Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #10-#6

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 10-6 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

10. “The Work”

Set in a remote home in the Maine woods, this 1997 story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a business meeting between an anonymous female protagonist and the man, Richard Carey, she has flown in on retainer. A seemingly simple situation–until the eventual revelation that Carey is a contract killer, and the woman a disgruntled writer determined to have him murder not her publisher or editor but her. Beyond such plot twists, though, what distinguishes “The Work” is the window it provides onto Ketchum himself.

The writer in the story clearly is a female stand-in for Ketchum. She speaks of enjoying a “cult following” but never experiencing break-out success. This is partly because of what she writes: “Suspense, horror. I tend to proceed from the dark side, to try to disturb you. Some of it can be pretty brutal.” Another factor is her refusal to follow publishing trends and produce “a big fat blockbuster” (“damned if I’m going to write something just for the money or so some editor can be flavor of the month with the boys on publishers’ row”). The woman also shares an interesting piece of aesthetic self-assessment:

The work‘s the thing, Richard. I work hard and carefully at what I do and I think I do it fairly well. I’m no Dostoevsky but I’m no hack either. You get themes in my books, you get people, issues–though I try hard not to hammer you over the head with them. You get some decent writing. What you don’t get I hope is simple, comfortable beach-reading. Tub-reading. Subway-reading. You don’t get Jackie Collins.

No, you get Jack Ketchum. His protagonist proceeds to speak of the notoriety she gained from her first novel, and of her betrayal by her own publisher, who got “so upset [over the scripted carnage] he damn near fired the editor. Distributors were furious. So they decided to bury it. Pretend it never happened. Pulled all the advertising, window posters, point-of-purchase displays, all that sort of thing.” Tellingly, Ketchum himself suffered the exact lack of support when his first book Off Season (concerning a tribe of modern-day cannibals) was released. If there were any doubt as to what Ketchum is referencing, it is erased when the setting of “The Work” is belatedly identified as Dead River, Maine–the same as in Off Season.

Now the protagonist (who is dying of bone cancer anyway) wants Carey to recreate a grisly murder scene from her first book. She is quick to explain that hers is not a case of madness or masochism: “Someone is going to notice if you do it this way. Any other way and I am just one more dead writer. But if you do it this way someone is going to refer it back to the book. Plenty of people will, I think. And the book is going to go back into print, big-time. In fact, if you do it right, they’ll all go back into print.” Suspense builds as the stone-cold killer Carey blanches at what is asked of him; the savage details are held back form readers until a climactic scene of assault, evisceration, and cannibalism that perfectly matches the shocking murder of Carla in Off Season.

Making a graphic sacrifice for her art, the protagonist of “The Work” ironically succeeds in ensuring her literary legacy. Thankfully, Ketchum himself never had to resort to such bloody extremes to achieve a deserved level of popularity and acclaim, but this semi-autobiographical story nevertheless furnishes strong insight into the writerly hurdles he faced early in his career.

 

9. “Luck”

Jack Ketchum established himself as a master of the macabre Western with his 2003 novella The Crossings, but he made his first foray into such territory in the 2000 short story “Luck” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). Notice how skillfully Ketchum establishes the genre through details of character and setting in the story’s opening paragraph:

The night was moonless and quiet save for the crackling of the fire and the liquid tiltback of the Tangleleg whiskey which they passed between them and Faro Bill Brody drawing hard on his Bull Durham and the moans and heavy breathing from Chunk Herbert and the snort and paw of horses and the voices of the men. Their talk had turned to luck, good and bad. The men were of the opinion that theirs had taken a far turn for the worse this day for who could have guessed at Turner’s Crossing that the stage would be filled with lawmen and citizens with guns drawn and ready and a posse just out of sight behind them. They had robbed the same stage at the same place at the same time of day three weeks running and never known a problem.

“Luck” instantly immerses the reader in its world, but a second reading reveals also just how carefully plotted the story is. As the outlaws huddle around and trade tales about luck, Chunk Herbert (who now lies dying after being shot in the head during the botched stagecoach robbery) groans and mumbles incoherently in the background. “Sounded like ‘Lily’ or ‘Liddy’,” Faro Bill observes at one point. “Sounded like ‘I-ill,” Canary Joe Hallihan later offers when Chunk pipes up during his story about Little Dick West, “the unluckiest man who ever walked the Lord’s green earth.” Canary Joe recounts personally witnessing West’s shooting death on multiple occasions in disparate parts of the country. Even more uncanny than West’s repeated reincarnations is the dire fate that befalls his respective killers. One gunman’s farmhouse burns down about a month later with him and his whole family inside; another hapless assassin trips and breaks his neck while carrying West’s corpse down a three-stepped staircase. Most gruesome of all, a seemingly victorious duelist blows off his own genitalia while holstering his pistol.

Canary Joe’s eerie narration creates a hush amongst the band of bandits. All except Chunk, desperate to confess, and whose last words are terribly clear to his doomed cohorts: “not I-ill or Lily but Li’l Dick West, I shot Li’l Dick West in Dodge City, Kansas, and the fusillade seemed to come from everywhere at once and ended Chunk’s luck and their own along with it for good and ever.”

A campfire spook story with a wicked twist, “Luck” is a tale that every Ketchum fan will consider himself/herself fortunate to have come across.

 

8. “Megan’s Law”

“Well, what the hell would you do?” confrontational narrator Albert Walker asks in the opening line of “Megan’s Law” (1999; collected in Peaceable Kingdom). This arresting hook generates instant suspense, as the reader can’t help but wonder what Albert actually has gone and done.

Albert relates an encounter with police officer legally required to inform that a “tier-three high risk sex criminal,” Philip Knott, has moved in two doors down from his home. Hearing this, Albert is immediately concerned for the safety of his twelve-year-old daughter Michele (whom he has previously protected from her “crazy rumdrum [and now deceased] miserable excuse of a mother”). He grows even more distraught over–and obsessed with–his new neighbor after learning the horrid details (from a gossiping bartender) of the child-raping Knott’s crimes. It soon becomes apparent that the officer’s initial warning to Albert “against vigilantism” has been given in vain.

