Prose & Conversation: 'The Girl Next Door' by Jack Ketchum
There's no other way to put it. This month, Richard Thomas and I read one of the most brutal, most violent, most disturbing books I've ever experienced. It was tough. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum gave me nightmares and made me cling to the life I live, the life I love, with more determination than I've felt in a long time.
Below you'll see what we both think of this vile, this contemptible, this utterly remarkable novel...and why we both think, despite everything, it's worth a read.
But just one. Seriously. I don't know how you could want to read it twice.
May contain minor spoilers.
Richard: So this was your first Jack Ketchum. I think I started with this book, also my first Ketchum, maybe 15 years ago? I knew it was going to be intense, but I was still unprepared. It was unlike just about anything I'd ever read. It starts with the opening line, right?
"You think you know about pain?”
Leah: Heh. Yes. I actually just took a class that focuses on the first 10 pages of your novel, especially that opening line, and it made me appreciate this book's opening all the more. Because it just sets the tone so perfectly. "You think you know about pain?" And you know, right then, that even if you think you do...Ketchum's about to school you anyway.
And in so many different kinds of pain, too!
Richard: For sure.
I teach a one day horror class at Story Studio Chicago, and I read the first two pages and talk about hook, about foreshadowing, and tension—all of that. It's a brilliant opening, really.
Leah: It's one of the best openings I've read recently. You know your narrator. You know what you're getting yourself into. You know it's not going to be pretty.
And the rest of the book follows from there, in such horrific fashion.
Richard: Had you heard about the book before, any idea of what was going to happen? I knew next to NOTHING back then.
Leah: I knew Ketchum's name, obviously, being a LitReactor girl, and him being such a big presence there. And the story felt vaguely familiar to me.
Richard: I mean, Ketchum has a reputation as being one of the most brutal authors out there, but not just gore, the psychology behind it, too. It's not horror porn.
Leah: Yes! The psychology is intriguing, and terrifying.
Richard: Did you know it was based on a true story? And did that make it worse?
Leah: I didn't, until the Author's Note at the end, but I'm very well-read on holocaust literature, and this felt a lot like that. A story that's telling about how wretched humans can be to each other.
And then I read the Author's Note and I actually wanted to thank Ketchum for including it, for letting me know WHY he wrote the book, you know?
To me, knowing that it was based on a true story — and a true story that so horrified him — made it that much more powerful and upsetting.
Because it wasn’t just shock porn, you know?
Richard: I guess I should say for those that haven't read it, here's a quick synopsis:
Suburbia. Shady, tree-lined streets, well-tended lawns and cozy homes. A nice, quiet place to grow up. Unless you are teenage Meg or her crippled sister, Susan. On a dead-end street, in the dark, damp basement of the Chandler house. Meg and Susan are left captive to the savage whims and rage of a distant aunt who is rapidly descending into madness. It is a madness that infects all three of her sons—and finally the entire neighborhood. Only one troubled boy stands hesitantly between Meg and Susan, and their cruel, torturous deaths. A boy with a very adult decision to make...
Right. Even after that opening, he backs off of it, and you, the reader, take a breath and go, "Okay, it's kids, they're catching crayfish, it's not so bad." He sets you up, over and over again. It's intense, then he backs up. I mean, how long is it before anything REALLY happens?
Leah: Not too terribly long, really. One of the first scenes that stuck out to me was one of the neighbor boys — Woofer — dropping night crawlers into an ants' nest.
It's such a cruel, senseless thing to do...minor in comparison with the rest of the story, but disturbing nonetheless.
Richard: That's one of the brilliant things about Ketchum. Not only is he not afraid to show you the gore, the horror, but he then calms the story down, and takes the time to build in back story, character, showing the good in people, so we can care. And then he destroys them.
Leah: Ha! Yes. Then he destroys them. And breaks my heart. Thanks, Jack Ketchum. Thanks.
Richard: Right, but as a reader, you're not horrified by that ant scene. It's just a hint of what's coming. I mean, at what point do we the audience really understand what's going on?
Most kids have played doctor, or had a neighbor that allowed you to have a beer now and then.
Leah: I think it takes a while to really get into the horrific side of it. There's the sweetness of the love interest, right? Meg and David almost could have had something, in another world in another time.
Richard: For sure.
What I love is that he makes you complicit, you are a part of this, you are a witness, and then at some point, it goes too far.
What that point is, it's going to be different for every person, every reader, right? Until it's that tipping point, where it's BEYOND any sort of reasoning or logic.
