Filler content with the scariest guy in America

Reviews of three books by Jack Ketchum that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-


Stephen King said that he was probably the “scariest guy in America” (which suggests SK doesn’t keep up with politics, but we digress), and for a long time Jack Ketchum has been one of the horror genre’s best kept secrets. With three films based on his work in recent years and a slew of new titles and reissues, all that looks set to change.

Old title in spiffy new packaging is an apt description for the February reissue of 1995 novel Joyride (Cemetery Dance hardback, 300pp, $40), and the novel itself is typical of Ketchum’s work, fast paced and violent, but never gratuitous and with an assured grasp of the psychology of the characters involved.

The plot has an elegant simplicity to it. Carol and lover Lee realise there is only one way they will ever get out from under the shadow of her abusive husband Howard. They lure him to an isolated spot in a nearby park and murder the guy: it’s just their bad luck that somebody is watching and worse luck still that he is excited by the crime. Wayne thinks that Carol and Lee are his kind of people, and that they can be friends who will teach him stuff. But of course when Wayne makes contact things don’t go down as he planned and events spiral out of control. The couple are taken hostage and dragged off on a killing spree, as Wayne gets in touch with his inner bad guy and wreaks bloody revenge on everyone he considers to have done him wrong.

In lesser hands this could so easily have devolved into schlocker movie of the week material, with a sensational storyline requiring maximum blood and minimum budget. However, Ketchum downplays the exploitive elements and instead concentrates on the people involved, cleverly interweaving the perspectives of the three leads with side trips into the lives of other characters. The reader is presented with a comprehensive overview of a horrific situation, one that has a ‘topical’ feel to it given that spree killings are now almost a natural occurrence in our media mapped landscape.

Policeman Rule, who investigated Howard’s attack on Carol, which was the catalyst for his murder, is the one who represents the voice of reason, or whatever we are allowed of reason in Ketchum’s world. Rule is the first one to work out what is happening and in on the kill when Wayne returns home and sets about paying off debts to his neighbours with a gun in his hand. He is not simply a stereotypical good cop, but a fully rounded individual, his story fleshed out by visits to a psychiatrist who is helping him deal with the aftershock of marital breakdown: in Carol he sees a reflection of his absent wife, and a chance to make amends for the mistakes of the past by rescuing her.

Wayne is Rule’s polar opposite. As a kid he killed small animals and as an adult he is into bondage style sex games, though ideas like consent and safe words seem alien to his nature. A social misfit he keeps a list of everyone who has ever crossed him, no matter how slight their offence: needless to say, it is a very long list. Wayne is a sociopath who sees everything in terms of himself, who takes it as a personal insult when other people don’t fall in with his plans, and his descent into madness is painstakingly mapped, with the violence all the more shocking when it comes thanks to the matter of fact telling. Ketchum doesn’t dwell on the death scenes or drag them out for tension – everything is short and brutal, reminding me of nothing so much as the shootout at the end of Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven, a casualness to it all that unnerves far more than the standard stalk and slash.

If these two represent white and black, Carol is the grey on Ketchum’s palette. Essentially a good person, she has been badly let down by the system and driven to do something terrible, a sin that comes back to haunt her in the worst possible way, but the woman’s true character is shown in her willingness to take responsibility and sacrifice herself rather than lure other innocents into Wayne’s clutches. While Wayne, like many a Ketchum villain, has a misogynistic streak to his makeup, strong, brave and honourable women are also a feature of the author’s work, survivors who are prepared to do whatever it takes without compromising personal integrity, as witness the young woman Wayne rapes and leaves for dead, but who recovers from her ordeal to blow the whistle on his murder spree, or the character Sara Foster in Right to Life.

With a rapid fire prose style that more than empowers the reader to deliver on Stephen King’s back cover blurb – “Don’t open this book unless you intend to finish it in the same night.” – Joyride is in some ways reminiscent of the kind of thing Richard Laymon did so well in his prime, but here with a psychological depth and underpinning in the real world that is quintessential Ketchum.

Reissued to coincide with the release of a film based on the book, The Lost (Leisure paperback, 394pp, $7.99) opens in the summer of 1965. Teenager Ray murders two young women camping out in the woods and, with the help of friends Tim and Jennifer, covers up evidence of the crime. The police have him as a suspect, but can prove nothing. Four years later Tim and Jennifer are hopelessly in thrall to Ray; she loves him while Tim is supposed to be his best friend, but Ray abuses them both. Assistant manager at his parent’s hotel, he considers himself a ‘big’ man about town, but his self-image is challenged by the arrival of city girl Kath, who at first eggs Ray on to ever more outrageous acts but then gets scared and tries to end their relationship when she registers the violence simmering away beneath his surface. Ray’s ego is also dented when his passes are rejected by Sally, a young girl having an affair with ex-cop Ed, one of the detectives who investigated Ray. Detective Charlie Schilling, Ed’s friend, decides to pressure Ray about what happened four years ago, but in doing so he lays the ground for the bloodbath that is to follow.

The Lost is a powerful book, with prose that is spare and emotionally charged, and characters who are all perfectly drawn, each one as if taken from life. There’s a superficial similarity to the dramatis personae of Joyride in the main protagonists, as if Ketchum has identified certain personality types, the traits that make them monsters and madmen, cowards and victims, saints and sinners. Ray is a younger, cockier, more self-confident (at least outwardly) version of Wayne, the disintegration of his personality chillingly detailed and utterly convincing. Jennifer and Tim are the teenage equivalent of Carol and Lee, but without their moral backbone, so that they become complicit in what Ray does, but all the same are far more victims than the other couple, sounding boards for the sociopath’s ego, existing only to validate him, and finding self-worth only when they attempt to break free from his control. In Ed and Charlie, the two cops, there are echoes of Rule, one’s need for love and the other’s longing for closure, to see justice done, but here doomed to disappointment, as all their efforts bring about is fresh killing and more heartbreak.