The brilliance of Ketchum’s story lies in its manipulation of readerly sympathy. Alternating Albert’s narrative with passages of Knott’s italicized thoughts, “Megan’s Law” juxtaposes an extremely devoted father and an ostensibly rehabilitated sex criminal. Knott (whose surname suggests both negation and entanglement) emerges as a vulnerable figure when he considers the dark side of the titular piece of legislation:

This Megan’s Law thing. It fucks you up! Out in California they firebombed this guy’s car, torched the poor bastard, burnt him to death. In Connecticut they got this other guy, about twenty-five of them, beat the shit out of him, somebody they thought did stuff but it was a case of mistaken identity, they fucked up, they got the wrong guy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so fucking scary. What people are capable of.

Knott, though, is no innocent, and is still struggling with some highly illicit urges: “I want to fuck something silly. I want to fuck something till it screams,” the man admits at the end of one passage. But then (as Albert meantime plots to put a “stop” to this “running sore”) Knott begins his next section of the narrative by amending: “I want to fuck something till it screams but I won’t. Not in the immediate future anyway. That I’m pretty sure of. I think I maybe can actually do this thing. Maybe. Maybe it’s the meds or maybe it’s just being free now not in Rahway anymore and not obsessing all the time.” Knott thinks he stands a chance of assuming a normal life, not realizing that Albert is about to mete out a violent death.

Albert steals a jeep, dons a ski mask, then runs over Knott twice as the man crosses his own front lawn en route to his driveway. When Albert backs up the vehicle a second time, he remorselessly observes “that my left front tire had rolled over his neck, that the Wagoneer’s weight had pretty much disconnected his head from his body and had flattened his neck like roadkill which in fact was exactly what the little fucker was now.” The threat-eliminating father enjoys “a busy and productive day at work,” but his daughter Michele is shaken up that night after learning of Knott’s murder. “So I did what I usually do,” Albert admits:

I took her to bed.

I comforted her.

What would you do?

A signature Ketchum twist, belatedly revealing the true reason Albert was so bent on keeping Knott away from Michele. Albert’s interrogative refrain takes an abruptly alienating turn in the closing line, as no sane reader is likely to agree with such a course of incestuous solace. Nevertheless, by closing with a question the story throws down a moral gauntlet, forces each one of us to consider what we are really capable of when it comes to sheltering our loved ones from the world’s various harms. The honest answer here could prove as shocking and unsettling as “Megan’s Law” itself.

 

7. “The Cow”

Co-author Lucky McKee might have had a hand in this novelette sequel to 2011’s The Woman, but “The Cow” is quintessential Ketchum. The plot follows the blueprint established by the earlier novels in the series concerning latter-day cannibals terrorizing coastal Maine. There are unflinching scenes of sudden, savage attack (“she simultaneously reached up and dug her fingers into his eyes and bit down into the crotch of his white cargo Bermudas”) and utterly gruesome meal prep (“the gutting, the removal of the arms, the removal of the backbone, the halving and quartering, the removal of the ribs. The deep cuts along the calves and thighs and rump.”). But what truly distinguishes “The Cow” is not its formula, but its formatting.

The narrative is presented as “The Journal of Donald Fischer,” the lone survivor of a beachfront assault on his rehearsing theater group by the Woman and her cannibalistic sidekicks. Fischer is penning his on-going account in “a filthy battered spiral notebook” while being held prisoner by his attackers. The framing of the story this way is significant in that furnishes an overt example of something I would argue Ketchum has been doing all-along in the series: scripting variations on the Indian captivity narrative (a literary genre dating back centuries and most classically exemplified by the memoir The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson).

Ketchum has hinted at such a context previously (in the series’ second novel, Offspring) by giving the cannibal clan suggestively Native American names such as Rabbit, and Eartheater, and Second Stolen. Here in “The Cow,” the anachronistic primitives living close to nature in the remaining uncivilized spaces of the modern world dry strips of slaughtered meat “over some kind of teepee-style rack.” The Woman’s cannibalism is even described at one point as “a spiritual thing”: “the best food understands its own death, its sacrifice. And the deeper the understanding the more that supports the living.” Finally, while historical abductees such as Mary Rowlandson had to contend with the threat of heathen sexual aggression, Ketchum’s narrative shows that a male captive like Fischer is not exempt from rape. To his horror, Fischer has been kept alive not as a future meal but rather for the purposes of stud service. Because the Woman seeks to rebuild her carnivorous tribe, Fischer is reduced to the status of a profane cow, something “to be milked and milked again.”

Fischer’s closing journal entry is composed about four months after his climactic escape attempt: “The events I’ve written about took place in July. Now, by my reckoning, it’s October, somewhere around Halloween. But there won’t be any trick-or-treaters coming around here.” If there were any kiddies in the vicinity, they’d probably be scared off by Fischer’s appearance. The narrator’s closing revelation is of his having been subjected to a series of body piercings, the inserted slivers of bone strategically placed not just to help keep Fischer tethered in captivity but also to increase his productivity (“It’s true what they say about genital piercings,” the hapless Fischer shares. “It makes me a more efficient cow.”). Fischer nonetheless vows to “tear these bones out of me with my bare hands if given the slightest chance at rescue,” an act that sounds so excruciatingly painful, the (cringing male) reader almost can’t help but hope that Fischer remains gotten by the balls.

 

6. “Firedance”

With “Firedance” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom), Jack Ketchum ventures straight into the heart of King Country. The story is set in Maine, and is populated with small-town, common-folk type characters, including protagonist Frisco Hans (an ex-merchant seaman who one morning had “jumped off a lifeboat made fast high over the leeward rail onto the deck of the Curfew, hit the deck too hard and lost his sense of taste”) and his drinking buddy Homer Devins (whose wife “had run away with the Chinese dry-cleaner last winter while Devins was out hunting rabbits”). Like Stephen King before him, Ketchum offsets the mundane and the incredible, as seen when the characters Ray Fogarty and Dot Hardcuff, amidst an adulterous tryst up on Zeigler’s Notch, make a mind-boggling discovery: of a multi-species group of animals (mice, snakes, a cardinal, a wolf, and a lynx) sitting closely and calmly circled around a campfire.

