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Spotlight on: 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....
Jack Ketchum, Red
"You don't tug on Superman's cape,
Jim Croce had it mostly right, but he left out one important thing: you don't mess around with a man's dog. Av Ludlow spends a lot of time alone, his main companion being his faithful old dog, Red -- a gift from his late wife. The only one of his children he speaks about (or to) is his married daughter Allie -- and she lives in another state.
One day, Ludlow is out fishing with Red, minding his own business, when three local boys -- Danny McCormack, his brother Harold, and their friend Pete Daount -- decide to give him trouble for no good reason, attempting to rob him at gunpoint. Ludlow keeps his cool, but when he doesn't have what they see as enough money for their effort, Danny kills Red with a shotgun blow to the head. This starts Ludlow on a pursuit of retribution that never goes the way I expected it to. And a novel that can surprise me is one that I instantly admire.
The cover of the Leisure paperback edition that forms the basis of this review led me to believe that Red was going to be a vigilante revenge tale in the style of Death Wish, with each offender getting his in turn, and blood being spilled and shells being fired in a pattern of gore that would satisfy any extreme horror buff. But Jack Ketchum has somewhat loftier ambitions. At first, Ludlow only wants an apology. It's when he doesn't get that and decides to pursue legal matters, but the McCormacks and Daounts refuse to cooperate, that things start to get ugly.
I must admit that I was originally disappointed when I realized that events were not going to go the way I had envisioned -- after all, that was why I had bought the book in the first place. But Ketchum's prose skill had me bending to his will soon enough. Any reader who has ever loved a dog will immediately empathize with Ludlow's plight, but Ketchum knows his readership well enough to not lay it on too thick. At the same time, he comments on multi-generational relationships, the struggles of family, and the benefits of long-standing friendships. Plus, he throws a little unexpected romance into the mix.
(Regarding the style, Red has to be the first book I've ever read that seems to suffer from a distinct lack of punctuation. Most authors are quite liberal with their commas, sowing them wantonly throughout the piece, but Ketchum appears to be hoarding his for the duration. I was generally able to suss out what was being said, but a sentence with several dependent clauses needs something to set them off from each other. Eventually, I got used to the style but, every so often, a particularly stubborn sentence would take me right out of my narrative zen.)
Since the novel only runs a little over 200 pages, also included in this printing, in order to fill out the pages and give us a little more for our money -- the publishers of Graham Masterton's Trauma could have taken a page from that playbook -- is a bonus Jack Ketchum novella, "The Passenger." Originally published in Night Visions 10, "The Passenger" is more of the rat-a-tat fiction I was expecting of Red. When her car breaks down, defense attorney Janet Morris gets picked up on the side of the road by an old high school acquaintance and becomes embroiled in a set of circumstances, and with a bunch of others characters, that are worse than anything she ever faced in a courtroom. To say that I never saw any of it coming is an understatement. After a while, I even stopped trying to guess what was going to happen and just let myself go with the flow. These are some damn crazy people. The ending seems a little forced, but "The Passenger" is a great companion piece to the novel, offering two sides of a decidedly unpredictable author.
Jack Ketchum, The Lost
Jack Ketchum doesn't flinch away from the darkness of humanity, which makes him one of the few authors qualified to write something like The Lost, which is essentially the story of a killer named Ray Pye and the events that lead up to his next murder spree.
The Lost is psychological horror at its finest. The tension is really what makes it. After the prologue, which relates Ray's spontaneous murder of two girls in 1965, four years pass and Ketchum spends the rest of the book showing us that Ray will kill again, but not when, who, or how. That he extends this suspense over nearly 400 pages is nothing short of remarkable.
His later book, Red, was shorter and less successful at a similar attempt, but otherwise the books seem to be opposites. The later novel has a calmer tone throughout and is the aftermath of an action where The Lost is the buildup to an action. Ketchum's characterization excels in both, however. Ray, Tim, Jennifer, Kath, Sally, Schilling, and Anderson all feel like real people, even making unexpected choices sometimes. I especially enjoyed when the point of view of the cat was used.
Setting The Lost in 1969 offers a portrait of that period and allows the author to use the Charles Manson murder of Sharon Tate (among others) as a backdrop, along with the Haight-Ashbury scene. In many ways, I could not detect a true sense of the period, however, and I suspect that this was used mostly as a sensationalist gimmick. Either way, this book was a riveting read and I look forward to delving further into Ketchum's world with the recent rerelease of his seminal early novel, The Girl Next Door.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)