Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Deathchain by Ken Greenhall (1991): My Baby Just Wrote Me a Letter

Reading Ken Greenhall is unlike reading anyone else in paperback horror. Never a glimpse of a cliche or tired phrasing, an ill-chosen word or jejune observation, his precision prose is whisper-quiet but razor-sharp and deceptively deep. You'd never know it from the dire cover art of Deathchain (Pocket Books/Dec 1991), which evokes '80s YA computer lab intrigue and little else. Boy, if anyone deserved a King-sized blurb extolling the virtues therein, it was Greenhall. Long a TMHF favorite thanks to his quiet paperback original masterpieces Elizabeth (1976) and Hellhound (1977), Greenhall died in 2014 after a career of being unappreciated for his fine, fine talent. It's disheartening and I'd rather not dwell on it. To the task at hand:

Chain letters have long poked and prodded at the deep superstitions seeded deep in even the most rational minds; even while one is tossing them in the trash it's a creepy thought that someone out there thinks so little of their fellow humans that they will compose a missive of vague threat and malice intended to motivate behavior for selfish gain. Kinda gross, actually, as it implies the letter-writer knows something about you that you yourself do not. Which is what's behind Deathchain: the Chainmaster, as the letter-writer refers to itself, knows There is someone you wish were dead. And so begins the novel, with youngish clock-repairer Dwight Bailey murdering an old indigent woman as instructed by a letter he's received. Rather than creeping Dwight out, the letter pleases him, flatters him, inspires him. He will do what it says because  there is indeed someone he wishes were dead, someone who never pleases or flatters him or notes how careful and perceptive and resourceful he is: that person is his hateful mother. And so the chain, though its beginning to us is clear, will not be unbroken.

Ken Greenhall (1928-2014)

Paul Monay is a divorced father, a New York portrait painter who makes most of his living working for his family's business as a producer of fine, and not-so-fine, French cognacs. His 11-year-old son Luke is smart in a budding engineer way, while his ex-wife remains if not a friend than an ally in raising the boy. Dalliances with women are not uncommon but his life is perhaps too footloose and fancy-free (He seldom asked himself questions of any kind—primarily because he thought self-analysis would probably just add to the vague dissatisfaction he felt with his life).

When Paul almost inadvertently notices people in town are dying off and sees their connection to one another, he idly begins to look into it and eventually enlists a detective. All this while starting up a romance with a hot-to-trot NYC theater actress named Phyllis Arno. Since he meets Phyllis through his current casual lover, psychiatrist Hillary Brock, and dumps her for Phyllis, this causes some conflict, duh, which is well-described by Greenhall: "What I want you to realize is that I'm losing both of you," Hillary tells him, and the reader can feel the heartbreak. It's good, grown-up stuff, and as such will lead to problems later on.

A novel about a deadly chain letter would be worthless without some good murder-by-chain-letter sequences. The men and women who receive the letter and then become casual murderers involved all have a tenuous connection to Paul: aforementioned Dwight, who enters Paul's orbit when his son wants to build clocks as a hobby; auto mechanic Lamb Johnson, who works on Paul's car and has grievances against his wealthy father (he believed death should be sought only over matters of family honor, as in an ancient tragedy); Connie Nickens, the shrewd sultry hostess at a good restaurant Paul frequents upon whom Paul has a minor crush (he liked looking at Connie and that wasn't because there was a great beauty or character in her features; it was because there was the implication that intimacy was a possibility) who is mixed up with a shady business partner. And last is Sarah Hopkins, an editor and researcher who hates her former boss (hey, that was one of Greenhall's jobs!). Last because Sarah is now shadowing Paul, and surely after what he's noticed about recent mysterious deaths this can't be an innocent coincidence...

They all hear the icy madness commanding them to kill: You must not break the chain, you must not become anxious or confused... You are a person who goes not the way of the crowd but the way that you have chosen and that has been chosen for you. It appeals to their narcissism and ego, that deadly, deadly psychological combo.

Aw man read this scene the day after Harry Dean died!

We get those scenes, but, unfortunately, they are after the first one somewhat strangely muted. It's like Greenhall didn't want to let his hair down and give us the gory details of "accidents" and "mishaps." His pen is spent more in describing the characters' interior lives and motivations than in the final outcomes of such. Which I enjoy, as Greenhall is an astute chronicler of the impolite notions most people have about others. He's also very good at depicting healthy sex lives, an appreciation for good food and drink, art and its creation, parenting, and other adult activities that so many horror writers find bewildering to contemplate and impossible to convey. It's just that Deathchain is ostensibly a horror novel—it says so on the spine! It has a bloody knife on the cover! It has the word "death" in its very title!—there is very little real horror to be found. It rather feels like a missed opportunity, despite the high caliber of prose.

I had a sense that Greenhall may have felt he was somewhat above the material, that much of what he was writing could have been in a book not about or entitled Deathchain. The lead-in to and the climax itself feature some grody stuff, but too little and too late. I would have loved a gruesome scene or three in Greenhall's inimitable style. I kept waiting and waiting but it didn't happen. There isn't much suspense and there's nothing really scary going on, not on the surface anyway. There's an intellectualization of pain and death that's akin to Thomas Tessier, but not as satisfying. It is simply Greenhall's skill at observing truths about human nature that make Deathchain readable. It is not a must-read like Hellhound or Elizabeth, and his other novels are still on my to-read list, but if you dig his style like I do and don't mind a novel that isn't trying to terrify you constantly if at all, Deathchain could be for you.


Jack Tripper said...

Excellent review. This is the only Greenhall I'm missing. I did read CHILDGRAVE last year, and it's very nearly on the same level as ELIZABETH and HELL HOUND, imo. A clever mixture of horror and humor (btw thanks for bringing this author to my attention back in the day).

Ron Clinton said...

I have all five of his books -- ELIZABETH, BAXTER (aka HELL HOUND), CHILDGRAVE, THE COMPANION, and DEATH CHAIN -- and while I've enjoyed all of them to varying degrees, none of the other four hold a candle to BAXTER...there is something so uniquely special and compelling about that novel, one that shows an author truly running on all cylinders.