When photographer Jonathan Brewster’s four-year-old daughter, Joanne, tells him about her new invisible friends, he doesn’t think too much about it. But then he sees them for himself: weird and uncanny images of the dead appearing in his photographs. The apparitions seem to have some connection to Childgrave, a remote village in upstate New York with a deadly secret dating back three centuries. Jonathan and Joanne feel themselves oddly drawn to Childgrave, but will they survive the horrors that await them there?
The third novel by Ken Greenhall (1928-2014), whose works are receiving renewed attention as neglected classics of modern horror, Childgrave (1982) is a slow-burn chiller that ranks among Greenhall’s best.
“Writing in Shirley Jackson’s precise, sharp, chilly prose, Greenhall delivers a slippery book that can’t be pinned down, all about spectral photography, little dead girls, snowbound small towns, and the disquieting proposition that maybe God is not civilized.” - Grady Hendrix, author of Paperbacks from Hell
“A very well-orchestrated, eerie tale.” - Publishers Weekly
Would you listen to Childgrave again? Why?
Creepy, Eerie, Slow (but nicely paced)
Any additional comments?
The story follows main character Jonathan, a photographer, widower, and father to Joanne, one of the creepiest little girls in fiction. Jonathan is pretty creepy himself. He becomes obsessed with a harpist named Sara. Although he describes her as beautiful, she remains somewhat plain in appearance while still having a profound power over the photographer who desperately wants to photograph her. He continually calls her beautiful but our narrator has a way of making somewhat grand statements that sound more like he is trying to convince himself more than trying to convince the reader. I go back and forth not trusting him and also thinking that he is a misogynistic pig. He’s probably both. Alas, the book was written in another time, to which I am grateful because the pace is perfection. It is slow but I write that not in a negative light. It reads like moving through an old haunted house: a great deal of anticipation with eerie scenes throughout.
To add to the eeriness, the daughter Joanne has an imaginary friend, whom readers will learn is not so imaginary and not so alive anymore. This really isn’t a spoiler if you read the description of the book. Even without discussing this friend, Joanne makes uncanny statements about hoping she has another birthday and wondering if her father will miss her when she dies.
When Jonathan cuts his finger and begins to bleed, Sara licks the blood. He laughs commenting about vampires and Sara’s response is a bit eerie. It would be too easy for her to actually be a vampire, right? Intending for readers to view her as mysterious, her character comes across more like an abandoned exoskeleton. Is there any substance under that shell? She would be the first to note that she does not know what Jonathan sees in her. As a reader, I'm not sure either. And pseudo spoiler alert: when Sara finally stops being coy and Jonathan is allowed into her bedroom, their first sexual encounter is, err, sensually odd. Sorry, I cannot come up with a better description. That scene is going to stay with me like the sex scene in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love that references a squashed cockroach. Alright, it may be just a wee bit less impactful that Dunn’s.
The book reads as if Greenhall had two great ideas for a novel but only had one book deal so he just wove them together. Somehow it works. It resembles a Victorian ghost story and an M. Night Shyamalan film. To write any more would give it away.
I was engaged almost to the last page even though much of the time included being puzzled over the characters’ choices. Nevertheless, it was a great read and I recommend it if you have not picked it up.
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What did you love best about Childgrave?
It's always fun to discover an overlooked author. Greenhall had the misfortune to write some very thoughtful and scary books that ended up wrapped in lurid dust jackets that made them look like every other mediocre bargain-basement paperback horror trash from the late 70s/early 80s. However, one quickly realizes that this is subtle, quality prose with strong characters and an intriguing plot. I liked the fact that the story unfolds slowly and that the protagonist and minor characters where interesting in their own right and not just one-dimensional props who propel the story forward without contributing anything
What was one of the most memorable moments of Childgrave?
Lots of really crazy moments come towards the middle/end, but to avoid spoilers, I will say any of early interactions the protagonist has with the mysterious Laura, as these passages evoke a subtle yet uncanny dreamy quality that lays a great foundation for what is to come
Which scene was your favorite?
Again, too many spoilers. There are multiple scenes early on that do a great job establishing mood and setting the stage. I also enjoyed the scene where the Sicilian Opera singer is being photographed, for sheer oddness.
Who was the most memorable character of Childgrave and why?
I enjoyed spending time with the protagonist, even thought there were many things about it I disliked, he felt like a fully realized charecter which is refreshing. I also enjoyed Mr. Bordeaux, but mostly as comic relief and a source of witty banter.
Any additional comments?
I really hope Audible makes more works by Greenhall available soon. I would love to listen to more of his books and ideally see a renaissance in interest around him. Travis Baldree was also an excellent narrator, so hopefully he will continue in that capacity if more of Greenhall's works find their way to audio.
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Initially, the book is slow.... but then gets creepy... really creepy... then just sick and unbelievable. I am not going to return it because I guess on some level I was interested enough to see what happened.... but wish I would have just stopped and returned it in hindsight. I am pretty bummed.