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 5-1 on the countdown.
[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]
5. “The Rifle”
Ketchum’s 1996 tale (the lead story in the collection Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a divorced mother finding the eponymous firearm (which her ten-year-old son Danny has stolen from his grandfather’s farm) hidden in a bedroom closet, “unexpected as a snake.” Danny has always been a troubled and troublemaking child (e.g., “stealing Milky Ways from the Pathmark Store”; “the fire he and Billy Berendt had set, yet denied they’d set, in the field behind the Catholic Church last year”). The “shrinks” and “counselors” his mom has already sent him to haven’t really been able to help. And now, with the theft of the rifle–and the loading of it with one of the shells he’d similarly purloined–Danny has gone too far.
Irate, the mother treks through the woods behind her home to confront Danny with this indisputable evidence of his bad behavior. One of the key reasons the mother purchased her property was because she wanted her son to be close to the natural world and to learn from it (“Birth, death, sex, the renewal of the land, its fragility and its power, the chaos inside the order, the changes in people that came with the change of seasons”), but mom has no idea of the perversion/despoiling of nature she is about to uncover. When she confronts Danny about the rifle, she notices “something furtive” about him; he doesn’t seem to want her to see inside the converted root cellar that serves as his clubhouse. Forcing him to unlock his private sanctuary, the mother makes a horrific discovery:
She reached down and threw open one door and then the other and the first thing that hit her was the smell even with her sinus problem, the smell was rank and old and horrible beyond belief, and the second thing was the incredible clutter of rags and jars and buckets on the floor and the third was what she saw on the walls, hanging there from masonry nails pounded into the fieldstone, hung like decorations, like trophies, like the galleries she’d seen in castles in Scotland and England on her honeymoon and which were hunter’s galleries. A boy’s awful parody of that.
Spotting this bloody tableau of animal torture, the mother is struck with a “stunning terror” of Danny, “[o]f this little boy who didn’t even weigh ninety pounds yet.” Worse, she realizes not just what Danny is but “what he would become.” For his is the classic behavior of a nascent maniac, a serial killer in the making, and people like him “did not respond to treatment.” Seeing in Danny’s cold gaze that “there was nothing to save in his nature,” the mother abruptly raises the rifle and fires a killing shot into the boy’s left eye.
Exhibiting the toughest love, the mother makes a preemptive strike in defense of society’s innocents. But the woman (who locks up the root cellar Danny has fallen back into, and plans to report the boy as missing) has achieved anything but closure. Going forward, she’ll be forced to wonder, “How had it happened?” How had Danny turned out so wrong? Here the narrative turns to the natural calendar to form one of the finest closing sentences in the Ketchum canon: “It was a question she would ask herself, she thought, for a great many seasons after, as spring plunged into sweltering summer, as fall turned to winter again and the coldness of heart and mind set in for its long terrible duration.”
In his Introduction to Peaceable Kingdom, Ketchum notes that author “Peter Straub once paid me the compliment of saying that he thought a lot of people came to my writing for the wrong reasons but stuck with me for the right ones.” “The Rifle” perhaps forms the perfect case in point. Hearing that the story focuses on a sick kid given to animal mutilation, readers might expect to encounter depictions of grisly violence, which are in fact present (“Like the turtle the cats were nailed through all fours. [Danny] had eviscerated both of them and looped their entrails around them and nailed the entrails to the walls at intervals so that the cat’s were at the center of a kind of crude bull’s eye.”). Still, it is the realism of natural setting and human psyche, the dramatization of the emotional anguish of a struggling mother, that makes “The Rifle” such a powerful and unforgettable short story.
“The first time Kovelant stood in line for Sleepdirt was just before Halloween.” So begins Jack Ketchum’s 2007 short story “Elusive” (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), which creates an instant sense of suspense. The designation “first time” suggests further times after that, and the reader wonders why Kovelant is so compelled to see the horror film. Is it simply that damned good, or has something prevented him from watching it each time he attempted to attend a screening?
