Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #5-#1

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.

 

4. “Elusive”

“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.

 

1. “Gone”

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.”

Countdown: Ray Bradbury’s Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories

In 2011, as part of the celebration of Ray Bradbury Month on my old blog Macabre Republic, I counted down his ten best works of carnivalesque and autumnal short fiction (not every story gathered in the collections Dark Carnival and The October Country qualified, and some selections came from other Bradbury volumes). As another October unfolds here in 2017, I thought it would be fitting to import that countdown to this new site.

#10.”The Dead Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of his Most Celebrated Tales)

Without a doubt, this is Bradbury’s most subtle piece of Halloween fiction. It unfolds as an offbeat bit of American Gothic, concerning a vagabond who walks around–when he’s not stretching himself out supine in the gutter–claiming that he died by drowning during the flood that destroyed his farm. The townspeople treat “Odd Martin” as a local kook more than a metaphysical marvel (one resident, though, suggests that the reason everyone jokes about Odd is because deep down they are scared to take him seriously). It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the story that the time of year becomes clear, when a group of teens try to recruit Odd as an animated prop for their Halloween party. The scene is brief yet pivotal, because the teens’ callous, condescending attitudes leave Odd in a “strange and bitter” mood; soon thereafter he decides to get himself cleaned up and to propose marriage to Miss Weldon, the lonely manicurist who has always been kind to him.  This decision in turn facilitates the story’s twist ending: the revelation of where the newlyweds have made their home (hint: Odd didn’t deal with the town’s sole real estate broker when purchasing the place).

With its seamless blend of the sentimental and the macabre, “The Dead Man” is vintage Bradbury. And if Halloween represents a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs, then the October-ending holiday is perfectly suited to themes of this pleasantly haunting tale.

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