Leah: Well, David, the narrator, does that. I kept making little notes (Yes! I made notes!) of the times he said, "They" versus "We." Sometimes HE felt complicit, and other times distant, so yeah, that's how we felt, too.
Richard: Exactly. As he struggles, so do we.
Leah: Except...well, I never really thought Meg deserved any of it, because she didn't.
I'd like to think, given similar circumstances, that I'd never partake, but there are so many psychological studies that say otherwise.
I'd also like to hope to never face any sort of similar circumstances, for the record.
Richard: No. She didn't deserve any of it. But early on, isn't she kind of going along with things? She wants to have fun with the boys, they all want to get along, but then it turns pretty quickly into something much darker, with Ruth, the authority figure, the one that's SUPPOSED to stop them, actually instigating things.
Leah: True. She's hungry for friends, for affection. But then Ruth. Ugh, Ruth.
Richard: Nobody wants to be the buzzkill, the party pooper, but obviously things go way too far.
Leah: Here's a question: would they have gone so far without Ruth? Like, a bunch of kids hiding something from their parents, if maybe Meg didn't have a home to go to?
Richard: Probably not. She pushes them, right? First she catches them, then she makes it worse. You've heard of a parent catching a kid smoking and then makes them smoke the whole pack, until they vomit. It takes a strange turn, the first of many, when we realize she's not going to stop it. That she's a mess. And she wants to participate, encourage them to tap into their base desires, the sex and violence.
Leah: The one thing that bothered me is that we never really know WHY she did this, you know? But then, it bothers the narrator too. There's a whole scene where he talks about tracing her path, tracking down her ex-husband, to see what turned her into a monster. But we never really know.
Of course, Ketchum didn't know the motive for the actual woman who was responsible for the actual event that sparked this book.
Richard: She seems like damaged goods, for sure. I get the sense that not only is she an addict, but she has been abused in past relationships.
Leah: Possibly true. I got that as well.
Richard: For me, it was easy to believe. I'm pretty sure that I'd read American Psycho before this book.
Leah: Heh, good comparison. It was easy for me, too. Have you ever heard of the Stanford prison experiment?
Richard: No. Do tell.
Leah: It was a study in the 70s, in which a group of psychology students were selected to be either "guards" or "prisoners." They adapted to their roles really well — too well, in fact, by the end. Though the selection was random, by the end the guards were fairly brutal. They actually had to call off the experiment early to keep anything too bad from happening.
Richard: That does ring a bell.
Leah: I always think of it when I think of how bad people can be. Those kids had no reason to be bad, but they wound up being terrible, just because they COULD.
Richard: I think I remember something about people pushing a button, and the level of "shock treatment" they could give to somebody. Might have been a different study.
Leah: It's the same with state sponsored violence like the Holocaust. Once you have permission to do bad things, it can become second-nature. I just finished a book on the women — wives, secretaries, etc. — who participated in the Holocaust. It's chilling.
Those were the things I thought about while reading The Girl Next Door. Because I'm totally normal, right? (Don't answer that!!)
Richard: Ha. It takes you there, you don't have a choice, right?
Do you think this book holds up? It was written in 1989. It wasn't until recently that I read books like The End of Alice by A. M. Homes—and I know you just read Tampa by Alissa Nutting.
Alice is still the most difficult book I've read, but American Psycho and this book were the first ones to really show me this different kind of horror.
Leah: I think, if it had been a contemporary novel at the time, no, it possibly wouldn't. But because the story is so colored by nostalgia for the 50s, I think it does.
Because it's set in time. Something like this would be harder to swallow now...or at least parts of it.
Like, if a girl went to a police officer claiming abuse, she wouldn't be blown off in this day and age. But she was in the book. But you can easily say, "Oh, that was in the 50s. Things were different then."
Richard: Why do you think this book works? I assume you "enjoyed" it, that it was a powerful read for you. I know it was intense for me. I think I may have cried the first time I read it. Partly it's because I WAS a young boy, I have memories of kids in my neighborhood—burning ants, even a neighbor killing a cat, of playing doctor with a girl down the street. The suburban setting, the idea that this could happen right next door, that's part of why it worked for me.
I'm more disturbed by something like this than a story about demons or vampires, because it could really happen. And it did. Still does.
Leah: Let's be honest: I didn't "enjoy" it in the least. It was a painful read. On at least one occasion, I was reading while sitting next to my daughter. I'd look up, glance at her, think, "If anybody ever lays a hand on her, I'll kill them myself" and then go back to reading.
Richard: We just heard about that case, where was it, Indiana or Ohio?
Well, I mean as far as it being a horror book, it's SUPPOSED to horrify you.
