Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Jack Ketchum
Published by Leisure Horror
Off Season is one of those books, for me at least, that’s always been mentioned when discussion comes up about the best in literary horror. It’s also a book that I’ve never read thanks to its relative unavailability at a reasonable price. The good folks at Leisure Books have changed that, however, making this classic novel, like Red and The Girl Next Door before it, available for the fist time as a mass market paperback in its author-approved original version.
Upon reading it for the first time, I can see why the world just wasn’t quite ready for what Ketchum wanted to tell them when the book first came into being. That explains why, despite promises of fame and fortune, Off Season came out with little to no fanfare, neutered to the point of absurdity. Thank the gods the world has changed and we can stroll into any Barnes and Nobles or Waldenbooks and read all the sick and twisted things Ketchum has to say about a murderous clan of inbreeds off the coast of main.
When I started on Off Season I have to say I was a little taken aback. The first half of the book, which is lean and mean at just under 300 pages, is a lot of setup and character development, allowing the reader to get comfortable with the story’s leads before the insanity that fills the second half really takes over.
Said characters consist of Carla, a professional editor who’s on a working holiday off the coast of Maine, a woman very focused on her career and determined to be successful at everything she does. She’s invited her sister, Marjie, Marjie’s boyfriend, Carla’s boyfriend Jim, and her ex Nick along with his new girl up for the weekend to catch up on old times, have some sex and drinks, and enjoy the quiet. Unbeknownst to all of them, however, is that a few miles away, in a cave near the ocean, a very large family of monstrous humans live; filthy creatures who have de-evolved to utter savagery and cannibalism as a means for survival. Carla and her group seem like a Thanksgiving dinner to this twisted clan, and after studying them for a while to make sure they understand (as best they can) just how many there are, they attack.
From that point on, Off Season becomes an unrelenting cavalcade of the most horrific acts you can imagine as the clan takes one of the characters from the outset and kills them in an incredibly vicious manner. Up to the actual point of this first death we’re not sure just how far Ketchum is going to go with the violence and savagery. Once we see just how horrific this clan truly is, all bets are off for the rest of the novel, and Ketchum does everything in his formidable storytelling skills to push the violence as far as is possible… and then goes just a bit further for good measure.
It’s really hard to believe that this story was written almost 30 years ago both because of the subject matter and the fact that it’s taken this long to finally get out to the public at large in the form the author intended. That either shows that as a society we’re more willing to accept fiction for what it is, or that we’re so far gone that we just don’t care. I’d like to think it’s the first.
Off Season isn’t just about the horror, though. Ketchum manages to infuse the characters with enough depth to make us identify with and care about them, with the first half of the story taking place on a much more normal level of the world, though the inherit violence of the last half is always just under the surface. Conventions are even shaken up a bit by Jack creating two small-town cops that are a lot more intelligent than we’re used to, and actually figure out what’s going on down by the ocean before they have to be told too explicitly that something’s wrong there. Usually in a story like this the cops are the most ineffectual part of the entire picture, unable or unwilling to put the evidence in front of them together to form a logical picture; not so with Off Season. Yet another aspect that makes you care about the characters and makes the end of the story that much more difficult to shrug off.
Apparently this ending was not in place in the book’s original version and I really can’t imagine what Ketchum went through having to change it. Indeed, in an afterward by the author (taken from Off Season: The Unexpurgated Edition) he relates that of all the cuts he had to make, changing the ending was the most painful. I’m glad to see it in place as it is now because it wraps up the book perfectly. It may not be a happy ending but, like the rest of the story, it is realistic, which is what makes it worse.
Leisure has also been kind enough to include the story “The Winter Child” at the end of Off Season. It’s not just a space-filler; “Child” is actually an offshoot story of Off Season, told from the point of view of a boy who’s father, nearly destroyed after the lose of his wife and daughter, takes in a girl who shows up at their front door in the middle of a vicious winter storm. He never fully trusts here, even as his father warms up to the child and treats her like his own despite the fact that she is nearly devoid of emotion, and eventually his worst fears come true in the worst way possible. It’s a nice piece to include, showing that the events at the end of Off Season weren’t truly the end, and setting up for the book’s sequel, Offspring.
Do yourself a favor; get Off Season. Show both Leisure and Ketchum that this the kind of book horror fans want; this is what makes us continue to love the genre. When violence is done just right, so it is shocking not just because of it’s intensity but because you actually care about the people it’s happening to, that is what horror fiction is all about and Off Season does it perfectly.
5 out of 5
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