"Oscar Wilde said that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. There’s never a place for censorship, in books or movies. I could wish some books never existed – the Bible for one – but I’d never burn a book that does exist or forbid somebody to read it. Who the fuck am I?"
To say Jack Ketchum - born Dallas Mayr in 1946 in Livingston, NJ - pushed the limits of horror fiction to their breaking point is like stating that Picasso never saw a cube he didn't like. Ketchum's novels weren't so much horror stories as they were endurance tests - gory, hellish digs into the minds of human monsters who tore and mangled flesh, often for little more than their own amusement or consumption. Off Season contains moments of vicious cannibalism that would've made Wes Craven flinch. The Girl Next Door repurposes a '50s coming of age story (think: The Body by Stephen King) into one boy's glimpse at his neighbors' capacity for sexually-charged evil. The Lost sees the birth of a thrill killer, whose marauding rampage tears his microcosmic small-town community to shreds.
Yet the unifying element between these stories is that - no matter how easily recognizable the genre elements (such as a human-eating tribe akin to The Hills Have Eyes) – the author’s blunt force prose made all of these heinous acts feel real and relatable, as if Ketchum were simply gazing upon crime scenes and then envisioning the events that led to their grisly tableaus. For example, Ladies Night - his Cronenbergian 1997 survival novel where a chemical spill turns the women of New York into sex-crazed ghouls - was actually written during the early '80s but deemed too graphic to print by every publisher it was submitted to (and this was during the true birth of "splatterpunk" legends such as John Skipp and Craig Spector). One editor even included a note with their rejection stating they simply stopped reading once "the girls at Burger King decided to throw the stick-up man on the grill."
She Wakes saw Ketchum flexing his creative muscles and attempting to craft something closer to traditional horror, adding doses of the supernatural and Greek mythology to its narrative of a disturbed woman who integrates herself into the life of a tourist visiting the tomb of Agamemnon. Offspring was Ketchum returning to his primal Off Season stomping grounds, another attempt to one up himself in the savagery department. Like Stephen King - who once labeled his colleague "the scariest guy in America" - the author would collect his short fiction throughout the years and release them in omnibus-style anthologies such as Peaceable Kingdom and Closing Time. The man was a writer's writer, always churning out more words, and never compromising his extreme vision throughout a forty-plus year career that included the Kosinski-inspired second pseudonym “Jerzy Livingston”.
There have been cinematic adaptations of Ketchum's work, though the rather risky nature of his yarns kept them produced in independent circles. Most notable is his pseudo-sequel to the Off Season/Offspring universe, The Woman - directed by Lucky McKee (May) and co-written by Ketchum himself before being transformed into its own stand-alone novel (which he also co-penned with the filmmaker, along with The Secret Life of Souls). In that rather unpleasant instance of filmic torture, the titular feral female (Pollyanna McIntonsh) is captured by a successful lawyer (Deadwood's Sean Bridgers) and treated to a series of "civilizing" debasements that naturally force viewers to question who the true savages are.
The Woman followed producer Andrew van den Houten's attempts to bring Offspring to the screen, a failure by pretty much all accounts that was still a rather noble attempt at gorehound fidelity. The Girl Next Door was also produced and then distributed by Anchor Bay, but its constant scenes of sexual fierceness involving children couldn't even make it to the DTV market intact. Perhaps the inability to ever accurately capture Ketchum's voice with a camera (outside of Chris Sivertson’s The Lost, which is admittedly solid) is merely further proof of what a monumental horror scribe he was. The man had his own brand, but that commitment to uncompromising exercises in visceral nastiness was best kept to the page and readers' imaginations. Ketchum wasn't so much a sadist as he was an interrogator of atrocity, wondering aloud if things could get any worse between his fellow man.
Ketchum died yesterday - January 24th, 2018 - from complications due to cancer. Though future words of heinous wisdom will be missed, his legacy of yellow-paged psychosis will always be sitting on the shelf, waiting to infect future generations and inspire them to explore the darkest corners of their brains, hearts, and souls. The very first line of The Girl Next Door asks "you think you know about pain?" Now that Ketchum’s gone, that question will forever haunt his fans, who're destined to wonder if anyone could explore the nature of violence quite like this now passed paperback prince.