Thursday, March 9, 2023

Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum (1984): Linger on Your Pale Blue Eyes

A brief, stark coming-of-age tale of terror, Hide and Seek was the second novel from the late Jack Ketchum—famous pseudonym of author Dallas Mayr, who died of cancer in 2018 at age 71. Published as a paperback original by Ballantine Books in June 1984, this slim little book reads like a James M. Cain or a Jim Thompson crime novel, with a no-account narrator meeting an enticing woman far outside his league (I was way outclassed and I knew it), related in plain prose rife with hard-boiled philosophizing, a sense of unavoidable fate lurking behind the everyday facade. I don't believe in omens, but I think you can know when you're in trouble.

Set sometime in the Sixties, Hide and Seek is told in retrospect by Dan Thomas, a regular young guy living and working in a lumber mill in Dead River, Maine. Pretty much a dead-end town, he's in a dead-end job, but when he and another blue-collar friend are hanging out at the touristy local lake, Dan happens to meet three college "rich kids," Kimberly, Steven, and most intriguingly, Casey White. Casey, with eyes pale, pale blue that at first it was hard to see any color in them at all. Dead eyes, my brown-eyed father calls them. Depthless.    

Dan is of course completely besotted with Casey, and reluctantly hangs out with Steven and Kimberly too just to be with her. Steven loves Casey but has settled for Kimberly; this is a fact known by all. They drink beer, hit the beach, skinny-dip, shoplift, pull dumb pranks. They laugh a lot but nothing's really funny. Dan meets Casey's father, who seems a broken man, and learns of a horrific tragedy in the family' life. Dan and Casey have sex in a graveyard. Just like in a classic noir novel, Casey is the femme fatale, but she's most fatal to herself; that tragedy has caused her to be reckless, which is what  frightens, and yet attracts, our narrator. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned her at the stake.

Ketchum builds tension well in the book's first half, with short declarative sentences, simplistic dialogue, and that sense of fatalism permeating everything—the kind of thing crime noir is known for. I appreciate his attempt at writing a horror novel that incorporates other genre elements, to infuse his stories with a grimy grindhouse slasher feel combined with tentative attempts at character detail, but to what end? I was really into the long fuse of the set-up, wondering what character flaw would trip the deadly spring I knew just had to be poised over the characters' heads. And then Ketchum reveals it, and all the goodwill built up by his careful tightening of the noose is spent. "Hide and seek. Just the way we used to play it when we were kids. But we play it in the Crouch place."

I'm going to talk freely about what happens in the second half of the story, so I guess a spoiler warning is warranted from here on. 

The Crouch place Casey is talking about is Dead River's haunted house, situated on a cliff above the sea, abandoned years before by the two owners, Ben and Mary Crouch. Rumored to be imbecilic siblings, they had lived in filth with their many, many dogs. Which the couple left behind, starving and near-mad, when the police pay a visit a month after they'd been evicted for not paying their mortgage. To be honest, all this became too Richard Laymon-style for me, this scenario of teens sneaking into an empty old creepy house at midnight to play a child's game, tying up one another with nylon ropes when "found." "How do you feel about bondage?" "I love bondage!" She finished buttoning her blouse.

The novel is too "talky" and 90% horror-free for a horror novel, while the origins of its violence too hokey for a crime novel. And Ketchum is so damn solemn about everything. Lighten up, Francis! He invests too much seriousness in that trite finale, a lot of po-faced silliness that squanders all that great suspense he worked so hard to build up. A giant dog in the caverns beneath the house eating people? Monstrous Ben and Mary Crouch living down there in the earth? In a schlockier horror novel, sure. But all this time spent laying down a prosaic reality, hinting at horrors in the future that cannot be avoided, alluding to human flaws that will lead to tragedy, and then it's just some B-movie monster ripping people apart in gory, yet somehow bland detail. It's not as dumb as Laymon, you can tell Ketchum cares a lot, but it's still thin gruel for a seasoned reader.

In the Eighties, fat horror novels were the rage; books that featured lots of characters, situations, settings, plots, conflicts, and blood and scary scenes splashed throughout. Ketchum bothers with none of that. Not even 200 pages, Hide and Seek is a novella padded out to get to even that length. With this bare bones approach, he must have felt like a man without a country back then. No one really wrote this style of book, and the reason is: it doesn't work. Hide and Seek just doesn't work, not as horror, not as crime, not as coming-of-age. Why push your readers through to an end where you rip the characters apart, ostensibly for the moral of "the world is a horrible place but I think I've learned to cope"?