That first night in late October, Kovelant finds himself subjected to a cold rain while standing on line, and decides a free ticket to a preview screening isn’t worth the risk of catching pneumonia. The second time he tries to catch Sleepdirt, every showing is sold out at his local theater. An understandable development, especially considering the rave reviews the movie has received from critics. But matters take a turn for the weird thereafter: when Kovelant actually makes it inside a theater, he is stuck by a shooting pain (“an electric eel squirming throughout the entire right side of his body”) as inexplicable as it is abrupt, and one that forces him to abort the outing. By the time he recovers, the film is no longer in theaters, and when Kovelant subsequently tries to watch it at home on his VCR, the cassette tape is mangled by the machine. Then his TV set promptly dies before he can watch another rented tape…
Meantime, the strangeness is compounded by all the odd looks of apparent recognition that Kovelant keeps getting from random people on the street. Finally, the clerk working the check-out at Tower Video informs Kovelant that he is a dead ringer for one of the actors in Sleepdirt, a man who has a small part but makes a big impression via his “amazing death scene.” When Kovelant later discusses this alleged resemblance, and his own frustrated attempts to view the film, with his married lover Maggie, the latter brings up the idea that just as a person can’t observe his or her own death in a dream (always waking up first by necessity), Kovelant “can’t see the movie because you can’t see yourself die in it. I mean, maybe in some way it is you. Not some look-alike.” Kovelant scoffs at the theory, but welcomes Maggie’s offer to watch the film for him. In their follow-up phone conversation, Maggie testifies that the actor uncannily matches Kovelant in both physical looks and mannerisms, and that his death scene is brutal, but before she can share the specific nature of the demise, the phone line (you guessed it) goes dead.
Equally chagrined and obsessed, Kovelant takes matter into his own hands by going out and scooping up dozens of rental and purchases copies of Sleepdirt on VHS and DVD. “Gotcha now you sonovabitch,” Kovelant thinks, but as he walks across Broadway in New York City the bottom drops out of his shopping bag. The scene cuts away with Kovelant stooping to retrieve the spilled contents, but when Ketchum writes that the tapes and DVDs have “clattered to the pavement like a fallen sack of dry old bones,” the reader knows fatality looms.
The final section of the story finds Maggie fixated on Sleepdirt. When her husband Richard expresses disbelief that she is watching such a disgusting film again, Maggie’s reply unwittingly reveals the horrid end of the hapless Kovelant: “It’s a horror movie. It’s supposed to be scary and disgusting. But when’s the last time you saw somebody who looks exactly like somebody you know get his head torn off by a New York City bus? In slo-mo no less.”
Ketchum, a chip off old mentor Robert Bloch, is at his grimly-humorous best here in “Elusive” (as the author notes in his afterword to the story, the title “Sleepdirt” was borrowed from a Frank Zappa album and stands as “a euphemism for the contents of your nightly bedpan”). But what makes the piece so entertaining is not just the various ways in which Kovelant is stymied in his viewing quest but also the elusiveness of ultimate explanation for such events. Is Kovelant simply the victim of tempted fate, someone who bucked up against some intractable universal law by trying to ogle his own doomed doppelganger? Perhaps, but there could also be something sinister in the production of Sleepdirt itself. Appropriately, “Elusive” concludes with Maggie wondering “how in hell [the filmmakers] got that scene,” just as the reader (who, unlike Maggie, already knows what has happened to Kovelant) is forced to question how the movie was able to proleptically capture the non-actor’s death. “Blacker than black!” a New York Post review blurb of Sleepdirt is quoted early in the story, and the same can be said for both the humor and the horror of this superb Ketchum effort.
3. “Chain Letter”
This 1998 short story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) enthralls from its very first lines. Riddled with puzzlement and unease, the reader wonders why protagonist Alfred so anxiously awaits the daily delivery of the mail. Furthermore, what’s the significance of Alfred’s dream about first bullying a cab driver and then flagellating himself with sticks spiked with rusty nails? The dark suspense only intensifies when Alfred decides to take a walk into town, and spots a series of roadside atrocities: the body of a long-dead and bird-scavenged child; “a horse with a bullet in its brain“; a group of small boys in the midst of “nailing a woman to a barn” and beating “her with thin birch switched about the face and head.” And perhaps most perplexing of all: why does the receipt of something so banal as a chain letter render a “decent enough guy” like the character Henley automatically untrustworthy? (“Now what have you got. Another bloody butcher. Either that or he’ll be having second thoughts or regrets or whatever and he’ll sit himself in a corner somewhere and wait for the brains to crawl on out of him.”)
The violent chaos gripping the town links back to the titular piece of mail, but Ketchum reveals this only gradually to readers, starting with a discussion at the local cafe between Alfred and his friend Jamie. During the course of their conversation, Jamie shows that he has strong thoughts on the subject of the kind of man it will take to put a stop to the sinister missive:
Some fucking lunatic. Somebody tired, disgusted. No promethean, you can bet on that. Somebody without the stomach for it, without the imagination–I figure suicide is about lack of imagination. Somebody missing the urge to make use of all that permission.
