Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Horror of Jack

My waking hours usually end with a read until the words get blurry. I keep at least two books bedside and trade off as the mood strikes: one is fiction the other nonfiction. Within those broad categories the genres vary, though scifi and history weigh heavily in the mix. Horror is not a common selection, but I do make exceptions. Joyland by Stephen King is a recent one, as is Psycho 2 by the wickedly humorous Robert Bloch. At present I’m halfway through Only Child (published in the UK as Stranglehold) by Bram Stoker Award winner Jack Ketchum. When asked who is the scariest writer in America, Stephen King picked Ketchum.

Ketchum is scary not just because he doesn’t pull his punches, though he doesn’t. When a plot turns violent or sexual (and it always does), we get the full unexpurgated picture, but lots of writers are graphic these days. Few write as fundamentally well as Ketchum though. Ketchum rarely resorts to the supernatural in his fiction; the only major exception that comes to mind is She Wakes,  in which Hecate makes an appearance – yes, that Hecate. Nearly always his villains are credibly human and, most disturbingly, in many ways not much different from us. We understand their motives, even if we ultimately don’t do what they do. It is this credibility and this nod to our darker selves that make Ketchum scary.

Ketchum’s career took off when Ballantine Books very hesitantly took a chance publishing the gory novel Off Season in 1981. Yet, despite the commercial success of Off Season, the same publisher turned down his very next manuscript Ladies Night because of violent content. Ladies Night, in which a chemical spill eliminates inhibitions against murder (among other things) in women – and only in women – wasn’t published until 1997. His most successful novel to date is The Girl Next Door in which a suburban single mother named Ruth in the 1960s makes Psycho’s Norman Bates look like a paragon of mental health. Motivated by her deep psychosexual problems, Ruth orchestrates ever more vicious abuse of a teenage girl in her care. Her sons along with neighborhood boys and girls participate in the abuse. Even the protagonist, David, basically a good kid, is drawn in by his dark fascination, albeit as a voyeuristic observer rather than an active participant. Eventually the abuse gets too extreme for him to endure witnessing, but by then his own guilt is an issue. The story is based on the very real 1966 case of Gertrude Baniszewski who, with the assistance of neighborhood kids, tortured 16-year-old Sylvia Likens for three months until she died. I’ll have to finish Only Child before giving it a definitive thumbs up or down, but, along with a frighteningly credible villain, it has an interesting time structure: it spans decades as the character Lydia comes to realize whom she married.

Movie adaptations of Ketchum have been a mixed bag. Only three really work well, though be warned that all are deeply disturbing. The Girl Next Door (not the comedy of the same name), for some reason reset to the 1950s, is one, and is the one best regarded by critics. Stephen King calls it a Dark Side Stand by Me. The Lost and Red (not the Bruce Willis movie) are the other two. The rest are best ignored.

Horror long has been a popular genre – Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe anyone? It’s not entirely clear why, and there may not be a single answer. Millennia ago, Aristotle argued that the terrible events on the Greek tragic stage let the audience feel and then purge negative emotions as a catharsis. Freud largely agreed, though he put it in psychoanalytic terms: as a way to access and release otherwise unacceptable thoughts, motivations, and feelings that have been repressed by the ego. There is some evidence for this. Although the immediate effect (while the adrenaline still flows) of exposure to violent media is to increase aggression, the longer term effect seems the opposite: the proliferation of graphic horror films and violent video games has accompanied a huge drop in violent crime. There is more to it than catharsis, though. Horror as entertainment is also a way of coming to terms with life’s real losses and the certainty of death, and doing it in a playful way. This may be why horror is especially (though not exclusively) popular with teens: as one ages one repeatedly faces the real thing. By necessity, we’ve found other ways to cope.

Nevertheless, while I remain a Ketchum fan, after Only Child I think something cheerier will be on the menu for the next fiction pick. Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine is already on the bedstand awaiting its turn.

An idiosyncratic review of The Girl Next Door (2007)


  1. I'm certainly a horror fan, and I've heard of Ketchum, but never read his work. I think I'll give one of the ones you recommended a try.

    I enjoyed King's "Joyland". It certainly reminded me of something from his anthology "Different Seasons" which is also an great read.

    1. Jack is definitely worth a read for those who like horror – very well written but definitely not for the squeamish.

      I’m not the biggest Stephen King fan, but I liked Joyland, too. Once again, I prefer my villains all-too-human, and King wanders into the supernatural a lot. Still, that’s not an unbreakable rule – I do like some tales with paranormal elements. HP Lovecraft and F Paul Wilson invoke the other side (though arguably with scifi explanations) and both of them are – as we used to say – a gas.

  2. I think I would enjoy Joyland, I just haven't found a cheap used copy to buy yet (yes, I'm a bargain shopper) , and I've already started several other books. I've enjoy King in the past so I'd expect to enjoy Joyland (love the cover).

    If you've not read any Joe R. Landsdale, I'd recommend something by him, maybe start with his book, The Bottoms. Some of his books deals with the supernatural, but others deal with real life people. The Bottoms is a combination of both.

    I didn't care for the movie, The Girl Next Door, so I don't know how I'd feel about Ketchum's books. The movie was a bit too graphic (and sad) for me, and seemed a bit like torture porn (and I enjoyed Hostel), which is a bit odd too as I've enjoyed some Clive Barker stories and sometimes Landsdale will get into that territory as well. I guess it all depends on how it is handled. I'll look for some of Ketchum's books though. Thanks for the rec.

    Oh, also I might recommend the TV show, Hannibal, it's dark and a bit slow, but I've gotten to where I try and catch it on Friday nights.

    1. I looked up a few by Landsdale on Amazon. Looks promising.