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Spotlight on: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

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The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum Jack Ketchum, The Girl Next Door

Spend much time discussing the horror genre and the name Jack Ketchum will invariable come up. His intense narratives have made him well known among aficionados and The Girl Next Door is his most notorious novel.

It is hard to truly horrify today's jaded horror reader who has, at least literarily, seen it all. But Ketchum manages to do exactly that with The Girl Next Door by tapping a resource that is mostly neglected in modern fiction: reality.

The Girl Next Door is presented as the reminiscence by a man named David of a time in the 1950s when he was twelve years old and witnessed the uninhibited abuse of the title character, his next door neighbors' cousin, Meg. As David relates the events that have scarred him for life, he consistently berates himself for not having been able to stop them from happening, even though, as he discovers, a child is utterly helpless in a world made for and by adults.

The narrative unfolds slowly, with seemingly unnecessary words actually serving to prolong the suspense. Voyeuristically, the reader is compelled to follow along with David as Meg suffers shame, torment, and mutilation at the hands of those presumed to care for her. This kind of thing is seen every day not on cable channels like A&E and Court TV, but in 1989, it was rarer to learn about such unspeakable acts. That Ketchum sets The Girl Next Door in the more innocent 1950s makes it all the more hard to stomach, and having children involved in both the telling of the story and the perpetration of it ups the shock quotient even further.

Horror fiction fans like to be distanced from the events they read about, either by supernatural origins or, my favorite, a wink from the author to signify that it is all in fun (even a gruemeister like Edward Lee doesn't take it all that seriously). Something doesn't have to be believable; plausible is all we ask -- and we don't expect much of that. What Jack Ketchum has done with The Girl Next Door is take away that all-important "fourth wall" and show events that could be taking place in the house next door to you. And it is from personalizing it that the true horror comes.

The Leisure edition of The Girl Next Door includes two bonus short stories: "Do You Love Your Wife?", about an obsessive husband, is brand new, but "Returns," about a ghost with a mission, has previously also accompanied the Gauntlet Press trade paperback edition of the novella Right to Life. These are both emotionally solid stories, but I'm not sure that they actually belong here. They aren't necessary to pad out the novel's length (Red really required "The Passenger" to justify the selling price), so I can only assume that they are meant as a sort of palate cleanser to combat the bad taste left over. I know I'm a little horrored out after reading both this and Bryan Smith's Deathbringer consecutively. Maybe a nice, calming murder mystery....

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