The promptly-summoned townspeople of Dead River at first feel like they are viewing something “miraculous and awe-inspiring,” but an intimation of the ominous quickly sets in: “It was as though the natural way of things had reversed itself. Humans in the shadows, wild things in the light.” The humans tear off “running like kids from the bogeyman”; when curiosity returns them to the same woodland spot the next night, the inexplicably peaceful circle has grown, and now the animals are observed moving (dancing?) around the fire. Such bizarre choreography scares the watchers, and riddles them with existential angst: “a feeling passed through the crowd that felt like a kind of collective shame or guilt or something, as though the animals had made them smaller somehow, humbled, a damned sight less significant.” So it’s no surprise when the heavily-armed humans start grousing about how just “plain unnatural” the scene is. Frisco Hans, though, suddenly isn’t quite so sure:

How do we know? he thought? Who in the hell knows what’s natural in a world up to its butt in poisoned lakes and streams, with poisoned air for chrissake, with normal-looking guys not a lot different from Homer here walking into a K-Mart and shooting up the customers with some fancy thousand-dollar automatic weapon, guys who like to kidnap and murder little children, a world where you get a doll for Christmas and it eats your hair, a world so crazy and nonsensical that you can jump off a goddamn lifeboat and lose your sense of taste forever? Who says what’s natural and what’s not?

By the third night, “the sheer size of the damn thing” has the folk of Dead River utterly spooked: it “looked like the entire forest was there,” and “there were even plenty of farm animals this time.” Only Hans seems filled with wonder, the sense that he is privy to some evolutionary leap, “the dawn of a whole new time, a whole new nature”: “They’re like us, he thought. Like what we must have been thousands and thousands of years ago. We must have crawled out of caves on nights like this and done just the same.” Yet profound worry accompanies Hans’s wonderment. As the dancers whirl “around the flames in some bright joyous rapture of celebration that was impervious to danger, oblivious to harm,” Hans stands “frozen in a fundamental horror at what his species was capable of doing here tonight.” Hearing “a shotgun pump a cartridge, triggers cocked all around,” Hans knows “a goddamn bloodbath” is about to unfold.

A massacre is averted when little Patty Schilling breaks free from her mother’s arms and runs and joins the dancing animals. Other children and women (man appears to have no place within this peaceable kingdom) soon follow the innocent’s lead. At story’s end, Hans sees “Dot Hardcuff dancing around with a big brown bear and not even her husband or Ray Fogarty was going to argue with that choice of partner.” Nor can the reader argue with the choice of this atmospheric masterpiece of magic realism as one of Jack Ketchum’s all-time-best works of short fiction.

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #15-#11

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 15-11 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

15. “Returns”

This 2002 piece (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) reveals yet another side to the multifaceted Jack Ketchum: the animal lover. The story’s anonymous protagonist comes back from the beyond (four days after being mowed down by a New York City cab driver), “knowing there was something I had to do or try to do.” Upon returning to his apartment, though, he finds that his alcoholic wife Jill has been neglecting Zoey, his beloved cat. Thinking that perhaps the purpose of his visitation is to help snap Jill out of her drunken funk, the narrator tries to rouse her to attend to Zoey (unlike the cat, Jill can’t see her late husband’s spectral self, but hears him inside her head). And fails miserably.

That’s largely because Jill already has different plans for Zoey. The plurality of the story’s title comes into play when a stranger bearing a cat-carrier rings the doorbell. He is reluctant to carry out the deed he’s been summoned for, telling Jill that the cat could be put up for adoption for a while rather than being sent straight to death by euthanasia. Cold and malicious, Jill lies that Zoey is a biter and a fighter, and thus unfit for domestic existence.

Jill’s callous act is the ultimate betrayal for the narrator, who rages at the miserable widow with ghostly vitriol:

My wife continues to drink and for the next three hours or so I do nothing but scream at her, tear at her. Oh, she can hear me, all right. I’m putting her through every torment I can muster, reminding her of every evil she’s ever done to me or anybody, reminding her over and over what she’s done today and I think, so this is my purpose, this is why I’m back, the reason I’m here is to get this bitch to end herself, end her miserable fucking life and I think of my cat and how Jill never really cared for her, cared for her wine-stained furniture more than my cat and I urge her toward the scissors, I urge her toward the window and the seven-story drop, urge her toward the knives in the kitchen and she’s crying, she’s screaming, too bad the neighbors are all at work, they’d at least have her arrested. And she’s hardly able to walk or even stand and I think, heart attack maybe, maybe stroke and I stalk my wife and urge her to die, die until it’s almost one o’clock and something begins to happen.

What’s happening is that the narrator’s “power” is fading, in tandem with the waning moments of Zoey’s life. Sensing his cat’s death somewhere across the city, the narrator realizes the real purpose of his visitation. Not to rescue Jill, or even torment her, but to have been there for Zoey one last time before she was carried off: “That last touch of comfort [given to her] inside the cage. The nuzzle and purr. Reminding us both of all those nights she’d comforted me and I her. The fragile brush of souls.”

Understanding delivers closure, both to the narrator and the narrative. Announcing that the “last and best of me’s gone now,” the devoted pet owner promptly fades from consciousness. The same cannot be said for this quietly haunting tale (based, the author shares in the appended story note, on his own experience of having to put down his housecat). Short and bittersweet, “Returns” lingers long past its natural end point.

 

14. “The Best”

This short piece (first published in 2000, and subsequently collected in Peaceable Kingdom) is a premiere example of another typical Ketchum tale-type: the hot-blooded narrative of erotic horror.

Thirty-five-year-old Shelia convinces her great-in-the-sack-but-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Tommy (who has told her he is leaving her for another woman) to join her for one last bout of break-up sex. This proves to be no mere farewell frolic, though, but rather the first act in the diabolical scheme of a woman scorned.

Shelia shows up afterwards at the door of Tommy’s new flame Janine, feigning amiability. But the moment Janine lets her guard down, Shelia knocks her cold with a sucker punch. She then proceeds to choke Janine to death with a belt taken from the woman’s bedroom closet. She tears off the corpse’s nightgown and panties, then takes “a few minutes to give the body a good beating, concentrating on the ribs and head.” What at first appears to be gross overkill is only stage-setting for the really “nasty part” to follow.

A Ziploc bag in Shelia’s purse holds the semen-filled condom saved from Shelia’s earlier coitus with Tommy. Shelia places it over her latex-gloved index finger, pricks the Trojan’s tip with a pin, and goes to work filling Janine with incriminating DNA. The victim’s lifeless womb needs to be lubricated with blood, and it occurs to Shelia that the police are going to think that Tommy engaged in some Dahmer-esque necrophilia. “The idea made her giggle,” and this singularly chilling reaction indicates just how unhinged Shelia has become.