That somebody could turn out to be Alfred, who returns home to discover the dreaded envelope waiting for him. The letter inside reads: “The aforesigned pass on to you all responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future. We deem this the highest honor, the highest challenge…” To reject this responsibility, the recipient merely has to “add a new name to the space provided beneath your own. Be sure to check the list thoroughly to see that you do not repeat any name already entered above…” The conclusion of the letter suggests a twisted religious origin: “Declared by the will of God and the First Congress of Faith, Abraham White, founder. All bless.”
“It’s the old, old concept of sin-eater again, only more extreme,” Alfred thinks, the line forming an apt gloss on Ketchum’s hardcore-horror variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” And with this one also recognizes why Ketchum chose to alternate sections written from Alfred’s first-person perspective with italicized sections written in the third person: structure reinforces theme, as notions of self and other (apropos of the symbolic ingestion of external guilt) are melded together.
Alfred truly struggles with the decision of how to respond to the letter: “Do I send the letter to somebody I love or somebody I hate? Do I spare those I love the pain of waiting or take the chance that the letter might miss them entirely, as unlikely as that seems?”
He realizes that ending the chain requires a “martyr, a brand new Christ” committed to suffering the “worst death imaginable.” Alfred psyches himself into being that figure by imagining various acts of horrific self-wounding. The extended sequence (e.g. “But first the genitals should be torn away and the teeth smashed and swallowed, one should have to throw oneself against a wall or table until the backbone cracks and the skull is fractured, long sharp knives one should shove up one’s ass, the nose must be severed, the nipples burned black”) of spectacular havoc forms what is without a doubt one of the most cringe-inducing passages Ketchum has ever penned.
One has to wonder whether Alfred is spurred by an irrepressible masochistic streak or sheer disgust with the society surrounding him. Alfred admits he has “no faith” that anyone else will move to end the cycle of violence, and expresses his disdain for the fellow townspeople who hide behind “the names, the writing, the ordinary symbols” (by using “an odd but commonplace form letter,” one probably dreamt up in some “grey office building” or “grim bar,” as a convenient excuse for indulging uncivilized impulses). By mapping out (and carrying out) “a death commensurate with the crime, the one really emphatic death amid all these careless neutral ones” that his murderous friends and neighbors have caused, Alfred hopes to send a “personal message” to his peers: “You’re full of shit, every one of you. I’m about to prove it.” These closing lines constitute yet another potent clincher to a Ketchum tale, with “full of shit” doubling both as slang for disingenuousness (Alfred puts little stock in people’s proclamations of what they would do if they received the chain letter) and a more literal account of the inner filth saturating the townspeople. By accepting the role of sin-eater and subjecting himself to a gruesome martyrdom, Alfred gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “scathing critique.”
2. “Closing Time”
The fact that “Closing Time” (2003) is collected in both Peaceable Kingdom and (obviously) Closing Time and Other Stories is a strong indication of the novelette’s stature.The piece is at once a heartbreaking love story (centering on the turbulent relationship of Claire and her already-married paramour David) and a heart-pounding tale of suspense (as the protagonists cross paths with a sadistic criminal). Set in New York City in October and early November of 2001, the narrative also uses the World Trade Center disaster as a literal and thematic backdrop (Ketchum peppers poignant details throughout: “the smell of burning” and “the strange sad New York silence”; the “thick brown-white dust [that] lay everywhere”; the “windows filled with appeals for information on the missing”; Claire’s observation that “Even if you’d lost nobody close to you, you’d still lost something”).
Yet Ketchum’s concern is not with al-Qaeda but a local, small-scale operative: a Caucasian native New Yorker who graduates from armed robbery (he preys on the City’s bars just before they shut down for the night) to physical and psychological torment of his victims. Though he carries a gun, the unnamed villain considers
“surprise and fear” his real weapons. He performs “shock therapy” on those he robs, ostensibly so that they will end up too frazzled to remember his features (when he holds up bartender Claire, he thinks: “Time to put the fear of God into the bitch and see if she remembered anything but fear after that”). And he goes a long way towards accomplishing this by forcing Claire into a dangerous game involving splayed fingers and the bar-top spindle normally used as a spike for checks.
