Thursday, November 29, 2012

Off Season by Jack Ketchum (1981): At Night Everything Hunts

You see that tagline up there, bold white against the starkest of blacks, a not-so-discreet arrow of crimson, a barely-visible title? It says The Ultimate Horror Novel. This kind of thing makes me, has always made me, skeptical. Not even skeptical; when I see that encomium so obviously from the PR dept of a paperback publisher, it's not even something worth considering as truth in the first place. In fact, it puts me in the opposite direction: this is hype to cover hackwork, and I walk away. But. That tagline...

Ketchum today

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 (long-standing pen name of Dallas Mayr) 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. Off Season can be seen as 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.

1991 sequel

I don't really feel it necessary to get into the plot and character specifics; you can find those in reviews all over the internet. I'd rather talk more generally about what's going on in the novel, how Ketchum's style, even in this debut work, is careful, measured; at rare moments it even achieves a dark thoughtful poetry. Power lies in its matter-of-factness, in the precise control he has over what the reader experiences. The long character-driven build-up works well, and the conflicts and desires in his young people are rooted in an experiential reality (you'd be surprised - or perhaps you wouldn't - how many horror novelists, if their writing is to be taken at face value, have no idea how humans talk, think, behave, and interact; if they have had those experiences then their writing shows nothing of it, shows only what they've learned through TV commercials). You believe in these characters, for the most part, and it's so satisfying to read a writer who can convey that easily. These aren't Stephen King-style characterizations, of course, but for a paperback original, they're something unexpected.

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.

Ketchum in '81

Ballantine Books printed up hundreds of thousands of copies of Off Season, even sending out this advance reader's edition (above) to booksellers in January 1981, along with other promotional items. And the outcry was immediate: no bookseller wanted to sell what they considered "violent pornography." Ketchum's career as a novelist was almost over before it'd begun. While it gained some word-of-mouth sales and became a cult title, it wasn't till the advent of the internet that the author's work became better known. The republication of it in 1999 included material excised by the publisher originally for being too violent. I can't even imagine what that'd be!

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.


Jack Tripper said...

Like you, my feelings are mixed on this novel, and on Ketchum in general. While there's no questioning his talent at evoking pure and utter horror within the reader, it's just not enjoyable to me. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind at the time, but I wasn't feeling either this or The Girl Next Door.

Laymon wrote similarly-themed books in the early 80s, but somehow he made it all seem ridiculously light-hearted and "fun" (at least it was in my younger days), where you're rooting for the annoying and stupid main characters to die horrible deaths. Ketchum will just ruin your day and make you question the depths of human depravity. Laymon will too occasionally, but for all the wrong reasons.

bluerosekiller said...

I discovered OFF SEASON in an odd way. Or, rather, during a strange, profound moment of time of my life where everything became stark & even the most mundane things seemed to become inedible. Captured, Crystallized.
My father died suddenly in late June of '81 when I was 19. And it was while out shopping for a suit to where at his funeral at the local mall that I wandered into it's Walden's Books & spotted Ketchum's black cover standing out among those around it. And, being the voracious reader that I am & needing something to help me escape all the dreary days ahead I bought it as well as a stack of other long forgotten paperbacks on my way out.
And, being so conspicuous, I read OFF SEASON first.
Now, one would think that a novel like that would be the very LAST sort of reading that one would want to do whilst coming to grips so up close & personally with mortality. But, I sat down that day & lost myself in it during every free moment.
And, somehow, someway it helped.
It's momentum & primal force pulled me through during those moments when I just wanted to escape.
And, for that, in it's own strange, twisted way OFF SEASON is a very special book to me.


Adam said...

I could write reams and reams about both Ketchum and Laymon and how much I believe they actually "mean" to horror fiction, but I'll just say...

"This is where I get off!"

Dennis said...

Your blog is incredible. So many great reads and awesome reviews, all I can say is hope to put my hands on those books some day. Thanks!

Doug Brunell said...

As some people may or may not be aware of, I have my own cannibal tale out there, "Nothing Men." (I would hyperlink this, but I am unsure how. You can Google it with my name to find it. It is on Amazon and Smashwords.) It was inspired by "Texas Chainsaw ..." Gein and my own fascination with cannibalism. When I shopped the manuscript around, the universal refrain I heard from editors was a hearty, "No!" Why?

The problem it seems was the ending: it was too depressing. I was told audiences don't want to read "depressing" anymore. When I pointed out that to have it end any other way wouldn't be true to the story, I was met with, "Well, the entire thing is just so overwhelming that you need to have some light shine through at the end." Thus, I self-published. I have a print book out there. I've had fiction and non-fiction published in plenty of places. This response from publishers/editors was ... depressing.

Do I think they were right? No. I've sold copies. Not as many as I'd like (any author can say the same), but the response I get from readers tells me I made the right decision. I still don't get why I was told to change the ending. The ending that was suggested made zero sense when compared to the rest of the story.

The fact that Ketchum's work had bookstores balking is something I could have understood. Instead, I was told that changing the ending of my manuscript would make it far easier to get it published.

It's things like this that should show readers that publishers and booksellers often have no idea what readers want to read. They read stuff like Grisham because it is there. Offer them alternatives, and they will read it.

I hope this didn't come across as self-promotion. It's not (though if I get some sales from it -- great). It's a statement on the world of publishing from someone who has been dealing with it since 1988.

Fernando Brambila O. said...

I first read this book in the Overlook Hardback edition, as in the unexpurgated edition --through if I remember correctly, Ketchum himself explains that he actually had to reconstruct a lot of the book from memory because he never really saved the original manuscript.
Regardless, it was a pretty powerful novel... I don't know if this is overpraising, but I came to it on recommendation from liking books like the Splatterpunks (mostly Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite) and what at the time seemed goremeisters (Richard Laymon, Bentley Little). When I read this book I thought: "No, that's not it. I know Ketchum is personal friends with some of those writers, but his work (or at least this particular novel) doesn't belong with them. If anything it belongs with the works of Joseph Conrad (specifically "Heart of Darkness"), Juan Rulfo (specifically "Pedro Páramo"), Ernesto Sábato ("Sobre héroes y tumbas") and... let's not say quite Dostoievsky, but close". Because like those three books it has ingredients traditionally associated with horror (as a genre) and thrillers, but in the end has more to do with Horror as a part of existence itself. As the consciousness of just what darkness, violence and primal fear actually mean.
Beyond that, I have also read Ketchum's short story collection "Peaceable Kingdom", which truth be told I found very uneven as a collection; the curious part is that Ketchum himself admits upfront in the introduction: "As a writer, I'm all over the place". But I don't think it was the variety of themes, as he self-diagnosed, it's more that he works better when he's not *consciously* trying to be edgy or "dark", but rather when he simply writers about... well, about people.
I suppose Ketchum is best summed up by what Peter Straub once said of him: "people seek (his) books for the wrong reasons, but stay for the right ones".

Will Errickson said...

I have not heard that Straub quote before - very apt. And I agree: Ketchum's novels (the ones that I've read) are their own genre!