Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Socially Redeeming Value

Do you wish to put off Spring Cleaning (or, horrors, filing taxes)? I suggest recreational reading, which somehow makes us feel less guilty than than does vegging out in front of a TV or updating a facebook page. After all, we thereby help to support the publishing industry which is in such a state of sad decline. I’ll also recommend an author who will keep your mind off those dust bunnies and W2s for hours.

For those who haven’t yet discovered him, Jack Ketchum (nom de plume of Dallas Mayr) is one of today’s foremost horror writers – but if you are thinking this means something like Lovecraft, Bloch, or even Stephen King, think again. Ketchum rarely flirts with the supernatural. You won’t find any ghosts, werewolves or vampires – though he did once (She Wakes) unleash the Greek goddess Hecate. Nine times out of ten his monsters are all too human, and scarier for that. Ketchum pulls no punches anywhere in his prose; when the plot turns violent (and it will) we get the full in-your-face unexpurgated picture.

From the beginning, Ketchum’s writings have intrigued and repelled readers and reviewers. Ballantine Books, with much hesitation and trepidation, took a chance with his first novel Off Season in 1981 and was pleasantly surprised by its commercial success. Yet, the very same publisher turned down his next manuscript Ladies Night, a tale of a chemical spill that eliminates inhibitions against violence in women (and only in women) who are exposed to it. Ballantine cited its violent content as the reason for rejection. Competing publishers declined it, too. It was published only in 1997 after Ketchum’s success with other novels. Critics are of two minds about Ketchum. A reviewer in The Village Voice, hardly a bastion of social conservatism, dismissed his work as pornography. Yet he has won a string of writing awards, including the Bram Stoker Award, and he counts many accomplished authors, including Stephen King, among his fans. His harshest critics admit Ketchum writes well, even if they balk at his subject matter.

Jack doesn’t worry much about the negative reactions anymore, if he ever did. His sales and movie deals are enough to soothe any wounded feelings. Besides, Jack has something to say. He likes to tell us that we all have a dark side, and that the difference between monsters and the rest of us sometimes comes down only to circumstance.

Ketchum’s most successful novel to date is The Girl Next Door, which was made into a deeply disturbing movie (not the comedy of the same name) that Stephen King called a dark side Stand by Me. Based loosely on the very real Sylvia Likens case, the book and movie detail the abuse and eventual murder of a teenage girl by the suburban woman who took her in, by her sons, and by neighboring kids and teens. The protagonist of the novel, a neighbor boy, is basically a good kid, but is drawn into the abuse by the dark fascination of it all. He feels revulsion when the torture becomes extreme, but by then his own participatory guilt is an issue that deters him from seeking help.

As Dr. Jekyll learned, it does no good to try to repress the unsavory elements of our natures. They are only less under control when they do surface. We need to embrace our inner Hyde (or our inner Marquis de Sade, if you prefer non-fiction) in order to tame him. Perhaps if Sylvia’s neighbors had satisfied those appetites with books like Ketchum’s, at least one of them would not have fallen to the temptation of the real opportunity for sadism, and might have called the police.

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