Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum (1989): How Do the Angels Get to Sleep?

Whew, where to begin? The Girl Next Door has, in the near quarter-century since its publication, achieved a notoriety few other modern horror novels can match. It was the third novel from Dallas Mayr, written under his now-famous pseudonym Jack Ketchum. Now, I hadn't even heard of Ketchum or this book until the last five or six years, I guess around the time it was reprinted by Leisure Books. None of his other vintage-era books, Off Season (1980), Cover (1987), or She Wakes (1989), look familiar to me, and he didn't start getting nominated for the Bram Stoker Award till the mid-'90s by which time I'd stopped reading modern horror, so it seems the book's reputation grew as a result of the reprints and the internet. Which isn't to say it isn't deserved, because it is. Oh is it.

The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the mind-curdling 1965 torture/murder case of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens. While some readers, if not most, may balk at the depths to which Ketchum goes in "recreating" what happened, he fills out his book with enough convincing details so that the matter never seems exploited or cheapened. Ketchum is, for better or worse, a reliable and insightful guide as he delves into these places of heartlessness and cruelty found not in the supernatural or the extraterrestrial but, well, literally, next door. He presents it all in plain strong prose that neither titillates nor overstates; he is in command of his words and images in a way a cheap and foolish writer - whose ranks in the horror genre are legion - could only ever dream.

It's told in first person by David, 30 years after the horrific events, which occurred when he was about 12 years old. His regret and sadness and confusion set everything in motion. Pondering his three failed marriages, he attempts to tell the story. The whole story, without faltering, of when teenage Meg Loughlin and her 11-year-old sister Susan come to live with David's next-door neighbors, the Chandlers, after the girls' parents are killed in a car crash. Ruth Chandler, a distant relation to the Loughlin girls, middle-aged, a heavy smoker and drinker but not without her looks, is well-known to all the kids living on the tree-lined, dead-end street as the parent who will give beers to them while they hang out with her own pre-teen sons Willie, Woofer, and Donny. Her husband left the family years earlier, running off with another woman (which explains some of her future behavior towards Meg).

David becomes smitten with Meg in a not-quite-romantic way; he's three years younger than her anyway, but spends some nice, memorable moments with her early in the story. Cute, sweet, well-done, a yearning without knowing quite what one is yearning for. Which makes the following descent the more upsetting. When the boys try from a tree outside her window to spy on Meg undressing and are denied it, David's response is bitter and black: I could have smashed something. I could have torn that house to bits. That surprised me; it could have come straight from one of James Ellroy's noir crime novels, for sure (more on Ellroy later).

Overlook Connection Press 2002

The most difficult thing about reading the book is that you know where it's going. When it happens - when Ruth's abuse of Meg begins - it happens fast but it also happens slow, if you know what I mean. The pall of inescapable doom threads through the early narrative, a malevolence hovering over every scene of innocence. It waits. It waits. It will not be denied. There is simply no other word for what happens: torture, physical and mental and sexual. First restricted from eating on her own, Meg then physically defies Ruth in front of David and other boys. Outraged beyond measure, and with the help of her sons, Ruth ties her up in the abandoned bomb shelter in the basement and the horror starts. This goes beyond the "horror" genre into what Douglas Winter talked about: that horror is not a genre, but an emotion. An emotion that's going to settle in and stay awhile.

There are things you know you'll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen. 
I watched and saw.

Since Ketchum structures the novel as a troubled adult looking back on a traumatic occurrence in his past, The Girl Next Door reminded me of Stephen King's novella "The Body" (found in Different Seasons from 1982, and the basis for Stand By Me. I guess I don't need to tell you that). Still utterly haunted by Ruth, adult David slips in at times and explains why this or why that, and especially how he was able to stand by while Ruth orchestrated such horror and why his friends went along. And it simply makes sense. Kids are powerless. Kids are supposed to endure humiliation. Adults control every avenue of kids' lives. I find this especially convincing in children growing up in the early 1960s, when adult authority was divine order. The divide between the world of children and the world of adults was vast and unbridgeable. Why didn't he try to tell? Meg actually does, once, to a cop who doesn't take her very seriously. This causes the boys to begin to feel a vague contempt for her. (Let's not forget Matt Dillon's immortal words in that teenage riot classic Over the Edge: "A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid"). Because, as David reminds us:

Shit, [adults] could just dump is in a river if they wanted to. We were just kids. We were property. We belonged to our parents, body and soul. It meant we were doomed in the face of any real danger from the adult world and that meant hopelessness, and humiliation and anger.