Her sick mission accomplished, Shelia returns home and slips into bed beside the oblivious Tommy. Feeling his familiar body heat, Shelia can’t help but think “for a moment how sad it was, really, that he’d be leaving anyway. Not where he wanted to go but somewhere.”

“The Best” haunts the reader with its realistic horror, as Shelia’s fake-rape frame job seems frightfully plausible. Ketchum’s story also casts a dark shadow over the notion of male prowess. Because as Tommy is about to discover, being the best lover someone ever had can ultimately turn into your own worst nightmare.

 

13. “Bully”

Since readers might not be familiar with this 2010 tale (published in the UK anthology Postscripts #22/23 – The Company He Keeps), I won’t go into too-specific detail regarding its plot.  But I do want to make note of some of the story’s strengths:

First and foremost, “Bully” is a fine slice of American Gothic. The horrors hidden behind closed doors, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown, U.S.A.: Ketchum captures these perfectly in this narrative concerning a drunkard father with a penchant not just for mean-spirited antics (e.g. knuckle-crushing handshakes) but also vicious physical abuse of his wife. Dishing the dirt on his despicable old man, exposing him for the monster he really was, the protagonist Jeff McFee reveals a childhood marked by incidents of terrible violence and emotional scarring (there’s a reason Jeff “can’t ride a horse to this day”). These events transpired on a family farm in rural Sussex County, New Jersey, leading to some harrowing discoveries both under the front porch and at the bottom of a well.

The story is expertly structured so as to build suspense.  An unnamed female narrator, Jeff’s “third cousin once removed,” has the visited the man (now an NYU law professor) in his New York City apartment because she’s determined to learn the full story of a family tragedy that none of her closest relatives seem to want to discuss. Her curiosity is soon coupled by the reader’s, as key elements are hinted at but their full explanation is held in abeyance until later in Jeff’s account. By looking to bring long-past events to light, the narrator also unwittingly sets the adult Jeff down a dark path.

“Bully” features a zinger of a closing line, but this tale of “belated revenge” (to borrow Ketchum’s own phrase in the author’s note attached to the story) does not present a neat, facilely moralistic wrap-up. Yes, tables are turned and comeuppance is transacted, but there’s less a sense of closure for Jeff’s character than an uneasy feeling that this is a truly haunted figure. Jeff’s psychological well-being is called into question by his admitted hearkening to a ghostly voice. Downing drink after drink in the course of the story, Jeff also appears to be transforming into the very person he has abhorred most. And perhaps worst of all, based on Jeff’s final revelation, the titular pejorative technically applies to him just as well.

 

12. “Brave Girl”

A quieter–but not necessarily gentler–Jack Ketchum story…

The premise of “Brave Girl” (2002; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) is simple: four-year-old Suzy comes to the rescue when her mother suffers a household accident (Liza Jackson slips getting into the bathtub, cracking her head off the ceramic soap dish and knocking herself unconscious. Suzy has the wherewithal to turn off the tap, drain the tub, then dial 9-1-1 and calmly explain the situation. In short, this “brave, exceptional little girl” demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years. She isn’t even fazed (hint, hint) by the blood-spattered scene she finds in the bathroom.

Suzy’s grace under pressure makes for a great human interest piece, and the girl is quickly tabbed for a local TV news spot. But the reporter’s (and Ketchum’s) feel-good story takes a dark turn mid-interview. As Suzy bends over to retrieve her dropped doll, the camera captures a startling detail: “the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline that told [the reporter] that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too” for saving her abusive mother’s life.

The reporter, Carole Belliver (a firm “believer” in truth and justice?) is outraged and orders her cameraman to “Dupe the tape. Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them. I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn’t bring herself to do. I want us to do our best to drown the bitch.” With such forceful closing words, “Brave Girl” transforms into a different type of feel-good story, one in which the reader revels in the notion of a domestic monster receiving a much-deserved punishment.

The accidental discovery of Suzy’s victim status forces Belliver to “kill the [news] story,” yet brings Ketchum’s story to life as a work of American Gothic. Forget supernatural bogeys and remote locales; the worst horrors, Ketchum reminds us, can be found hidden behind the closed doors of home.

 

11. “The Visitor”

As we’ve already seen on the Countdown, in Jack Ketchum’s writerly hands a ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a vampire story never just a vampire story. So it should be no surprise that the author offers more than the usual blood and guts when turning his focus to zombies.

“The Turning” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) details the trials of Florida retiree Will and his wife Beatrice. The elderly couple misses the evening news on “the night the dead started walking,” and so are taken by surprise the following morning when their neighbor John Blount “climbed the stairs to the front door of their mobile home unit to visit over a cup of coffee as was his custom three or four days a week and bit Beatrice on the collarbone, which was not his custom at all.” Blount’s attack is described in prosaic terms, but that doesn’t mean the story is devoid of grisly horrors, as Will witnesses “some terrible things that first day”:

He saw a man with his nose bitten off–the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds–and a woman wheeled in on a gurney whose breasts had been gnawed away. He saw a black girl not more than six who had lost an arm. Saw the dead and mutilated body of an infant child sit up and scream.

Still, Ketchum’s narrative does not dwell on the undead pandemic scourging through the streets of Florida but rather situates itself within the “relatively quiet” interior of the local hospital. Will makes daily visits to see his wounded wife, and following Beatrice’s passing (and the lethal injection of her risen form by the swift-acting yet humane hospital staff) he continues to visit the subsequent occupants of Beatrice’s room. He brings the comatose patients flowers, sits with them and regales them with personal anecdotes. Sadly, though, Will is less a good Samaritan than a man plagued by severe grief. When a woman closely resembling Beatrice is “put down” by the doctors in Will’s presence, Will’s bottled emotions bubble over. He’s still crying when he returns to the hospital the next day, and is suddenly grabbed by the now-zombified guard.