There’s a slow burn feel and terrible sense of inevitability to what happens in The Lost, like being on a long, long road and knowing there’s a ten car pile-up waiting at the end but helpless to turn the wheel, to take a different direction. The violence when it finally erupts in the closing scenes is all the more hard hitting for having been held in check so long, and the reader shares the pain as characters we have come to know and care about are brutalised and slaughtered. There’s a bitter irony to it as well, with Charlie Schilling’s probing the catalyst for Ray’s outburst of berserker rage, the desire for justice leading to just more killing, and the only people to come out of it all relatively unscathed are Jennifer and Tim, both of whom must share the guilt for what happened and yet seem unmoved.

It’s a sad and harsh story of wasted lives, but also a highly moral book and one that serves as an antidote to all the pointless teen slasher movies and bestsellers packed with bizarre for the sake of it serial killers.

Old Flames (Leisure paperback, 336pp, $7.99) is billed as ‘Ketchum’s first original mass market in seven years’, but there’s an element of half truth to that. The book consists of two novellas, with only the title work doing what it says on the tin. The second and longer work, Right to Life has been previously published, but this is probably the first time it has been available, at least to UK readers, in such an economic format.

Dora, the protagonist of Old Flames, has a lot going for her – she has a successful career, is good looking, sexually adventurous. The only thing she doesn’t have is a man, as so many of her relationships tend to crash and burn. Then she learns of Old Flames, a detective agency that tracks down the people from your past, and engages them to seek high school sweetheart Jim, now happily married to Karen and with two children. Dora sees the life she should have had, the life she still wants. She engineers an ‘accidental’ meeting, insinuates herself into Jim’s new life, does whatever it takes to make herself indispensable to him, even when that entails violence.

So far, so The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or similar tale of a conniving femme fatale, but Ketchum is his own man and lurking beneath the surface of this short and deceptive story is a study of obsession taken to its limit, one that is as unique as it is unsettling. Rational at first, sympathetic even, it’s hard to say at what point Dora tips over the edge, goes from wanting an idyllic life to believing reality can be shoehorned into her conception. She is a madwoman, pure and simple, and the tragedy is that other people don’t realise. They treat her as one of themselves and are unable to cope when the truth is exposed, so far is it outside of their normal experience that they have no idea of how to react, no example to follow. Dora’s insanity is rooted in the loneliness and desperation that undo the woman and drive her on, the selfishness that comes to motivate every action; it’s hinted at in her response to the latest failed relationship, seen more obviously in her sexual encounter with Jim’s friend Matthew, in the tricks she uses to get close to Jim and frustration at being unable to win over daughter Linda. Dora is, in a very real sense, an outsider, an alien, wanting to be like other people but not really knowing how, only able to mimic gestures and fake what others genuinely feel. The violence when it comes is sudden, like a jolt to the heart, and the final line of the story is chilling, not just for the lack of human connection stated but also the emotional desolation it conveys.

Right to Life is almost certainly the kind of tale those familiar with Ketchum’s reputation but not his oeuvre will expect from him, an ostensibly sordid story ripe with sexual violence and extreme behaviour.

Sara Foster is abducted from outside a clinic where she was planning to have her child by married man Greg aborted, snatched off the street by a couple in a van. Stephen and Kath are right to lifers, who keep Sara a prisoner in their basement, or at least that is her first impression, but in reality the cause is just a pretext for them. They are perverts who want to torture and sexually abuse a helpless woman, and to coerce Sara, Stephen hints at membership of some secret organisation with the power to reach out and hurt her family. But as time passes Stephen grows increasingly frustrated, tormented by thoughts of a fulfilment that always seems out of reach, coming to realise that only killing Sara will satisfy him, and that if he does such a thing then he will need to do it again.

This is a story that is not for the squeamish, a terrible and no holds barred account of abuse, reminiscent of Ketchum’s masterpiece The Girl Next Door in the way it meticulously catalogues the atrocities committed against Sara, but is never salacious or gratuitous. We sympathise entirely with the victim, cheer her on when the opportunity for bloody vengeance presents itself, and if Ketchum takes us inside the minds of his villains it’s only so that we can despise them all the more. It’s a story about how principles, no matter how fine, can be perverted to the worst ends. It’s a story about how people can be brutalised and demoralised but still emerge triumphant. It is, like most of Ketchum’s tales, a moral fable that doesn’t moralise and the thing that we come away with is not the evil of the abusers, not the atrocities they commit, but Sara’s indomitable spirit and that, regardless of how grim the story gets, gives it an ultimately upbeat ending.

Ketchum doesn’t glamorise or make excuses for the violence he portrays. He is, in all of these books, firmly on the side of the victim, and in any final analysis that is where his authority lies, that is what elevates his works above the bloody excesses which they chronicle, and that is why we should read him, no matter how horrific the journey becomes or how hopeless the situation may seem.

Let’s hear from Stephen King again (if I quote him enough we get to put his name on the cover and sell a few gazillion extra copies): “You may be shocked, even revolted, by Jack Ketchum’s hellish vision of the world, but you won’t be able to dismiss it or forget it.”

Spot on.

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