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.

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