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.


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