I never heard of Ketchum till the early 2000s, around when The Girl Next Door was reprinted, and he published no short stories in the Eighties, which is where I learned about new writers then. I doubt I'd have enjoyed his books anyway, as I was looking for more challenging, more imaginative vistas, writers like Barker, Koja, Tessier, Lansdale, Brite, Ligotti, etc. people stretching the boundaries of horror into weird new realms. Novels trading in giant monster dogs and slasher cannibals like this novel would've seemed to me like tired retreads of tropes I didn't care about in the first place.

Ketchum has a great reputation in the field, as a mentor and as a mensch, and his death was mourned by everyone who loves the genre. But this second novel is failed ambition, a concoction that promises terrifying delights but in the end delivers little of real interest, almost negating itself. This was the fourth book I've read by Ketchum, and while not as bad as She Wakes, Hide and Seek is a step down from, and a little derivative of, his brutal and grueling debut, 1980's Off Season. The more I thought about it the more I felt it was like a writing exercise, a very first draft, a practice session to prepare for the real thing.

Eventually Ketchum would come into his own and define his own style with The Girl Next Door—the real thing—but I'm realizing I haven't liked even his books that I consider successful. From what I've read about his later novels, many seem to be extreme scenarios of sexual violence and cruelty mixed with that fatalistic philosophy and slow build-up. Never say never, of course, but I doubt I'll be picking up one of his other books any time soon.


Zwolf said...

I love Ketchum (Girl Next Door is probably the most powerful horror novel I've ever read), but for some reason Hide & Seek is like teflon to me; I've read it at least three times and for some reason I never remember what it's about. So I'm glad you put some spoilers, just so when I forget again I can read this post instead of re-reading the whole book. There are things in Girl Next Door I can't forget, but Hide & Seek is nothing but things I can't remember. I remember the basic hard-boiled tone of it, but none of the details at all. It is maybe THE most un-memorable book I own.

I like Off Season but don't feel it lives up to its reputation that much, because it's so derivative of Texas Chainsaw. Cannibalism just isn't that shocking. Still, it's a good pulp read, but just doesn't live up to the verboten mystique around it. So, yeah, Ketchum can be hit and miss. He's a very good craftsman and I don't think I've ever read anything by him that I considered actually *bad,* but a few -- Hide & Seek, She Wakes -- are kind of meh.

Fernando Brambila O. said...

I think you hit the nail on the head: Ketchum at his best is interesting; at his worst he kinda mimics the worst traits of his personal writer friends. But... he's not QUITE enjoyable, for good or bad.

I liked some parts of Off-season and some of the short story collection "Peaceable Kingdom" but...yeah.

Tony Rabig said...

If I had to pick just a few of Ketchum's, I'd go with THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, RED, THE LOST, and PEACEABLE KINGDOM. Haven't read everything, so maybe I'm missing a gem or two, but seems to me those four are Ketchum working at the top of his game.

If you read THE LOST, find a used paperback -- the ebook edition omits the first two pages of the prologue. I'd reported this to Amazon and to Ketchum (this wasn't too long before his death) but to my knowledge the error was never corrected.

Re: James Herbert -- eons since I read him, but if memory serves THE DARK was a pretty good read. (replying here because I don't facebook or tweet) said...

I have the same feelings about Ketchum. I acknowledge The Girl Next Door as his masterpiece-but will never re-read it. It was like a gauntlet you have to run as a horror fan...Ive read the SS collection and was ok with it, then RED, which i did enjoy. Other than that I have a copy of Off Season on my shelf Ive never read and dont have any plans to really. His work isnt really my thing.While a competent writer, he seems to not have much "mystery" in his style to keep me interested.

always mark savage said...

A weaker Ketchum, but as you said, not as weak as SHE WAKES, a Ketchum I struggled with by the tenth page.

The Ketchum novels that stay with me are ONLY CHILD, RED, and THE LOST.

OFF SEASON was a great first read but it feels very derivative today.

Mike said...

Tony Rabig, if you really want to re-read James Herbert, go back to his series THE RATS. They're always great!