When his bicep is bitten, Will feels “a kind of snapping as though someone had snapped a twig inside him,” and the widower wonders if the sensation isn’t metaphysical: “Heartbreak?” Will calmly navigates the desolate hospital, enters his wife’s old room, and climbs right into the empty bed. Lying there infected, Will is more pensive than apprehensive: “He thought how everything was the same, really. How nothing much had changed whether the dead were walking or not. There were those who lived inside of life and those who for whatever reason did not or could not. Dead or no dead.” As the waning Will waxes philosophical at story’s end, Ketchum manages to inject a strong dose of thoughtfulness into the traditional tale of mindless, shambling hordes.

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #20-#16

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 20-16 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

20. “When the Penny Drops”

Jack Ketchum is doubtless best known as a creator of unflinching, hard-core horror, but he is a writer of many tones and modes. The 1998 story “When the Penny Drops” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom), for instance, is a quiet and subtly uncanny tale presented by a narrator with a penchant for waxing philosophic (“It’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.“) and existentially curious (“Promise and promiscuity. That’s the business of living and the entire mystery is why. To what end? To perpetuate exactly what?”). This (strategically) unnamed figure also offers up some profound pronouncements about love, as when discussing his frequently-long-distance relationship with his wife Laura:

There’s a sheer simple joy in cooperating with another living soul under difficult circumstances that’s highly underrated. For two people who are mostly apart and provided that there’s love to begin with, every meeting is glue. It is a soft glue which allows for great elastic pullings apart, thin fibrous stretchings over cities and continents, space and time. But each strand is of exactly the same composition. It wants to come together. Its chemical goal is to return to the unity from which it sprang in the first place. And it does.

“When the Penny Drops” unfolds very much as a love story, sketching scenes from a twenty-eight-year marriage. The narrator spends a good deal of time describing a honeymoon spent on the Greek island of Mykonos, but he’s not just awash with nostalgia. He’s leading readers to the account of a strange incident that occurred during the vacation. The narrator loses and frantically searches for his wallet, only to return to his hotel to find that someone has turned it in to the front desk with its valuable contents intact. The mystery man who carried out this good deed seeks no reward, and simply leaves a note for the narrator encouraging him to “Do the same for someone else someday.”  At the time, the narrator doesn’t make too much of this unusual stroke of good fortune, but certainly senses a brush with mystery twenty years later when someone turns in his expensive ring (which the narrator had left behind on the bathroom sink in a New York bar), along with a note reading “Do the same for someone else someday.”

At this point, the story appears to be heading towards some heartwarming finale of repaid kindness. Remember, though, this is Jack Ketchum at the helm; we are being steered toward a dire twist. Mystery in the grander sense of the term yields to unsolved crime, and the narrator’s mysterious benefactor is supplanted by an only-vaguely-identified figure who shoots and kills Laura (an accidental witness to a liquor store hold-up). The murder scene is understandably a traumatic sight for the narrator, but what really floors him is the glimpse of the penny box next to the liquor store’s cash register, a penny box with the message “Take one if you need one. And do the same for someone else someday.

Grief-stricken, and struggling to come to terms with the meaning of Laura’s death (what purpose does it serve in the Grander Scheme of Things?), the narrator takes some drastic measures. He quits his job, buys an oft-robbed liquor store on the Lower East Side. “I figure it’s only a matter of time before somebody tries again,” the narrator concludes as he stands waiting with a thirty-eight Smith & Wesson at hand. “I’m not looking for the guy who shot Laura. I know the odds on that. But somebody. Please god. Someone else someday.” Violence is all he is looking to pay forward now, a fatal payback to an ostensibly innocent third party. If the narrator’s story-opening thesis holds that it’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to either godly grace or evil, then his closing mindset indicates an unfortunate plummet toward the latter alternative.

 

19. “Damned If You Do”

This 2004 tale (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) might not feature the hard-core horror of a similarly-set Ketchum piece, “If Memory Serves,” but it does pack a nasty surprise. Writhing on the horns of a relationship dilemma, John Brewer has been making weekly visits to a therapist’s office for the past two months. Brewer doesn’t “know what to do with” his mate Jennie; she “just doesn’t listen anymore.” Brewer can’t decide between “holding onto” Jennie or “dumping [her] once and for all” (a drastic act that part of Brewer admittedly doesn’t want to commit, leading him to bemoan
“damned if you and damned if you don’t”). Dr. Sullivan does his best to help Brewer deal with his personal issues, but the story’s climax reveals that the therapist and his patient were never really on the same page. Brewer returns home to observe Jennie lying in their bedroom: “He could almost hear her breathing–that was how peaceful she looked. How she could look so peaceful and be so bloated by now that it was impossible to see the length of baling wire around her neck was a mystery to him.”

“Damned If You Do” is a terrific example of Ketchum’s ability to author a finely crafted short story, with its twist ending set up by several strategic hints. Sullivan notes instances of Brewer’s “sham” body language and evasive responses, early clues pointing to the fact that the man is keeping something secret from the doctor.  When Sullivan suggests that Jennie herself might need professional help, Brewer laughingly but forcefully shoots down the idea: “She’ll never be in therapy, believe me.” Next the doctor attempts to engage Brewer in a bit of dream analysis, not realizing how close he is getting to the truth: “Sullivan was a firm believer in dreams as metaphors for problems left untended to, each with its own symbolic language. Anything from a reminder to pay that overdue gas bill to resolving the guilt over a loved one’s death.” Even a seemingly innocuous detail like the passing mention that Brewer is a furniture maker by trade proves key to the conclusion, when Jennie’s festering corpse is shown to be contained in a “knotty pine box” built by her slayer. In retrospect, even the story’s title is telling, as it omits the “don’t” half of the maxim (and intimates the state of perdition someone like Brewer enters into by committing a mortal sin).

The story leaves off with Brewer still caught in internal debate (“Dump her? Or leave her be?), and unsure whether he can wait until next week’s session to come to a decision, because Jennie “was really beginning to stink.” The same certainly cannot be said for “Damned If You Do,” a piece that only appreciates with each subsequent reading.

 

18. Weed Species

Don’t let the title fool you: Weed Species (a novelette published by Cemtery Dance in 2006) has nothing to do with rampant marijuana use. Rather Ketchum is employing a censorious conceit; as defined on the book jacket’s front flap, a weed species is “an organism that is intentionally or accidentally introduced to an area where it is not native, and where it successfully invades and disturbs natural ecosystems, displacing native species. See also kudzu, water hyacinth, zebra mussel, Burmese python, eco-tourism, sociopath.”

