"It doesn't follow, Elizabeth,
that because you are old enough to be evil,
you are an adult."
So says Grandmother. And so will any reader say upon finishing Elizabeth, the debut novel from Ken Greenhall, writing under the pseudonym Jessica Hamilton. At just 14 years old, Elizabeth Cuttner is a startling little sociopath with powers natural and not (A Novel of the Unnatural states its tagline). She tells her story in a voice quite distinctive, yes, but also as cool and unforgiving as a marble tombstone. With dispassionate precision, she grasps the motivations of those around her, fathoms their subconscious desires; Elizabeth has psychological insights that people thrice her age never attain. She amazes, charms, bewilders, and ultimately horrifies. When I was younger, she tells us on the very first page, I saw James, my father's brother, look from our dog to me without changing his expression. I soon taught him to look at me in a way he looked at nothing else. And oh that's just a hint of what's to come.
1988 Bart Books reprint
The supernatural slips in very early but oh-so-quietly. In the second chapter, Elizabeth and her parents vacation in a cabin at Lake George, and while on a nature walk she finds an unlikely-looking toad the color of decaying meat and takes it home, then she is compelled to hold it between her breasts. As she does this, a visage swims into view in the antique mirror in her room. "Do not fear me, Elizabeth. I have come to help you." She has a fearsome beauty and speaks in an antique language; her name is Frances, a distant Cuttner relative; indeed, we learn she is an English witch from centuries past. Elizabeth seems to fall in some kind of love or obsession with Frances, who wants to reveal and guide all of Elizabeth's familial powers... and warns Elizabeth of the new tutor from England that James has hired for her, Miss Barton. Young Miss Barton, who strangely resembles the woman in the mirror...
1977 UK paperback
James had never been happier. He accused Katherine of being in love with Miss Barton and pretended to be outraged. Actually, the thought of his wife being involved with another woman excited him... he became much more open about his relationship with me and on afternoons when Katherine and Miss Barton were uptown shopping together he would take me to his wife's bed. "You be Katherine," he'd say, "and I'll be Miss Barton."
Elizabeth is one of the most intriguingly written novels I've read in some time; it is deceptively rich and rewarding. Hamilton's style is one of allusion, of casual reference, an author in full command of the writing craft, knowing what to tell, what to show, and most especially what to conceal. And ironically in that concealment revealing all. Elizabeth herself is an amazingly complex character, her voice so confident, so ageless, so wise, as she begins to use her unnatural talents to harm others, such as Grandmother...
"Martha," I found myself saying, "with my gift and power I bid thee desist. Martha Cuttner, I bid thee vanish. Thrice, Martha Cuttner, my gift and power bid thee desist and vanish."
And then there was silence. Behind me stood the city and its people. Some of those people had passed me on the street and admired me, thinking I had never done unmentionable things in the night, as they had done or wanted to do.
I really cannot recommend Elizabeth highly enough. This unheralded, forgotten work deserves rediscovery by fans of weird fiction. Copies are easily found online and I urge you to purchase one. If you enjoy the literary chill of calculating children, the frosty tales of du Maurier and Jackson, the quiet horrors of witchery and those it dooms, the foolishness of men in the thrall of women, do yourself a favor and become acquainted with Elizabeth.
For a little more on Greenhall, check out the Phantom of Pulp's blog.