Reviwed by Johnny Butane
Written by Jack Ketchum
Published by Leisure Books
The first thing I thought of when I closed this book for the last time was, “Okay, now I get it”.
Believe it or not, The Girl Next Door is the first book I’ve ever read by Jack Ketchum, and now that I have, the hype that surrounds him and the respect that people use when they speak of him make complete sense to me.
The story takes place in the 1950’s in a quiet suburb. Our main character, David, is a normal kid for the era; he likes baseball, carnivals, movies, and hanging out with his friends. At the start of the book two new girls move in next door, where his best friend lives. They’re his friend’s cousins, and their parents have recently died in a horrible car accident. Meg’s younger sister, Susan, is now crippled because of the accident, and the two are just trying to move on with their lives. David is interested in Meg, the older sister, in the way only a young teenager can be.
Their aunt, Ruth, is the mother of three boys, whom she loves very dearly. David’s been hanging out with them all since he was young enough to leave his house alone, though David’s mother has some serious issues with Ruth. The reasoning is never explained, but soon enough we will begin to understand why. Ruth’s the kind of mother that lets her young boys drink beer and swear; she’s very lenient to the point that David sees her more as a friend than an authority figure. That all changes when Meg and Susan arrive.
At first they’re just treated badly, ignored by the boys and Ruth, and given a seemingly never-ending list of chores. What little free time they do have is slowly cut back more and more as they do what Ruth considers misbehaving, until finally they’re not allowed to even leave the house without being accompanied by her or one of the boys.
Meg tries to tell David of her plight but he thinks she’s just overreacting. All kids get beat on sometimes, though no one really talked about it back in those days; it was just something that happened. When Meg tells the police, however, Ruth decides she’s not only not fit to leave the house, but she will must be confined to a bomb shelter Ruth’s ex-husband built in their basement at the height of paranoia abut The Bomb.
That’s when things get very, very bad.
Ruth’s usual leniency with her children and their friends gets worse and worse, and soon horrible, horrible things are happening to young Meg on an almost daily basis. Our narrator, David, never really participates but waits far too long to try and stop them. The way Ketchum paints the story, though, you can almost understand why. You can almost see the mindset the boy was in as he watched this girl humiliated and hurt by his peers. Almost.
The strength of this story, and from what I’ve read about Ketchum previously it’s the same with most of his stories, is the realism of the horror that occurs. There are no supernatural monsters running havoc, there is no demented serial killer, no forces from beyond. Just pure, real horror going on in a house that from the outside looks completely normal, even innocent. The truth is, it’s anything but.
I really can’t go into much more detail about the particulars of the book; it’s one of those novels that, to me, has to be read to be fully understood. It’s one of the most powerful, disturbing, and overall horrific stories I’ve ever read by any author. If you missed the first few printings of The Girl Next Door, do not miss this one. It’s the reason Ketchum is considered an absolute master of his craft, and rightly so.
5 out of 5