Jack Ketchum was one of those horror authors who keep getting recommended by the biggest names in the genre, people like Stephen King, who raves about him often. He won four Bram Stoker Awards, out of a total of eight nominations, and he was honoured as the World Horror Convention's Grand Master in 2011. Many of his books were adapted onto the big screen, including 'The Girl Next Door', 'Red' and 'The Woman'. And he died, aged 71, last month, under his real name of Dallas Mayr.
To remember the work of Jack Ketchum, I had to revisit his highly controversial debut, 'Off Season', originally published in 1980 by Ballantine Books. Today, it's another backwoods cannibal story, inspired, as were they all, by the Sawney Bean legend of 16th century Scotland, albeit transplanted to modern day America, just like Wes Craven did three years earlier with his cult feature, 'The Hills Have Eyes'. The location here is Dead River, ME, a tourist town in, as the title suggests, the off-season when things are quiet and waiting. Back in 1980, however, it was a revelation, so attacked for its extreme violence that Ballantine voluntarily withdrew it from circulation after sales reaching 250,000. And that's after requiring cuts for intensity, which were not restored until the 1999 edition from Cemetery Dance.
Now, I've read a lot of horror that doesn't hold back on its graphic depictions of gore. I've devoured most of the careers of Guy N. Smith, Richard Laymon and Graham Masterton, each of whom sparked controversies of their own, not to mention dozens of 'nasty novels' published by Hamlyn and others. So this one doesn't seem too far adrift from that sort of book to me, but they didn't tend to sell in the 250,000 copy range, so it's easy to see the more mainstream audience freaking out at how extreme it was to them.
It's built very much in three layers, which equate to the three parts in which it's written, which in turn correspond to the three days during which the action unfolds.
The first part sets the story and could be seen as a sort of sketch in prose form. Ketchum introduces us to Dead River and the component parts we're going to focus on, caring little for anything else. It's a quiet town in the off-season, which is why Carla has rented out the Old Parks Place to edit a book. Before she settles in, though, she's planned a fun weekend with her lover, Jim, and a pair of couples: Nick, her ex, with his new girlfriend; and Marjie, her sister, with her boyfriend. Peters, the local police chief, is wondering about retirement yet again; he wants to hand over to Shearing, but he's still enjoying himself for now, especially off-season when he can relax over a couple of Budweisers in the Caribou.
And, of course, there are the filthy and mostly feral kids who spend the first chapter hunting a young lady who made the mistake of stopping her car at night when she saw a six-year-old girl weeping in the road. Needless to say, they're the young 'uns of the cannibal clan who will munch their way through this novel. By the way, that could hardly be described as a spoiler when they're exposed in the back cover blurb and their hideaway cave is depicted on the front cover, at least of my Headline Feature paperback. Ketchum even covers their origin story in this first part, albeit phrased as a ghost story read by Carla's sister.
The second part colours in that sketch. We dig a lot deeper into the cast of characters, to build our connections to them, both the civilised ones and the savages. We see the stage set in a lot more detail, to foreshadow all the horror that we know will show up soon. We thrill at a few scenes that hint strongly towards what that will look like. And we find ourselves preparing, mentally bracing ourselves for the onslaught that we know is just round the corner in the third part.
That shows up about halfway through the novel and, as it does, everything explodes into action. To extend that drawing metaphor, we've gone from black and white sketch to colour print and now we leap into animation. It's hell-for-leather stuff from this point out and, for all that we know that Ballantine required cuts, Ketchum doesn't let up in the slightest as he riffs on a line that he slips in soon into this third part, that: 'In three generations you could slip the tether of the past with no more trouble than it took to drink a Pepsi.'
Looking back, I quite liked the approach, though it seemed a little strange while reading. I was surprised to find everything explained, at least to some degree, in the first fifty pages. I found the next fifty slow, because I knew they were the proverbial calm before the storm and I could hear that coming in the distance. But, when everything cuts loose, it does so with emphasis and, as hard as it must have been to sustain that for half a novel, it surely would have been harder still to maintain it throughout. Had the horror been broken up across the sections, the extreme panic of the final part wouldn't have felt the same.
I also appreciated a couple of other things, very much indeed.
While this seemed archetypal, the sort of iconic novel that makes its mark not only through its own merits but through others following its template down the decades, I must say that I was suitably shocked when a number of characters I fully expected to survive until the end bit the big one early. That was a fantastic way to go right before turning everything up to eleven. We fully expect the characters to be on edge, of course, because they're being attacked by a band of wild cannibalistic savages, but that effect is heightened when our expectations are thrown too and we suddenly realise that we no longer have any idea who's going to live and who's going to die. That's good writing.
The cops were the other notable aspect for me. They felt much more real than the cops I'm used to reading in horror novels, not just in their characters but especially in their behaviour. What goes down on the path to the cannibals' cave as everything reaches its endgame is as highly believable as it is brutal. Ketchum didn't have to write those scenes that way but they elevated the book substantially. I alternated grinning with admiration with holding my breath in anticipation of where I realised we were going. Again, that's good writing.
And, to my way of thinking, those are the reasons why this is still worth the read in 2018. The impact it had in 1980 has been seriously diffused by the decades and a proliferation of increasingly extreme horror that goes as far and further. Certainly 'Off Season' has a thin plot, a setting apparently empty but for the few characters that we follow and a single purpose which the 'Village Voice' memorably described as 'violent pornography'. Even the prose seems simple, with its short and often broken-up sentences. In other words, this has been done to death since and, arguably, sometimes better, but there are reasons to go back to this early take.
While this works perfectly well as a standalone novel, Ketchum succumbed to the inevitability of a sequel. It's 'Offspring', released a decade later in 1991 by Diamond Books. It was filmed in 2009 under the same name, an adaptation that featured Pollyanna MacIntosh as 'The Woman', who would get her own film two years later in a feature named for her character.
Jack Ketchum, RIP. ~~ Hal C F Astell