The characters Sherry Lydia Jefferson and Owen Philip Delassandro certainly fit this negative mold. In the shocking opening “chapter” of Weed Species, Sherry presents the drugged body of her thirteen-year-old sister Talia as a Christmas gift to her fiance Owen (a businessman with “Baywatch good looks,” but an utter grotesque on the inside). This holiday rape will also be captured by camcorder, but matters go awry for the awful auteurs when Talia chokes to death on her own vomit mid-shoot. Still, the incident fails to scare Sherry and Owen straight; their perversion extends so far as to a sex game (later in the narrative) in which Sherry dresses up in the late Talia’s clothing, and Owen himself develops into a serial rapist and killer.

Ketchum doesn’t reserve his scorn for this odious duo, though. Weed Species takes a grim view of humanity as a whole, interpolating references to a series of despicable acts, from sailors who “butcher and bludgeon” dodo birds “just for fun,” to a mother who almost kills her daughter through a mind-boggling act of neglect, to a family in Wisconsin who keeps “their seventeen-year-old daughter locked up in the basement for three years without anyone knowing.” Not even in the narrative’s climax does Ketchum allow any sense of real redemption. Sherry, after serving a brief prison sentence (she strikes a deal with the D.A. following the arrest of Owen, who is eventually executed for his crimes), returns to society and soon coaxes her new beau Arliss into raping a girl for/with her. An armed religious zealot who lives down the block (and has recognized the infamous Sherry) breaks in on the perpetrators in flagrante delicto, but there’s ultimately no blaze of glory haloing the gun-firing vigilante:

His third, fourth, and fifth shots were for Sherry Lydia Jefferson whose head was between the young girl’s legs. He could barely hear these shots because the first two were so loud. But the woman twisted forward and slid off the couch bleeding form the breast and stomach so that he knew that his job was done here and felt such joy and excitement, such intense exultation that it did not even occur to him to wonder why his own manhood almost ancient to him by now should suddenly be aroused.

Weed Species is vintage Ketchum, offering unflinching depiction of disturbing acts of sexual violence. Yet once again the author proves that he is much more than the horror genre’s equivalent of a shock jock. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is the account late in the narrative of the subsequent life of one of Owen’s early rape victims (from the time when Owen was only threatening to kill his female abductees). Janine Turner is now married with children, but she has been psychologically scarred by her past trauma, and accordingly turns into a drunken (physical) abuser of her own family members. In the end, Ketchum suggests, hearkening back to the book jacket copy, the most nefarious aspect of a weed is its blemishing spread–its facile mutation of hitherto-ordinary human nature.

 

17. “Papa”

Writing a story for an absinthe-themed anthology seems like an exercise in constriction, but with “Papa” (2006; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), Jack Ketchum manages to produce an admirably original piece.

The story boasts an interesting premise: painter Neal McPheeters (a real-life figure, and good friend of Ketchum) is mistaken as Ernest Hemingway by a stranger in an Upper East Side bar. Since Papa is “forty years dead,” McPheeters suspects Mike Kelly (an editor of Del Rey science fiction books–“Maybe that explained a few things and maybe it didn’t”) is “either way drunk, putting him on, crazy, or quite a character. Or all of the above.” This unusual case of mistaken identity, though, helps McPheeters (who has gone to the bar that afternoon in defiance of a looming deadline) pass the time in an entertaining manner, and leads to some amusing conversation (such as when Kelly bluntly inquires, “Hey, you ever fuck Gertrude Stein?”). So in the spirit of fun McPheeters plays along, even accepting an invitation to go back to Kelly’s apartment, drink from a bottle of absinthe and “Shoot the shit about the old days.”

The illegal alcohol has a quasi-hallucinogenic effect on McPheeters, but turns Kelly’s mood suddenly surly. In the comic climax of the narrative, Kelly berates “Hemingway” for his famous hyper-masculinity (“All that bullfighting, hunting, fishing bullshit.”), his history of adultery, even his granddaughters Margeaux and Marielle’s choice of movie roles (“You let ’em both get naked for godsakes!”). When Kelly starts ranting that his guest “OUGHT TO BLOW HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!”, McPheeters realizes it’s time to head on out of that den of insanity. In another type of Ketchum story, the protagonist might have been trapped and subjected to grisly punishment, but in this light-hearted piece, McPheeters makes a safe exit, wanders through Central Park soaking up the greenery until the absinthe wears off, then returns home and promptly begins painting.

“Papa” is a standout example of the “New York bar scene” genre of story that Ketchum has repeatedly written (I count at least a half-dozen instances of such tale-types in the author’s short fiction oeuvre). The piece is enjoyable in and of itself, but to me is also noteworthy for all the knowledge of Hemingway’s life and work that it flashes. I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that Ketchum’s pseudonym isn’t merely a nod to the 19th Century outlaw Black Jack Ketchum but also a subtler homage to Hemingway (who lived–and died–in Ketchum, Idaho). Ketchum’s unadorned yet resonant prose certainly suggests a stylistic influence; anyone who doubts a connection between the two writers is advised to take a look at the opening chapter of Ketchum’s novel Red. Neal McPheeters might bear a physical resemblance to Hemingway, but Jack Ketchum can be counted amongst Papa’s literary offspring.

 

16. “The Turning”

Cataclysm is in the air in this 1995 short piece (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). An unnamed narrator walks the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading signs of something wicked coming the City’s way. He passes a gang of teenage boys assaulting a homeless man, shoving “a piece of jagged macadam” into the victim’s bloodied and broken-toothed mouth. He spots grim shop-owners standing sentry in their doorways, and elderly travelers whose frightened faces suggest an innate understanding of the changing underway. He stops to give twenty dollars to a pretty young homeless woman, hoping to save her from a fate worse than destitution.

The climax of the story pulls these cryptic hints together to bring an intriguing premise to light:

He had seen it happen before. A long, long time ago. When the collective will and consciousness of an entire people had grown intense enough, black enough, angry enough, fearful enough and focused enough to rend deep into the nature of human life as it had existed up until then, all that dark cruel energy focused like a laser on an entire class, transforming them in reality how they were perceived and imagined to be almost metaphorically.

