically in his next novel.
HELL HOUND appeared as a paperback
original in 1977. It is, I believe, Ken Greenhall’s masterpiece, yet it
received the tackiest cover art of any Greenhall novel, picturing a
close-up of a barking dog with red eyes (the corresponding dog’s eyes in
the text are actually blue), and also a ridiculous tagline of the type
for which its publisher, the notorious
Zebra Books, was (in)famous: “A
Thriller of the Surreal and the Supernatural!” (In the UK the novel
appeared under the title BAXTER with more appropriate cover art).
But onto the novel itself, which is an unsung classic
of the bizarre and grotesque that ranks with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and
THE WASP FACTORY.
It’s the story of Baxter, a Bull Terrier who thinks like a human--a
profoundly nasty, brutish and vindictive human. Baxter’s thoughts are
imparted via short first person chapters in which he invariably laments
his current situation and attempts to find a way out of it.
As the novel opens, Baxter finds himself in the care of
a lonely old woman who nauseates him. He takes to spying on a young
couple next door, and gives the old bag a deadly spill down the stairs
in order to be with them. Unfortunately the young wife is pregnant,
which spoils things for Baxter, who doesn’t take well to the child once
it’s born. He commits a second murder by drowning the kid in a backyard
pond, which precipitates another, more fateful ownership change.
Baxter’s new owner is Carl, a Hitler-obsessed tyke who
hangs out in a junkyard, where he’s created a miniature bunker in honor
of his idol’s place of death. It seems that Baxter has at last found his
ideal mate, but the boy and dog are a bit too much alike, leading to an
inevitable showdown that only one of them will survive.
Around this twisted drama revolves a rich gallery of
characters, including Carl’s clueless parents, a sympathetic teacher, a
naive young girl, the latter’s callous father and a decrepit old man. It
all adds up to an unflinchingly corrosive portrait of small-town
America, and a narrative that functions as both an Orwellian satire of
pet ownership in the modern world and a straightforward horror story
about the wily nature of evil. It’s that rarity of rarities, a totally
unique creation, and one that demands a critical appraisal (I would say
reappraisal, but HELL HOUND doesn’t seem to have ever received
its critical dues, pro or con, in the first place).
Incidentally, HELL HOUND was unique among Greenhall’s
novels in that was adapted into a film. That film was the Jerome Boiven
directed French production
BAXTER, which faithfully replicated the novel’s demented
narrative, and stands as a memorably bizarre concoction in its own
right. But the material finds its fullest expression in HELL HOUND.
CHILDGRAVE was a fitting, if
radically different, follow-up to ELIZABETH and HELL HOUND, a highly
eccentric, supernaturally-tinged account of bad romance. Its narrator
Jonathan Brewster is a widowed NYC photographer raising a five-year-old
daughter. Jonathan meets the eccentric harpist Sara Coleridge at a
concert and is immediately smitten. Sara entreats Jonathan not to
involve himself with her but he can’t help himself--and neither can she.
They’re in love, after all, which becomes the source of all the
unpleasantness to come, and the primary reason this book is categorized
As this wholly eccentric affair commences, Jonathan
notices a most inexplicable oddity in his photographs: long-dead people
start turning up in them alongside the still-breathing subjects. This
naturally attracts a lot of attention, and even a degree of fame. It’s
that attention that drives Sara away at around the halfway point,
leading Jonathan to track her to the secluded New York town where she
grew up: a place called Childgrave.
The back cover plot description of the novel’s US
edition makes Childgrave out to be far more prominent to the story than
it actually is. In truth Childgrave serves essentially the same purpose
as the imaginary kingdom of El Rey did in the final chapter of Jim
Thompson’s THE GETWAWAY: a surreal purgatory where the amoral lovers at
the novel’s center are forced to account for the recklessness of their
actions. Jonathan is drawn to live in Childgrave due to his love for
Sara, but the focus is on Jonathan’s young daughter Joanne. Childgrave,
you see, is named after a young girl murdered in the area three hundred
years earlier, which has given rise to a yearly tradition in which a
girl aged 1-5 is sacrificed on Christmas Eve. The prospective victims
are chosen by lottery, and Joanne, not yet having reached her sixth
birthday, is among the candidates.
Along the way Greenhall provides a great deal of
thoughtful discourse on subjects ranging from the bonds of community to
the effects of religion, which prove nearly as destructive as the love
affair that powers the story. Another Greenhall custom is the
inconclusive ending, a resolution that seems entirely appropriate given
the thoughtful and unsparing bent of CHILDGRAVE, which despite its
surreal air is ultimately quite redolent of the conundrums and
complexities of real life.