The kids know better than to try to tell. Telling is bullshit. Telling makes things worse. Telling is an insult and a cheat. The kids even play what they call "the Game," a questionable past-time which, when Ruth learns of it, wants to play. And that makes it all even easier for the kids to go along... it's all a game, right? If Ruth says it's okay, well, it's okay for the kids no matter what is inflicted upon flesh ("You said that we could cut her, Mrs. Chandler"). This is when David admits he "flicked a slow mental switch [and] turned off on [Meg] entirely." Because How could she be so dumb as to think a cop was going to side with a kid against an adult, anyway? So I think Ketchum does a dead-on job of getting into a mindset that would become a willing witness to Hell, even drink a Coke and play crazy eights while doing so. It is totally believable.

2005 Leisure Books reprint

So other neighborhood kids get involved and it's all just normal, they're spending boring summer afternoons in the basement of the Chandlers', hey, didja hear, they got a girl down there and they... do stuff to her. When describing the sniggering remarks and dispensed humiliations and then the torturous cruelty in unflinching detail, Ketchum is carefully dispassionate, even when things turn, unsurprisingly, sexual for the young boys, as well as for Ruth and even a young neighborhood girl (at first Ruth restricts the boys from touching Meg after she's been stripped, not because molestation or rape is wrong but... because who knows what diseases this whore has. Did you just feel your throat close up? Good). He has David wonder if it all would have happened had Meg not been so pretty, had her body not been young and health and strong, but ugly, fat, flabby. Possibly not. The inevitable punishment of the outsider. But he reconsiders as he looks back on it:

But it seems to me more likely that it was precisely because she was beautiful and strong, and we were not, that Ruth and the rest of us had done this to her. To make a sort of judgment on that beauty, on what it meant and didn't mean to us.

Notice it says 'Terror,' not 'Horror'

It's this kind of insight that allows Girl Next Door to work so well when you might think it couldn't: This is true, this is how people who do these things think. Debase, degrade, deflower. Once the words I FUCK FUCK ME are burned onto her stomach - yes, you read that right - it's as if the boys lose interest; Meg has been reduced to a nothing. David tries to help her escape, and he fails. He tries to tell his father, then his mother, but cannot find the words to express something so... so. I mean, could you? Knowing you knew the whole time? David realizes he's the only one who has the imagination to conceive of the enormity of what's going on. I think that's what makes this book stand out from other "extreme" horror novels. The darkness may be complete, but it is true and real.

You may not be surprised to learn that I read The Girl Next Door in a one-sitting white-heat rush, utterly compelled and spellbound, my eyes burning and wet by the end. I could feel a thick sadness in my chest and shoulders. But it's not without its faults, and I can't really go into the major one because it's a spoiler, but I understand it. I do. I've seen it in other books and films too. Can't really blame Ketchum either, I suppose. But none of the faults are the result of the subject matter or the graphic detail; this is an "extreme" novel done right, with an understanding and an honesty I found utterly sincere.

Look at it again, in case you forgot how dumb it was

This is no tawdry paperback filled with high-school horror hijinks, as the clueless cover implies; there is no fun nor ridiculous cheese. In fact, that Warner Books cover art is one of the most insidious of paperback horror covers ever, an affront to both readers and the book itself (I don't blame artist Lisa Falkenstern; it's likely she had no idea what cover she was illustrating). Who the fuck okayed it? Someone who doesn't give a shit about books, that's for sure.

In some of the Amazon reviews I skimmed over after finishing I saw that many people hated the fact that Ketchum fictionalized the Likens case, but so what? What Ketchum does with the novel is quite similar to what Ellroy did with The Black Dahlia: take a real-life case of murderous savagery and fictionalize it, inventing characters so as to probe the psychology of those involved in a way unavailable to us normally, to attempt an understanding of the weakness, the fear, the rage, that could lead to such incomprehensible acts. In this respect Ketchum's book has more in common with crime fiction than it does with horror fiction. Which is absolutely fine with me. Horror fiction or crime novel or a hellish concoction of both, or perhaps something else entirely, The Girl Next Door gets my highest, but most reserved, recommendations.


Alejandro Omidsalar said...

While I love Ketchum, I've been pussyfooting around reading "The Girl Next Door" just because of how intense it's reputed to be; but, after reading your review, I think I'm gonna have to go ahead and pick it up.

