Ketchum, Jack (The Girl Next Door, etc)

I first heard Jack Ketchum’s name mentioned through the grapevine in the late nineties. Veteran horror readers were speaking in hushed tones about a little book called The Girl Next Door, describing it as “the most disturbing novel ever written.” I scoured the Internet and every used bookstore I could find but to no avail. Like the masterful authors of the splatterpunk era, Ketchum’s novels had since vanished from print.

After a five-year search I landed a hardcover copy of Girl from the U.K. — and it more than lived up to its reputation. The horrific tale of a young girl’s abuse delved into the darkest recesses of the human mind in a way I’d never seen. I was shocked, disturbed, and emotionally shattered. And I wanted more.

After reading his equally powerful cannibal novel Off Season, something happened: I became addicted. Thankfully, finding a Ketchum book is no longer a scavenger hunt. The publishing gods have given the controversial author a new life on the shelves, and people are finally discovering the horrible truth:

In the world of Jack Ketchum, no one is safe … least of all, the reader.

Andrew Kasch: This seems to be quite the revival year for you. The Girl Next Door is back in print, Off Season‘s on its way, and we’re seeing the first-ever Jack Ketchum movie. Congrats! How is all this affecting you?

Jack Ketchum: You mean Offspring [the sequel] is on its way. Off Season‘s already out there in hardcover and trade paper. But I’ll tell you, it’s really a kick to walk into a Barnes & Noble and see five or six different titles of yours on the shelves. This after years of being lucky to go in and find one — and then for only a few months before it disappeared into the publishing maw forever. It’s also nice to report that I’ve been in the black two years in a row now. You hear me knocking on wood? Because I sure as hell am.

AK: I remember when finding a copy of The Girl Next Door meant shelling out a few hundred bucks for a used paperback on eBay — the one with that god-awful skeleton cheerleader on the cover. After 15 years it must be a relief to finally see it given the respectable mass-market treatment.

JK: The second life of The Girl Next Door began with Overlook Connection Press’ hardcover, of course. And with Stephen King’s introduction. Plus all those terrific afterwords in the back of the book. Plus Neal McPheeters’ wonderful evocative cover art. But yes, Leisure’s mass-market edition is a total pleasure. Against all odds your basic Wal-Mart customer might just trip over a copy of the thing. The downside is that I’m getting my first-ever e-hate mail. Hmmmm. Is that a downside? If the book didn’t still have some teeth left, I guess nobody would bother.

AK: It has been said that all good horror plays mind tricks on its audience. If that’s the case, then The Girl Next Door feels like a full-on psychiatric evaluation. Is the author/reader relationship something you’re conscious about while writing?

JK: When I write, I’m both the writer and the reader. I’m walking in both sets of shoes. So in that sense, yes. I want to make myself feel something just as I’d want to make a total stranger feel something. If I can crack myself up, I’ve probably done my job. If I can scare hell out of me or make myself cry, I’ve probably done my job. Sound schitzy? Sure it is. But show me a kid playing with plastic dinosaurs who isn’t both the kid and the dinosaurs. It’s the nature of the beast.

AK: The horror in your stories tends to be more reality-based and, in some cases, inspired by actual events. Do you tend to do a lot of research into your subject matters?

JK: The amount of research depends on the book. Cover, whose main character/antagonist is a Vietnam vet losing it in the deep Maine woods, took me a year to research, reading and talking to vets, before I even wrote a word. I didn’t go to Vietnam, and I didn’t want to rip off the vets who did. The Crossings, set just after the Mexican War, took a few months of book research before I started. By contrast Off Season and The Girl Next Door practically wrote themselves. I knew the locales because I’d lived in each of them, and I based the people loosely on people I knew.

AK: I know this is probably a tedious topic for you, but I’d like to address it for all our uninformed readers: Your work is known for its visceral and graphic nature; yet, it never crosses over into the realm of exploitation. It’s a thin line and one that is under constant debate in horror, but you seem to walk it better than anyone. What are your feelings on the subject? Is this something you ever find yourself struggling with in your own work?

