The horror genre, like any other genre of fiction, has a few legends, stars, and icons. Jack Ketchum is one those writers. He burst onto the scene in 1981 with the devilishly horrid Off Season--the story of a clan of cannibals living in a cave off the coast of Maine. The novel was instantly reviled and censored by all of the right people: a core group of do-gooders, and several mainstream newspapers. In spite, or perhaps because of the bad press, it went on to sell more than 250,000 copies and guaranteed a place for Ketchum and Off Season in the canon of horror literature.
Unfortunately most of Ketchum's early works are unavailable in affordable editions today. There is good news however: over the past several months Leisure Books has released in mass market paperback two of Jack Ketchum's early novels, She Wakes and The Girl Next Door. These titles have been long out-of-print, and their re-appearance is a welcome sight for readers. The Girl Next Door, released by Leisure Books in June 2005, is the best of Ketchum's early work. Warner Books originally published it in 1989, but its impact was negligible. It was out-of-print nearly before it hit bookstore shelves. With the new Leisure release this novel should reach a larger and more appropriate audience.
"You think you know about pain?" The novel opens with this line, and it is the main crux of the story. It is about pain. The pain one human being forces upon another. The pain one culture visits upon another--it is a story within a story. The small neighborhood setting fills in for the big, dangerous and mean world. It is the story of a twelve-year-old boy named David, as told by his adult self. A kind of epistle really. A confession.
"So here's my check. Overdue and overdrawn." It is revenge against his neighbor. The mother of his best friend: a woman he admired, and maybe even loved. Revenge against her acts--against her spiral into madness. It is revenge against the world--our world--for allowing terrible, violent acts to go unchallenged every day.
The Girl Next Door is Jack Ketchum's masterpiece.
It is set in rural New Jersey in the 1950's: a quiet street, perfectly manicured yards and houses, beautiful mothers and working fathers, the sound of neighborhood kids playing in the streets. It is idyllic. Ketchum's simple prose captures the mood of the time: The glossy innocence, as well as the seamy underside, the cover-ups. The quiet things polite people don't talk about. It is all here. Nothing is pure, the text seems to shout. Nothing is as wholesome, as inviting and open as it is seems.
David's small seemingly perfect world changes forever when two orphaned sisters move in with his next door neighbor and best friend, Donny Chandler. The girls were in an automobile accident. They lived, but their parents were killed. The older sister, Meg, is fourteen, strong and beautiful in that clean teenage girl way. Her little sister, Susan, was hurt badly. She can't walk without crutches and heavy metal braces on her legs. She is small and weak. The sisters are polar opposites. Meg is strong, athletic; Susan is broken, dependent.
Donny's mother, Ruth, takes the sisters in--they are the children of a distant cousin, and Ruth is their only relative. David--the narrator--instantly smitten with Meg. He meets her one afternoon at the brook, a place the neighborhood kids call the "Big Rock," hand fishing for crayfish. The two seem easy together. Their conversation is fluid and agile. The scene is light and friendly, but it is haunted with a feeling of doom. A darkness that is not shown, but hinted at. What starts out as an innocent, quiet memoir of childhood quickly turns into a horrific tale of madness and evil. It is the story of a woman's madness, and how that madness affects the neighborhood. Ruth is a woman who talks of a glorious past. She came from wealth, prosperity. She ran the office of a large company, but now she is stuck in a small New Jersey berg with no husband and three boys. She has failed, and is totally lost.
The sisters (Meg and Susan) become the targets of Ruth's rising anger, and later her brutal insanity. Meg, especially, can do nothing right. She is punished for her wrongs, both real and imagined. She is punished for being young, strong and female. The punishment and torment escalates quickly, yet somehow quietly (none of the adults in the neighborhood know what is happening, but the children all know and are involved either through participation or as willing voyeurs) through the summer months until the final, crushing, terrifying climax.
David watches the torture of Meg. "I was like an addict, and my drug was knowing. Knowing what was possible. Knowing how far it could go. Where they'd dare to take it all. / It was always they. I stood outside, or I felt I did." It begins with little disciplines: no dinner, no friends, a spanking, a derogatory word, mocking. But then things get scary. Hard. They take her into the basement, into an old bomb shelter. They take her there and leave her. Then they begin to play games with her. Punish her. Torture her, and even rape her.
David wants to be separate, apart from both Meg and her tormentors. He isn't participating, but only watching. It is like television: unreal, exciting. But everything changes when he is faced with a moral dilemma so powerful, so frightening that he must choose sides. The dilemma is real. It is a metaphor for much larger issues: genocide, fascism, war. It is the same dilemma a good German faced every time the Nazis stole away a Jew. The same dilemma we all face when we witness violence--random, horrible violence that affects more than just the victim. It affects society, casts a shadow over humanity and makes us realize: This is what it is to be human. This is what we are capable of.
Jack Ketchum is a master of technique, and The Girl Next Door is a prime example. The prose is tight, the plot fine tuned and quick. He understands the story, and he understands how the audience will react to it. He has a reputation for splatter and gore, but you will find nothing gratuitous here. In fact, at a moment of supreme violence, the narrator backs away from the action. The violence. "I'm not going to tell you about this. / I refuse." The memory is too harsh for him to share, to allow an outsider unfettered access.
The Girl Next Door should be on every reading list, but if that is too much to ask it should at least be on your reading list. Get it. Read it, and take it seriously. Mr. Ketchum is a brilliant writer who deserves more respect and a larger audience than he has.