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.

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