That last point is even more true of THE
COMPANION, published in 1988. It’s centered on Jillian, a young
woman who when not taking care of her aging father serves as a
near-death companion to old ladies. Jillian really loves her work, as is
evident in the loving care she lavishes on her charges--and, as she
candidly admits, the fact that those biddies’ lives always come to an
end at Jillian’s hands. Told through Jillian’s enormously erudite first
person recollections, THE COMPANION harkens back to ELIZABETH, which was
also distinguished by its quintessentially feminine narration (it’s no
accident, I’m guessing, that a pivotal character in the present novel is
Unlike ELIZABETH, no supernatural rationale is present
in THE COMPANION, with the true horror of the story being the attitude
and worldview of Jillian, who is in fact a kill-happy sociopath--albeit
an unusually bright and well-educated one whose frame of reference
encompasses JANE EYRE, CITIZEN KANE, Duke Ellington, the consequences of
the women’s liberation movement, the ravages of old age and the question
of what lies beyond the boundaries of this life. The answers offered up,
you can be sure, are anything but reassuring, with the possibility
breached that in snuffing out her elderly charges Jillian may well be
performing, as she repeatedly insists, a profound act of mercy and
Jillian’s latest companionship job is far more
complicated than her past ones, as her newest charge, the ancient
Elizabeth Dobbs, has a deeply eccentric, death-obsessed family. That’s
particularly true of Elizabeth’s son David, who has a checkered past
involving child abuse and gender confusion, and is clearly as deranged
as Jillian herself. The Jillian-David conflict leads to some
disappointingly conventional intrigue involving a lucrative inheritance
and an attempted murder, but the concluding passages are appropriately
dark and unsettled in a manner unique to Ken Greenhall.
THE COMPANION, I should add, appeared in the US as
“Another Original publication of Pocket Books” (so proclaims the
copyright page), complete with cover art and a plot summary that provide
hyperbolic splatter movie artwork and descriptions, both of which
completely miss the essence of the book.
DEATH CHAIN, which appeared as a
paperback original in 1991, was Greenhall’s farewell to horror. At that
point, of course, the horror boom had all-but dried up, and DEATH CHAIN
definitely has a defeated, worn-out air to it, suggesting that Greenhall
had had his fill of the scary stuff. It’s the weakest of his novels by
far, and also the most overtly commercial (although Pocket Books managed
to once again completely miss the ball packaging-wise, providing cover
art and a back cover synopsis more befitting of a Christopher Pike
It has, at least, a promisingly demented premise: a
chain letter is sent to several emotionally disturbed residents of a
small town, commanding each to kill a stranger. What results, however,
is a deadening concoction, with a meandering narrative whose main
plotline is frequently dropped so Greenhall can explore the emotional
life of his protagonist, an aging painter who ends up solving the
mystery of the letter’s origins; Greenhall evidently believed this
character, who was likely more than a shade autobiographical, is far
more interesting than he actually is.
The suspense-free climax, with its silly Scooby Doo-esque
reveal, rounds things out on a ho-hum note.
For LENOIR, published in
hardcover by Zoland Books in 1998, Ken Greenhall provided an interesting
and solidly researched historical saga. You’ll have a hard time finding
any thematic links with his previous fare in this book, outside a
dedication to BAXTER’S director Jerome Boiven and a cameo appearance by
the canine protagonist of that film/novel.
Like Tracy Chevalier’s better-known GIRL WITH A PEARL
EARRING, LENOIR (which actually preceded Chevalier’s novel by a year)
takes a famous painting and imagines what its subject’s life might have
been like. The artwork in question is Peter Paul Rubens’ early 17th
Century painting “Four Studies of Head of a Negro,” depicting an
unidentified man’s face wearing four different expressions.
The book’s first person protagonist Lenoir is alleged
to be the model for the painting. He’s a highly erudite slave in
seventeenth century Amsterdam who’s owned by Mr. Twee, a kind-hearted
rouge who allows Lenoir to live in the manner of a free man.
In the course of the novel Lenoir poses for paintings
by Rembrandt, flees to Antwerp after being accused of practicing
murderous sorcery, briefly joins a traveling acting troupe and works for
the aforementioned Mr. Rubens until the latter’s death. Throughout it
all Lenoir registers as a finely constructed personage, with entirely
convincing reactions to the strange world he finds himself thrust into.
Less enchanting is the narrative, which could frankly
be a bit more lively. Considering all the turmoil that occurred during
the time of LENOIR’S setting, I think I’m justified in expecting a bit
more from an account that’s lively yet ultimately a bit too dry for its
LENOIR, unfortunately, appears to be Ken
Greenhall’s final novel. Even more unfortunate is the fact that it, and
indeed all his novels, are now long out of print, with little-to-no
effort being made to reprint them. Yet I can promise that tracking down
copies of ELIZABETH, HELL HOUND, CHILDGRAVE, THE COMPANION and
LENOIR--and, if you absolutely must, DEATH CHAIN--will be well worth the
while of any true horror fan.