I think you made a solid statement about how Ketchum's books walk the line between crime and horror. I've been thinking a lot about that specific genre divide lately myself and, as best as I can put it, I don't think there is too much of one. Most crime stories have the potential to be (and frequently are) horrific--just without the potential supernatural workings that horror can manipulate. I can't really think of two more closely-related genres.

In any case, excellent review, Will.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Alejandro. More than once on this blog I've mused about the horror/crime ebb, and it was Ellroy who got me thinking about it way back when I read BLACK DAHLIA in '92, the first crime novel I'd ever read. For me, the distinction is often in the "matter-of-factness" tone: horror generally tries to instill in you that weird mind-expanding moment when the world cracks open and you can barely comprehend the depths to which humanity - or whatever - will sink; crime fiction doesn't attempt transcendence with violence, it just *is*.

But read this book; I avoided it too for a long time but I really can't get across how impressed I was by Ketchum's skill at taking you through the horror without making it feel, as I said, cheap and tawdry.

HEED said...

Another spot-on review! Girl Next Door was the first Ketchum novel I read and it haunted me for weeks. While still entertaining, Off Season is nowhere near as good, and the movie adaption (from a screenplay by Ketchum) downright sucks.

You are also right about Ellroy's Black Dahlia, which ranks among my all-time favorites. Jim Thompson's best work (Pop. 1280, Killer Inside Me & Getaway) also blurs the line between crime and horror. And on which side of the fence would you put Silence of the Lambs?

Same goes for True Crime. There's a massive pile of clunkers in that genre but some, like Maury Terry's absorbing account of the Berkowitz case, The Ultimate Evil, should appeal to any horror fan.

Will Errickson said...

HEED, I read & reviewed SILENCE here a couple months ago! Check it out. Thanks for reading. Reminds me: I need to get back on my Thompson collection.

James Everington said...

Interesting and perceptive review, thanks. I've not read any Ketchum, although I have Off Season on my shelf waiting. I love The Black Dahlia and Ellroy though.

And yes *dreadful* cover.

highwayknees said...

Hi Will, I came to THE GIRL NEXT DOOR in a roundabout way. I had heard of the actual case from a friend who reads true-crime novels so I read THE BASEMENT, by Kate Millett. WHich is an excellent psychological study of the case. And not what is know as the usual cheap, exploitative true crime book. I was so shaken by the details of the actual case of Sylvia Likens ,that I was paralyzed to re-live it in a harsh fictional form when i heard of Ketchum's famous work. In fact it hadn't been released by Leisure yet when searching I could only find rare HB copies that i couldn't afford. But I WAS curious about it and it gnawed at me as I hemmed and hawed. Then when the Leisure copy was released I bought it and let it sit and glare at me a long while...still afraid to relive the horror. But of course -i finally gave in! And WOW! You are right Ketchum was spot on with the feel of the location and emotional atmosphere. I can't say i enjoyed it-but I'm glad I read it so I know what people were talking about on chatboards like SHOCKLINES et al.
of course then the two films came out -and thats another story... I refuse to go back there again! Kathryn Keener plays Ruth in the one called AN American Crime-and I'm sure she's so good she's scary...but I can't do it!

Bob The Wordless said...

Great review of a book that stays with you after you've read it. The cover is just awful though.Has absolutely nothing to do with the book.
There's another novel called Let's Go Play At The Adams, by, Mendal W. Johnson that is just as disturbing,and, riveting.It was one of those once you start, you just can't stop books.Highly recommended

Will Errickson said...

highwayknees - I've seen the movie adaptation of this novel, and one of the things that makes it, uh, watchable, is that some of the acting does lack a bit. The girl that plays Meg, however, is all too good. Probably I'll check out the Millet book at some point...

And Bob, thanks for tipping me to the Johnson novel; sounds worth a look. Nice vintage cover, I just saw at Amazon; not horror exactly but still... wow.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. May even get me to overcome my prejudice against this sort of book. Hats off.
Highwayknees put his/her finger on what bothers me about THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (haven't read), OFF SEASON (skimmed quickly once, was disgusted), RED DRAGON (fascinated but felt guilty after), and similar -- the "true crime" aspect.
I prefer my horror frightening and weird, but not participatory. Something about these books made me feel like I was part of it, and that was very uncomfortable.
The strength of your comments on this particular book make me curious to try it and find out.

francisco said...