As vociferous as he is merciless in his terrorizing, the man proclaims that “after me you’ll never feel safe again, Claire. Never. Not at work, not at home. Nowhere.” One has to wonder just how much of this is playacting, and how much the transferal of his own anxieties (after watching the endless news reports about the anthrax scare, he decides to use tossed talcum powder as a further means of unnerving his targets). Despite his dismissal of current events (he “strictly worked ground floor,” doing “what he always did. Plain old-fashioned armed robbery”), the man seems to have been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks. He is no garden-variety psycho, but rather a criminal with a twisted philosophical outlook (reminiscent of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”): “He can see she knows a truth he’s known all along, that there is no help in this world, that what will happen will happen and no amount of pleading to god or jesus or to the milk of human kindness will get you any goddamn where at all.” The events of 9/11 could have done nothing to help the existential angst this man suffers.
The narrative builds incredible suspense as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the terrorist’s manipulation of Claire and of (now-ex-boyfriend) David’s journey to seek out Claire at work. Perhaps David will arrive in time to rescue his beloved from harm, but then again, a Ketchum story isn’t likely to end without casualties. “There could be no good ending to this,” David thinks of his decision to visit Claire after she begged him to stay away, and David’s thought proves terribly prophetic. An earlier passing line about “the perversity of incident and chance” also resonates in the bloody and devastating climax.
In his afterword to “Closing Time,” Ketchum cites the novelette as “the most bleak and hopeless piece” he’s ever produced. Yet it is also a shining example of the author’s ability to create lifelike, recognizable characters (whose dire circumstances become that much more compelling because of such realism). Without a doubt, Ketchum’s self-described tale of “irreversible, irretrievable loss” is the gain of readers everywhere.
What happens when the writer whom Stephen King hailed as “the scariest guy in America” turns his attention to Halloween? Answer: the top spot in the countdown of Jack Ketchum works of short fiction is secured.
“Gone” (2000; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) reworks the tropes of the classic Halloween spook story, as it features a shunned house (which “seemed to have PLAGUE painted on the door”) and its lone occupant (“the lady down the block,” who parents warn their kids about). The woman–who at the start of the story wonders, “What am I? The wicked old witch from Hansel and Gretel?”–is eager to lure children to her doorstep with the promise of candy, but she’s no wicked crone, just a deeply wounded individual. Helen Teal (a shade of blue, appropriately) is still grieving, still wallowing in despair five years after “the less than three minutes that changed everything.” It should have been “a simple event, an inconsequential event” when Helen ran back into the 7-11 for the newspaper she forgot to purchase. But when comes back out, she discovers that her three-year-old daughter has been snatched from the parked car where she’d been left waiting. And with that devastating disappearance, “Helen Teal, nee Mazik, went from pre-school teacher, homemaker, wife and mother to the three p‘s–psychoanalysis, Prozac, and paralysis.”
Growing steadily drunker and more depressed, Helen is about to shut off her porch light when her doorbell rings. The sight of the trick-or-treaters she has anxiously awaited (in her yearning for contact with children) immediately lifts Helen’s spirits: “the night’s thrill–its enchantment even–was suddenly there for her.” Yet the story also takes pain to remind us that Halloween has since lost its innocence (“Nobody came in[side] anymore. The days for bobbing for apples were long over.”), and Helen is about to get more than she bargained for in the candy-begging transaction. One of the trio of masked young siblings tears open Helen’s internal wounds when he bluntly asks if she’s her: “The lady who lost her baby? The little girl?” The boy’s question, though, is not simply the product of a child’s clumsy curiosity. Ketchum has another trick up his Halloween sleeve, as revealed in one of his patented single-sentence paragraphs that leaves readers as breathless as a sucker punch to the gut:
They turned away and headed slowly down the stairs and she almost asked them to wait, to stay a moment, for what reason and to what end she didn’t know but that would be silly and awful too, no reason to put them through her pain, they were just kids, children, they were just asking a question the way children did sometimes, oblivious to its consequences and it would be wrong to say anything further, so she began to close the door and almost didn’t hear him turn to his sister and say, too bad they wouldn’t let her out tonight, hunh? too bad they never do in a low voice but loud enough to register but at first it didn’t register, not quite, as though the words held no meaning, as though the words were some strange rebus she could not immediately master, not until after she’d closed the door and then finally when they impacted her like grapeshot, she flung open the door and ran screaming down the stairs into the empty street.
Apparently Alice is alive and being held somewhere nearby, but the trio of trick-or-treaters who might lead Helen to her have already “vanished back into nowhere,” carrying off not just a load of candy bars but whatever “was left of” Helen. The narrative spotlights Ketchum’s gifts for probing everyday human evil (in this case, child abduction/abuse) and dramatizing the personal anguish suffered by a lifelike character. Short but haunting, “Gone” absolutely cannot be forgotten.