It's not so far wrong, actually. Surprised? I was, some. But considering it the ultimate horror novel in no wise means it's to be considered the best horror novel. Which is fine. But Off Season, the first novel from Jack Ketchum and published in July 1981 by Ballantine, features some of the most primal images of human fear in the starkest terms - just like that cover art - so primal that they are nearly mythic. In a way Off Season is an ur-text for the horror genre in that it reduces all fears to their simplest form. In this way it could be the ultimate horror novel. However it gets this aspect from its adherence to the structure and style of films like Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave, et. al. So if you crave the utmost originality in your horror fiction, Off Season might not be your season. But according to Ketchum himself, these films were the impetus for his novel: "It seemed to me that there was something the movies were doing that the books were not doing. And that was going at the violence very directly and in your face."
And that's just what Ketchum sets about doing in Off Season.This is not a pulpy roller-coaster ride or a cozy chiller. This is horror that knows few, if any, bounds, with nary a whisper of the supernatural or the Gothic. It's a highly disturbing and graphic novel that lulls you with well-sketched characters and then hammers you with breathtaking horror, never flinching or blinking in the face of utmost atrocity. Then it ends. It bears almost no resemblance to any horror fiction before it. The Sawney Bean-inspired cannibal clan is so unlikely as to be almost supernatural; credulity may be strained.
1999 Overlook Connection hardcover, unexpurgated edition
Off Season's horror is the realization we are nothing but meat to a bizarre cannibal tribe, that the identities we cradle within our skulls are invisible and worthy of no consideration. The horror is in the full awareness of our impending death by dismemberment, of a violation so beyond the realms of human decency as to be dizzying. Watch as your severed limbs are piled around you, your mind reeling. Watch as your friends and lovers are broken before you and set aflame. Watch as you are eaten alive. Then, when you have the chance to retaliate, watch as you become as vile, as depraved, as degenerated as your enemy.
He was keeping her alive as long as he could, and she participated in her torture by her body's blind attempts to survive it. Didn't she know that it was better to be dead now? What awful fraud animated her? Her will to live was as cruel as he was.
2006 Leisure Books reprint, unexpurgated edition
As with his The Girl Next Door, I read Off Season in one go; it's got a merciless propulsion to it, a sense of doom that will not be avoided, like a clockwork collision course. Can I recommend it? I'm not sure: it's the kind of book that can get you wondering just why we read books like this: there is no enjoyment in it, no secret thrill (god, I hope not), no escape, nor does it inspire you to get other people to read it. It's an endurance test, really, and when you get to the end, what have you gained? Simply a badge that states "I Survived Off Season"? I don't really have an answer other than: you do it to see if you can take it.
As they stood in the kitchen facing each other nobody said a word for a few minutes. There was nothing left to do but what they had said they would do, and now that seemed enormous and filled them up with a kind of awe.