Leah: But yes. The book works on so many levels, because, yes, things like this happen. I agree...this is much more terrifying than monsters or aliens because it CAN HAPPEN. Sometimes people are evil. Horrible.
So it's an incredible book, in my opinion, because it accomplishes its task so fully.
I was, quite honestly, horrified.
Richard: I reacted the same way that you did here. I would put it down, and go hug and kiss my kids.
Leah: I definitely cried, more than once. It was THAT affecting. Y'all. The torture? It was insane.
Richard: I went on a binge when I first bought a bunch of Ketchum books on Ebay many years ago, about 10-15 books, for like $20. I just plowed through them all. But I felt so sick, so dirty, as in tainted, that I had to read lighter stuff, pick up the Bible, watch a Disney movie. It was very hard. But I wanted to tap into that for my own writing, to see how it was done, and to find out where my own line would be in my dark writing.
Let me give you a little example.
Leah: Huh. I had the same feeling. Like, "Ok, now I need a shower, but damn. How do I write something like that?"
Richard: There was a rape scene in Disintegration, the novel my agent is shopping now. I can remember sitting there and contemplating what I was going to do. COULD I write this scene? HOW would it define the book? Did I even WANT this scene in the book, did it make sense? It was my protagonist hitting bottom, and I had to decide if it would be Ketchum in that moment or more like King? How much do I show, what do I do? Is this Clive Barker, the brutal violence, or something else. In the end, the scene became what it had to be, it fit the moment. Can't tell you what happened, but the protagonist rediscovered his humanity, when he'd been a monster for so many years. Powerful.
But I DEFINITELY thought about Ketchum, about this book, and a few of his others, as well as books by Barker, King, etc. It was a tough decision.
Leah: Maybe it's the age-old question: how much is too much? Even Ketchum asks the question in this book. There's a particular scene in which he fades to black.
The narrator says something like, "If you want to imagine this scene, go for it. But I'm not going to help you." I thought that was brilliant.
Richard: Yeah. With the torture, at some point, it'll just be overkill, your audience will shut down.
Leah: He let us keep a bit of humanity even while reading this terrible thing.
Richard: For sure. It's not the horror, the torture, the violence and sex that Ketchum does so well in this book, in my opinion. It's getting us to CARE about Meg and Susan, to really feel for these people. That's what I thought was so brilliant. Just words, right? And I'm balling my eyes out, sweating, sick to my stomach.
Leah: They're two girls with a tragic back story, and then terrible things keep happening to them. You have these sweet images of Meg at the beginning — at the river, at the fair — and they just get defiled. It's terrible and sad.
And with Susan, it took me longer to care about her, I think. But by the end, when she's standing up for David even though she really had no reason to, and after all she went through, well, I was pulling for her.
I hope in some alternate reality she goes on to lead a really good life.
So. If I wanted more Ketchum, where should I go from here? What book would I read next?
As far as more Ketchum, if you can handle it, there is the story about the cannibals. I think it starts with The Offspring and then Off Season is the second book that talks about it, I think. There is a scene in The Offspring where they rip a baby out of the mother, while both are still alive, that's one of the more horrifying things I've ever read. That whole Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe.
Leah: Oy. Ok, that may be my limit. I mean, I had a c-section and all, but ouch.
Richard: A lot of people like Red, more of a vigilante story. It's really good.
Leah: Vigilantes I can handle.
Richard: And, his story collection, Peaceable Kingdom is brilliant, shows a much wider range of voice, not so brutal. Pick that one up for sure,
Leah: Will do, thanks!
Richard: I guess it says a lot that you still want to read more.
Leah: I sort of read with one eye closed....and squinting...ready to run and hide and kiss my kid at any necessary point.
Richard: LOL...for sure. Final thoughts on The Girl Next Door?
Leah: My final thoughts: I'm so grateful to Ketchum for his Author's Note. This would have been a MUCH different conversation had I not known WHY he wrote it. I would have been angry, I think, and sad. But instead I'm more...determined to live a good life and not let things like that happen on my watch.
Richard: Yeah. I had a hard time understanding why Homes wrote her book, too, until I read some interviews.
But if you want to read a horror story by one of the dark masters, and really want to challenge yourself, if you've read American Psycho, but want a completely different kind of horror, then read this book. Ketchum pulls no punches, will leave you gutted, but he'll also get you to really care about these people, will show you how you can write horror without it being reduced to gore. I give it 5/5 and think it's a MUST READ for fans of horror, and authors that write dark fiction. But yeah, I don't need to ever read it again.
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