Elizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural

October 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

elizabethElizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural by Ken Greenhall


I’m not one to worry about subtitles, but in the case of this book, it’s important. It’s not “strange” or “weird” or “occult”; it’s “unnatural”. It’s a specific word, used to evoke a specific feeling, enough so that it feels like it’s part of the proper title, and not an attempt to classify the book.

That “unnatural” is such a specific, evocative word isn’t a surprise; Greenhall was apparently the kind of writer who took his time to find the perfect word for every sentence. Elizabeth reflects this, as he tells his story with an economy of words. A lot happens in this brief (152 pages) novel, but it never feels like it moves quickly, or that the author is skimping on the details. Instead, he creates mood and atmosphere in as little as one sentence:

In the night I would hear the slopping of the lake against rocks, and half-awake, I sometimes mistook it for the sound of someone choking.

Greenhall’s imagery is unsettling, as is the story. It’s not a graphic, in-your-face kind of horror, nor is it the quiet horror of Bernard Taylor or Charles Grant; it’s the kind of story that creeps under the skin and stays with you long after it’s finished.

The story won’t be easy for everyone. Its main character, Elizabeth, is fourteen, and involved in a sexual relationship with her uncle that she initiated. This isn’t a spoiler, though; aside from being made clear in the early part of the novel, it’s a central part of the story. The story is sensual, sex being an important part of it, but it’s never explicit. Greenhall suggests the activity, and by doing so shows off his talent for showing, not telling. That a fourteen-year-old woman and a late-thirties man maintain the relationship suggests that the “unnatural” in the title is about more than just the supernatural.

The point of the story, though, isn’t the sex. It’s important to the plot, but what Elizabeth is about is power. Elizabeth recognizes that she has power through sex, and isn’t afraid to use it. For her, sex isn’t about love or intimacy, it’s about strength.

Elizabeth is our narrator as well as our main character, and it presents an interesting dilemma: Is she reliable? Near the beginning, it’s easy to think that what she’s telling us is only in her head. Later in the story, it’s harder to tell. Knowing is important, though, since it determines if Elizabeth is the antagonist or the protagonist.

Greenhall isn’t as well known in the canon as other authors from his time, which is a shame. Elizabeth proves that his writing is precise, his horror suggestive, and he understands how to unsettle instead of scare. Valancourt has done a great job republishing these lost classics, and I look forward to more by him, as well as other authors in their catalog I have yet to discover.

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