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.”

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