In the past it had been the rich–the ruling class who were perceived as vampires.  Feeding off the poor and destitute.

Now it was the poor themselves.

The reason the protagonist understands all this, the narrative reveals, is that “it had happened to him.” He was among the handful of Old World nobles transformed into nosferatu by lower class antipathy. Given the poverty and discrimination now plaguing New York City, though, the number of vampires will be “legion.”

Ketchum’s twisty little tale offers one last turn of the screw in its final lines, as the main character heads off to “dine with a beautiful recently-divorced real-estate heiress.” Apparently the man plans on enjoying a sanguineous night cap afterward as well, as “The Turning” finishes with a line that at once works as a scathing social critique and a pitch-perfect mimicking of the macabre wit of Robert Bloch: “Unlike most of the world, he preferred to feed upon his own.”

Remembering Jack Ketchum

I was deeply, deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of horror writer Jack Ketchum (the pen name of Dallas Mayr) at age 71.

A multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, Ketchum authored such classic novels as Off SeasonThe Girl Next DoorThe Lost, and Red (many of which were made into films adapted from his own screenplays). His approach to horror was distinctively unflinching, unabashedly brash in its depiction of violence and sex(ual perversion), yet Ketchum never reduced the graphic to the gratuitous and always brought a level of sophistication to the bloody mayhem splashed across the pages of his books. What made his narratives so hard-hitting wasn’t a mere knack for splattery effect but a true understanding of character–Ketchum was committed to conveying the emotional and psychological components of pain and suffering. A writer whose genre work tended toward the non-supernatural, Ketchum reminded readers time and again that the most horrific monsters are the ones wearing human skins.

I first heard the name Jack Ketchum mentioned in Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Award acceptance speech (during which King lauded Ketchum’s Gothic western The Crossings). Not long thereafter, I picked up a paperback copy of Ketchum’s story collection Peaceable Kingdom and was completely and utterly blown away (to this day, I can recall my first experience of these dazzling dark gems, holed up at Montclair State University and desperately hoping no students would show up during office hours to distract me from reading). Ketchum’s masterfully-crafted stories rekindled my then-guttering interest in genre fiction, and served as perfect illustrations of just how powerful horror fiction could be. After journeying through Peaceable Kingdom, I proclaimed myself a loyal subject, and scurried to purchase the rest of the author’s books.

Over the years, I got to meet Jack/Dallas on several occasions, at conventions and book readings in New York City. Encountering him in person was no less amazing than reading his prose. He proved approachable and affable, genuinely enthusiastic about interacting with his fans (he would even invite everyone to join him after a reading for some food and drink at one of his favorite spots, the Aegean Restaurant on the Upper West Side). My first impression, and lasting memory, of him, is as a down-to-earth guy who wasn’t looking to hold court in front of an idolizing entourage but was simply happy to hang out and chat with fellow horror-lovers.

With the passing of Jack Ketchum, the horror genre has lost not only one of its finest writers, but also one if its best representatives.

Murder as a Fun Art

Scooby-Doo undoubtedly forms the first major influence on my sensibilities, molding my lifelong interest in the Gothic and the macabre. (I can remember penning at age 10 or so a notebook “novel” titled Murder About the Manor, whose sprawling cast included tennis greats Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl–hey, I figured, if the Harlem Globetrotters could guest star on Scooby-Doo…!) The next phase of my development, though, can be traced to a trio of atmospheric mysteries. These movies hooked the adolescent me with their humor, but made a lasting impression with their hints of the horrific:

 

Murder By Death (1976)

Watching this air on broadcast TV as a kid, I might not have been quite old enough yet to catch the full scale of the super-sleuth parody, but I reveled in the silliness of the Neil Simon script (the sights gags involving Alec Guinness’s blind butler; the politically-incorrect humor centered on Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan stand-in). I was also absolutely mesmerized by the setting: a fog-shrouded, rain-drenched country house complete with falling gargoyles, a shrieking doorbell, cobwebbed and booby-trapped bedrooms. And long before I ever read a word of his American Gothic prose, I was enthralled by Truman Capote–who here makes a rare acting appearance as the film’s master manipulator.

 

The Private Eyes (1980)

Tim Conway and Don Knotts play a pair of detectives so bumbling, they make Inspector Clouseau look like Hercule Poirot. To this day, I chuckle over the killer’s hilarious deviations from rhyme scheme in his notes left with the victims (e.g. “He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit. / By the way, you are standing in bull caca.”). Again, though, the film’s darker elements are what delighted me most: the spooky mansion featuring secret entrances, behind-the-walls passageways, and spyhole-eyed portraits; a Shadowy menace (whose black hood and robe make Ghostface’s costume look like a hand-me-down) purported to be the estate’s murdered lord returned as vengeful revenant; the terrific jump-scare inside the family crypt. I watched this one countless times on HBO as a youngster; seeing it again recently, I am reminded of all the wonderful reasons why.

 

Deathtrap (1982)

An older cousin brought me to the movie theater to see this adaptation of the Ira Levin stage play, and I soon realized that I was experiencing more adult fare than what Murder By Death or The Private Eyes previously offered. Slapstick humor is replaced by a more sophisticated wit (although there’s still some broad comedy to be found in the meemies screamed by Dyan Cannon’s high-strung character). The violence–even when the weapons prove to be theater props borrowed from the wall of a playwright’s office–is more graphic, and the perpetrators’ motivations more sinister. Watching this finely-crafted film taught me that a plot twist can be more elaborate than a bunch of meddling kids removing a monster mask from some greedy schemer.

Thought Crime (poem)

My latest poem was published today over at the weekly crime poetry blog The Five-Two. “Thought Crime” considers how the hard knocks suffered by a hard-boiled detective continue even into retirement.

While in grad school at NYU, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on cyberpunk science fiction, a movement strongly influenced by the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I had a lot of fun (despite the ultimately somber tone of “Thought Crime”) tapping into–and extrapolating from–that same hard-boiled formula here with this poem.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Abraham Panther’s “An Account of a Beautiful Lady” and Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment”

This is the first installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre RepublicMy goal is to explore just how “American Gothic” are the works of literature collected in books bearing that titular designation. The first book I am tackling (periodically, I will cover a few texts at a time from the table of contents) is editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916.

