You put a gun to my head (please don’t) and demand I name my very favorite writer, I’ll probably say Stephen King.
But if you asked me to name you the horror author—heck, the anything author—who burrows the deepest into the human psyche, I’d have to say Jack Ketchum.
There’s a great scene from The Neverending Story, a fantastic and terrifying kid’s movie that once gave me a good year’s worth of nightmares. And if you think that’s hyperbole, go ahead and Google a creature called the Gmork. On second thought, I’ll do it for you:
In that film, a wizened old book dealer tells a kid that the books the kid reads are safe. The kid nods at the leatherbound tome on the book dealer’s table and asks, “That one isn’t?” And of course we, the viewers, find out very quickly that it’s as dangerous as a frustrated former athlete coaching his son’s little league team.
I suspect that many readers of this blog will fall into the “seasoned veteran of horror” category. That is, it takes an awful lot to scare some of you with the written word. I often try to explain to my wife just how grateful people like you and I are when we find authors who can cleave through that tough membrane of experience and gouge us deeply enough to make us feel real fear. Personally, though I’ve read a great many books, I find I’m still pretty susceptible to a great writer’s spell, and I’m thankful to report that there are several writers still capable of scaring me. Ketchum is one of those, of course, and if that were the end of things, I’d stop typing now.
But Ketchum doesn’t just scare me. He leaves me shaken.
Like that book on the wizened dealer’s table, a Ketchum story possesses uncanny powers. When I read his stuff, I’m no longer sitting on my couch holding a novel—I’m a good-hearted general store owner grieving the loss of my faithful dog and determined to find justice. Or I lie down in bed with my trusty Nook, and the next thing I know I’m in some kind of cellar leering at a woman I’ve captured and tied up.
Ketchum’s plots are disturbing, no doubt about it. And his craft is second-to-none. But for my money it’s his perceptiveness that makes his work so powerful.
First of all, pretend that you’re a fictional character. Be any guy or gal you want. Heck, be a Wookie, if you’re into that sort of thing. Then imagine the guy pictured above staring at you. I chose a smiling picture because I don’t want to cast him as some sort of Rasputin figure bent on destroying you. He doesn’t want to destroy you at all—he just doesn’t want you to lie to yourself or to pretend certain shadowy corners of our hearts and minds don’t exist. (In fact, I can safely say he’s a really nice guy. He’s taken the time to correspond with me several times, and he’s never even threatened to call the cops on me. At least I don’t think he has.)
But imagine you’re in a book and he’s staring at you. Like everyone who looks at you, he sees the facade (or the social mask, as many writers like to think of it). Like the people who really know you, he sees beneath that. Where your real emotions lurk, where your impatience and frustration boil. But unlike most of your friends—unlike some of your closest family members—his unblinking gaze penetrates even deeper. His keen blade plunges into the carefully constructed defenses you’ve created and rips through them like a DEA agent hacking to pieces the vinyl of a suspected heroin dealer’s backseat. Ketchum’s blade of perception punctures those defenses like they’re nothing, then he delves even deeper.
Deeper than even you care to look.
I read The Woman a few months ago. In my mind, it’s probably the fifth Ketchum book that deserves to be called one of the top fifty or so horror novels ever written. There’s a guy in that book named Chris Cleek. The dismissive or the Puritanical or the pissed-off-because-he’s-shaken-up-and-isn’t-sure-why reader will call Cleek a wholly fictional character. A guy like that couldn’t exist, right? I mean, the stuff he does, the things he puts his family through, the revelations surrounding him that drop on top of the reader like atom bombs in the waning stages of the novel…all that stuff is just…crazy. Right?
You sure about that? Ketchum asks. You really believe the distance between a great many living, breathing men and Chris Cleek is that vast? And if you do believe it, why are you so freaked out? Why do you find yourself feeling guilt and fear and joy and shame and elation and sorrow after finishing The Woman? After all, it’s just a book, right?
With most writers, with most books, I’d say, “Yes, it’s just a book.”
But with Ketchum, I can’t be that dismissive. I have to look deeper.
“Why,” you ask with a grin, “because his books aren’t safe?”
Read The Woman and ask me that again. Or Off Season. Or The Girl Next Door, or half a dozen others.
Something tells me you won’t be grinning afterward.
And just because I love watching people go apoplectic over Ketchum’s work without really understanding why, click on this link and watch the guy pictured above react to the movie version of The Woman. Then tell him it’s just a story.