Monday, February 5, 2018

He wakes

Hey, horror writer Jack Ketchum passed away a couple weeks ago. He was 71 years old. I would never have gotten the news without the good folks at Ansible. Surprised there wasn't mention of his death elsewhere.
Of course, Ketchum wasn't a household name. He got close. Stephen King once called him the scariest writer in America, and about a decade ago all of Ketchum's books were reprinted in paperback by Leisure Books after the original out-of-print versions started fetching big prices on the Internet.
But Ketchum never got rich. I think he did OK, though. He had enough spare cash to take a trip to Greece to revise his novel SHE WAKES. And he grabbed headlines a couple times in his career.
The first time was for his first novel, OFF SEASON (1980). This thin, shocking book was allegedly so brutal that (Ketchum revealed in a reprint edition 30 years later) he and Ballantine Books had to go through the manuscript line by line to make it "acceptable" to print. Ketchum said these discussions came down to "I'll trade you this beheading for that disembowelment...."
The book was launched with much hype -- with a black cover, with a trail of blood dripping down the side. Folks looking for the next Stephen King were advised to look here.
But OFF SEASON only sold 30,000 copies. Ketchum's two follow-up novels sold even less, and his career still hadn't gotten started.
I found a copy of OFF SEASON at a yard sale about 15 years ago, for 25 cents -- and grabbed it without really knowing what it was.
And I was surprised. This guy Ketchum was on to something. His book was brutal and direct. It punched me in the face from almost the first page, and never let up until the end. The reprint "uncensored" edition a decade later added more detail -- but it was twice as long, and the blistering pace of the original edition was part of what impressed me.
Ketchum was one of three writers who spoiled me as a reader. He wasted absolutely no time, and kept the pace tight and the events comin' at ya relentlessly. Ketchum, Thomas Harris (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON) and Kathe Koja (SKIN, THE CIPHER) became my new writer-heroes.
Later, I found more old novels by Ketchum, in their original paperback, for not-too-much. JOYRIDE continued the blistering pace of OFF SEASON -- a guy snaps and runs amok, for the sheer rush of it. It's a breathless 200 pages.
HIDE AND SEEK is a sort of sequel to OFF SEASON, though that isn't clear until the end ... when the Bad People from OFF SEASON reappear and turn a twisted, ominous love story into a real nightmare. And Ketchum pulls off another shocking story in about 130 pages. It's probably my favorite of his novels.
Then came THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, in which a girl is kidnapped, locked-up and tortured by a twisted family in the basement of a supposedly "normal" suburban home. This book is a shocker, impossible not to keep reading ... and yet, it somehow doesn't up the ante of his other books. There are parts Ketchum backs away from and says explicitly that he's NOT going to tell you. He doesn't have to. There are also parts early in the book (before things go bad) that have an almost Ray Bradbury-like gentleness. Stephen King went out of his way to call this the scariest book he'd ever read.
I've read a handful of Ketchum's other books since then. All worth the cash, none disappointing. One of the best is SHE WAKES, in which an ancient Greek goddess is reincarnated and goes on the warpath after being snubbed after an affair. I was in Greece for a few weeks once, and this book gets the atmosphere of that place down perfect -- the tavernas under the trees, the ancient air around the place, the sense of something brooding and biding its time somewhere nearby. And the story's gritty and believable. Great stuff.
Ketchum won a couple of World Fantasy Awards for his short stories in the '90s. But that belated recognition of his talent doesn't seem like enough. The later reprints of his books include forewards and afterwards that tell you what was going on behind the scenes as the books were written -- and they are well worth it as a peek into the writing process, and into how the publishing business often goes wrong.
You know how a person's writing sometimes seems to conjure up the kind of person they must be, their outlook, their age, etc? Fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin -- who also passed away a few days back at age 88 -- was seemingly born 40 years old, always stable, measured, always looking at the long view.
Jack Ketchum wasn't like that. He was always pushy, abrasive, risky -- a 20-year-old punk, constantly getting in your face and trying to get your attention. And that's one of the things that made him great.

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