 

“An Account of a Beautiful Young Lady” by Abraham Panther

In this fictional narrative published in pamphlet form in 1787, the pseudonymous Panther pens a letter describing his discovery (while trekking through the “Western Wilderness”) of a cave-dwelling Lady. Prompted to explain her curious living situation, this woman recounts a bloody tale. While eloping with her lover (and fleeing her vengeful, death-threatening father), she and her partner ran afoul of those ultimate bogies of the American Gothic wilderness: a “party of Indians” who proceeded to mutilate and immolate the male and then dance in heathen celebration of their barbarous handiwork. The Lady escaped, but quickly encountered another threat in the form of a giant who took her into his cave and threatened to kill her if she didn’t submit to his sexual advances.

Panther’s epistolary narrative captures the savage state of the wilderness, and the facility with which it strips away the veneer of civility. Before her first night in the cave concluded, the Lady got hold of a hatchet and killed the sleeping giant with it. For good measure, she beheaded and quartered his corpse, dragged out and buried the body parts, and then settled down into the cave herself. While being given a grand tour of the Lady’s home, Panther notes the presence of quartet of skulls, which he supposes “were of persons murdered by the owner of the cave, or of his former companions.” Still, one has to wonder if the cave’s current occupant didn’t author such misdeed herself at some point during her nine years’ stay. She might have a lovely face, and a singing voice to match, but this Lady doubtless can be quite tigerish. The happiness of the story’s ending–with the Lady being returned home to her now-regretful father–does not necessarily wash away the darker undercurrents of the account.

 

“Somnambulism: A Fragment” by Charles Brockden Brown

America’s first (Gothic) novelist shows he can work the same elements in shorter forms, in this story centering on a classic scenario: “the perils and discomforts of a nocturnal journey” through the woods. “Somnambulism” also involves the theme of the double: is the furtive figure haunting the carriage ride of Constantia Davis and her father the misshapen, mentally-challenged, mischievous “monster” Nick Handyside, or the unreliable narrator Althorpe himself? Althorpe embodies contradictory notions of heroism and villainy; he is preoccupied with being the protector of Constantia on her night journey, but actually might be the cause of her demise. He dreams of shooting and mortally wounding the assassin who waylays Constantia, but when news arrive the next day that Constantia has been seriously wounded by a pistol shot, the possibility arises that Althorpe delivered the blow during a bout of sleepwalking. Such unwitting assault (which leads to Constantia’s death at story’s end) would be a most ironic turn. More sinisterly, the violence can be interpreted as an eruption of the unconscious hostility Althorpe bears towards Constantia, who is betrothed to another and thus far has rebuffed the smitten Althorpe’s romantic advances.

First published in 1805, but written prior to some of Brown’s more famous novels, “Somnambulism” clearly anticipates Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. The Davises’ fretting about notorious local trickster Nick Handyside during their night ride can also be viewed as an influence on Ichabod Crane’s concerns with the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Brimming with dark ambiance and narrative ambiguity, “Somnambulism” proves a fine example of American Gothic fiction.

Notes from Six Feet Underground

If your sense of humor tends toward the morbid, check out Grave Marker Macabre in the menu above. I’ve published it as a page rather than a post, because I hope to keep adding to this list of American Gothic epitaphs over time (setting them down in stone whenever I think them up). So keep venturing back; you never know what might poke out of the boneyard next.

X-coriation

If you didn’t catch “My Struggle III,” the first episode of season 11 of The X-Files, you missed a stunning transformation.

Apparently, Fox Mulder has turned into Philip Marlowe.

There’s plenty not to like (as Daniel Kurland points out in an extended critique over at Bloody Disgusting) about this opening episode, but to me the most cringe-worthy decision was to have David Duchovny launch into several voice-over monologues as his character is driving to track down the Cigarette Smoking Man. Such sudden and protracted narration creates a jarring note in and of itself, and the actual content of Mulder’s expressed thoughts makes these scenes that much more difficult to sit through. His lines sound incredibly stilted, as he frames what is at stake and poses a series of questions to himself (Kurland’s article cites the following passage as a prime example of Mulder’s purple turn: “I was running only on adrenaline and Scully’s premonitions, but was it hope I should be feeling, or fear that Scully’s right and that a man that I had come to despise, my own father, was alive? And if he were, he had become mad with power.” ). If the writing here were any lazier, Mulder would be in danger of going comatose behind the wheel. Not since Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun has there been such laughable use of hard-boiled voice-over; the problem is, the audience is meant to take Mulder’s words seriously.

Critics who screened the first half of season 11 have reassured despairing fans that subsequent (monster- rather than mythology-based) episodes do get much better. So there is hope that The X-Files can go down swinging in what appears to be its final round. Based solely on the premiere episode, though, the show looks like a washed-up fighter who unretires to chase one last payday and ends up giving a legacy-tarnishing and utterly embarrassing performance.

Mob Scene: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

A few nights ago, a huge throng gathered and made merry in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” though, a scene of nocturnal celebration is nowhere near as amiable.

The story shows structural similarities with Hawthorne’s more widely-known piece, “Young Goodman Brown”: night-time wandering, ominous encounters, the ultimate disillusionment of the protagonist. Here, a young man named Robin travels from his remote rural home to the heart of a New England colony, to seek a position with his titular kinsman. But the townspeople repeatedly answer his inquiries as to Molineux’s whereabouts with anger and derision. Among these is a devilish fellow whose “forehead bulged out into a double prominence,” and who is later seen sporting a red-and-black-painted face. Apparently, hell is other people, especially those who have united in enmity.

In the story’s climax, Robin encounters a mad pageant–a riotously-dressed mob wielding torches and playing “fearful wind-instruments.” The fantastic scene makes it seem “as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.” Eventually, Robin discovers that his unfortunate relation has been tarred and feathered and is being parade around in public shame. The colonists no doubt enjoy this torture and ridicule of a governmental figure loyal to the British crown, but as a reader it is hard to ignore the horror of the situation. Robin observes that the elderly Molineux’s “eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip. His whole frame was agitated by a quick, and continual tremor.”

Hawthorne’s story illustrates how popular dissent can easily descend into mob violence, how America’s political independence has its roots in the American Gothic. Once more shining a light on the darker elements of the country’s early history, Hawthorne reminds us that tar and feathers precede the Stars and Stripes.