It's the only book by David Ketchum published in Spain by a important (more or less) publisher, Off season and the other about Mexico in the XIX century (I don't remind the title) are published by small press... although they don't publish a lot of modern horror in Spain, I didn't want to read the book because of the true crime thing, just like people commenting on the blog, I'm a bit more interested now on the book but I don't know... what about Off season? I know it must be extreme horror but I don't think is based on a real crime... and Cover? Vietnam-horror?

by the way you say about true crime books? are them novels? or kind of newspaper chronicles or essays? are them in the same genre as noir (Hammet, Chandler) or thrillers?

do you know a film Dead girl? it doesn't remind this story?

jeremy said...

HEED, I am quite pleased to see you mention "The Ultimate Evil" in your comment. I finished reading it recently and had a strong reaction to it, too.

I wimped out on "The Girl Next Door" about halfway through. Damn. I am finding parallels to that building tension Ketchum creates in Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird". A rough one as well and not considered horror but damn well horrific.

Anonymous said...

Dammit, about every time we get this deep into the comments, I get distracted by the "L'arrivee d'Sylvia Kristel" link to the right...

Will Errickson said...

"I prefer my horror frightening and weird, but not participatory. Something about these books made me feel like I was part of it, and that was very uncomfortable"

Ron, you make great point here. Some artists *want* their audience to "participate" in violence, I guess to make them complicit - as if we didn't already know violence was wrong. This can seem pretty obnoxious. However Ketchum's skill is that he makes you identify with the narrator David, who was a participant... but an oddly detached one till the end. I don't want all my horror fiction to be like GIRL, but when this kind of "true crime horror" is done right then yes, I will read it. Occasionally.

Will Errickson said...

Francisco, in the States "true crime" refers to nonfiction journalistic accounts that attempt to be objective about real-life crimes. They are not the same thing as mysteries or thrillers, which are fictional novels. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is based on a real-life case, as is the James Ellroy novel THE BLACK DAHLIA. These novels however are greatly fictionalized and are not trying to give an objective account of the events.

I know of the movie DEAD GIRL, which is about a zombie girl locked in a basement and then "abused." Have not seen it yet. It is a bit similar, though, yes.

Will Errickson said...

And oh yeah, I can't get enough of "L'arrivee d'Sylvia Kristel" either!

Richard of DM said...

Ditto on the review quality, sir. This blog of yours never disappoints. As for the book, it's one of the most soul-destroyingly sad things I've ever read but well worth the experience. It didn't exactly restore my faith in the kindness of my fellow human beings but I'm glad I read it.

maxruehl said...
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maxruehl said...

Hey, Will. Great post. I've been a fan of Dallas' since I read a pre-released copy of Off Season back in the '80s. I didn't like TGND much when I first read it--not because it was badly written, but because it made me so ANGRY. When I finished it I threw it against a wall--a fact I told to Dallas personally one of the times I met him--I think he understood.:) I came to appreciate it much more as time went on. It certainly always stayed with me. Nice to see "Ketchum" finally getting his due, although in some ways I miss having him all to myself.:) The film adaptations of his work are something of a mixed bag, but that's OK. The books are still there for all to read.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks Max. Reminds me the only book I literally threw at a wall wasn't b/c it was badly written, but b/c it upset me so: LOLITA. But we need difficult books now and then, don't we? We do.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

Read it in 3.5 hours. Just finished. Sometimes being a horror fan is a whole lot rougher than I expected it to be, but this book just cements Ketchum in my top 5 writers. Period.

Someone once said it in an interview with Ketchum, and I think it still holds true. The first line of The Girl Next Door ("You think you know about pain?") is the "Call me Ishmael" of the horror genre.

Unknown said...

A very well written article within a fantastic blog. I read 'The Girl Next Door' slowly, because I couldn't take it. And I'm a horror author.

I have the pleasure of knowing Dallas, by the way, and he's a great guy. I love it when talented writers turn out to be good people.

Play With Death said...

I am a horror writer, and a lot of readers say my writing is on the "sadistic" side. That being said, I found "The Girl Next Door" to be a pretty disturbing read. There's something about "based on a true story" that just changes things. I enjoy knowing my brutality never really happened.

Great post. I like how you presented this. is always looking for other sites to connect with and I'm glad I came across yours.

hasnain raza said...
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Unknown said...
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Nine-Fingered Menace said...

I saw the movie based off this book. It was "good", in the sense of being well made and compelling. However, it's one of those movies you only see once if you have any healthy emotions at all. I run across the book every so often, but I have no desire to read it.

Richard said...

I just finished reading The Girl Next Door last Tuesday. I have read lots of horror books, but this one was too extreme even for me.