JK: As we speak, I’m getting my first-ever hate mail on my message board, so there are definitely folks out there who think I cross the line. But I figure everybody has their own line based on individual life experiences and general tolerance for the kind of thing I do. It’s not for everybody, and I never meant it to be. I wouldn’t say I struggle with the problem, but it’s something I’m mindful of. The Girl Next Door‘s a good example. I wanted to do child abuse up-close and personal but without exploiting abused kids. So I wrote that one very carefully. I do the same thing when I hurt an animal in one of my books or stories. I never want some asshole out there to relish it.

AK: You took a lot of heat in the publishing world when you first launched Off Season back in 1980. How has the industry changed since then? Have publishers grown more lenient, or do you still find yourself fighting battles over content?

JK: I don’t think the publishing world’s that much different, but I quit fighting battles. I’m not some starving kid anymore, thank god. If a publisher doesn’t want what I do the way I do it, he can find somebody else. And so will I.

AK: I understand that The Lost adaptation just wrapped filming. What was the extent of your involvement, and what were your initial impressions about the production?

JK: I had a couple of looks at Chris [Sivertson]’s screenplay as he was developing it, gave him some input. Then they flew me out there to shoot for a day. I play a bartender. I guess they figured I might know how to pour. I had a great time, and everybody seemed real happy to see me. The actors even asked me a few questions about their characters. They were all very professional. I saw a rough cut, but it was still about a half hour too long so it’s hard to say exactly how it will turn out. The ending, I will say, was pretty damned harrowing.

AK: How do you feel about Stuart Gordon tackling Ladies Night? Is he working from your screenplay?

JK: I did a screenplay years ago. I’d set it in New Jersey and not New York, figuring, small budget. But Stuart wrote his own and he wanted it back in the City. He wanted to read mine, though, and thought that I’d set up the characters better than he had so he asked if he could incorporate what I’d done into his script and that we’d share writing credit and the money. I said sure. He’s a very nice guy and I’ve loved a lot of his work, but it’s been a while now and … hey, who knows?

AK: Any word on Lucky McKee’s Red film, or is it pretty much dead in the water?

JK: Not at all. Lucky just renewed the option.

AK: Since your characters are defined primarily through their internal thoughts and feelings, are you ever concerned that your books might lose something vital in the transition to film?

JK: Now, you know the answer to that question. C’mon! Nothing happens to the book. The book is right there on the shelf where I left it. Or at least I think I left it there. But I don’t remember ever seeing a movie, even a great movie, that was inspired by a book where something didn’t fall by the wayside.

In The Lost, for instance, I have a cat who’s something of a main character whose plight is a kind of side-plot. In the first draft of the script, Chris 86’d the cat. Then he put it back again. Then in the final draft he lost it again. I didn’t blame him. The script was already long because he was paying a lot of attention to my other characters. Maybe somebody will make another short movie about my cat some day.

And you do realize I was just having fun with you back there, right? I suppose any film treatment of my books would lose a lot of internal monologue. Unless you were doing voice-over. Phil Nutman’s script of The Girl Next Door uses voice-over, and it’s very effective, especially since the book is written in the first person. You might lose a good bit with, say, Cover. But the filmmaker’s job is to portray internal states through a character’s actions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But unless I’m the one writing the script, it’s not my business.

AK: While we’re on the subject of film, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed reading some of your published essays. It looks like you’re really into offbeat cinema, particularly the international stuff. Are there any recent films or filmmakers that you’ve enjoyed?

JK: Thank you. I haven’t liked much in the horror/fantasy area lately. I think Sin City was misunderstood by critics, and I liked it quite a lot. On DVD, Lucky’s May of course and Robert Parigi’s Love Object.

But most of the stuff out there is just retreading. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Romero’s Land of the Dead. But you’re right; I’m finding the really disturbing stuff is coming mostly out of Japan. Matsumuru’s All Night Long series, for instance. Hard to take — and powerful.

AK: Are there any other authors you’d encourage fans to check out?

JK: Sure — and here I’ll just list some who I think are really good and haven’t yet attained a huge following, though most already have a pretty respectable following. Try Graham Joyce, Tim Lebbon, Tom Piccirilli, Elizabeth Massie, P. D. Cacek, and Gary Braunbeck. And if you haven’t already, Edward Lee. That should keep ya busy for a while!

AK: Now for the obligatory question: What’s up next for you?

JK: Now, that would be telling. But I think a novel would be nice.

Special thanks to Mr. Ketchum for taking time out to talk with us. Brave souls can check out his novels here!

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Jon Condit

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