Genres need to redefine themselves for literature to stay fresh. Jack Ketchum is an author who has changed the face of horror. His first novel, Off Season (1980), certainly set the cat among the slow and lazy pigeons. Stephen King heralded it as a ground breaking work, saying of Jack Ketchum, that together with Clive Barker, he has “remade the face of American popular fiction”. Ketchum writes great stories, his narratives are compelling. The Girl Next Door (1989) is a modern classic. Right To Life (1999) should be compulsory reading for those deluded critics who expect moral resolutions in a territory which precludes them. Ketchum’s books explode myths, and they often do so through a narrative tension that shows characters bracing themselves against natural threats when the real danger may lie next door. His new novel The Woman (2011) is about cannibalism in Maine and a corrupt lawyer with secrets who wants to tame something wild. I recommend it as well as the entire canon by Jack Ketchum.
Jack met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about American ideals and religion.
Stephen King has famously described you as an archetype. Do you think for horror fiction to be effective it has to dramatise archetypes?
Nice of Stephen to say that about me. I just hope he didn’t have the Earth Mother in mind…
It’s almost impossible to write fiction without conjuring up some archetype or other in readers’ minds and even in our own as we compose the stuff — they’re so deeply embedded there. I suppose that Ruth in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR probably conjures up the Witch, or even Circe, the Seductress. Nick in OFF SEASON might bring to mind the Martyr. Lucky McKee’s and my cannibal woman in THE WOMAN, a distaff version of the Hunter.
But the answer to your question is no. I think for horror fiction — or any fiction for that matter — to be effective it has to dramatize people, personality, those individual characteristics that make us different each from each but which also ground us in the reality of human experience. Sociopaths excepted, we’re more alike than not. Even the bad guys find life a rugged experience sometimes. Good fiction almost always emphasizes that. Our job as writers is to make you feel for our people, their hopes, fears, loves and losses, not for what they symbolize.
Do you think suburbia is a good hiding place for abuse and atrocity?
Hell, yes. How many times a month do we open a newspaper, turn on the TV or our computer and find some report of nearly unimaginable wickedness on a nice tree-lined street in wherever, here or abroad? But the same is true of the city or the rural countryside. No matter where you are, if you think you’re safe by virtue of where you are, you’re nuts. It always pays to keep a sharp eye on the neighbors.
Terrible things happen to people every day and novelists are rebuked for representing events you read of in the newspapers. How much does collusion operate as a factor in your fictions, in terms of how horrors are committed and ignored by witnesses?
Probably the best piece of fiction ever on this subject is Harlan Ellison’s story THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS, based on the 1964 stabbing murder of Kitty Genovese. Thirty-eight witnesses to the attack and nobody helped. I’ve certainly dealt with that blinkered society directly in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, based on a real murder. But there’s also legal complicity. In STRANGLEHOLD aka ONLY CHILD, again taken from a true story, the legal system fails to acknowledge the reports by a mother of her husband’s systematic abuse of their son, driving her to desperate measures. In RED, it fails again, won’t even prosecute a teen from a wealthy family who shot this old man’s dog just out of meanness, because the monetary value of an old, well-loved mutt is nil. All this stuff pisses me off, so yes, I write about it.
Tell us about your time working with Henry Miller.
I had to beg my boss at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency to take Henry on as a client when his request for representation came across my desk. His feeling — idiotic to my mind — was that this is an old man, his best writing’s far behind him, he’s probably cranky, he’ll probably bother us with phone calls, letters, whatever. I swore that even if that were the case, I’d handle all of it, call him back on my own phone after hours if necessary. This was fucking Henry Miller! Scott relented. And Henry wasn’t like that at all. He was great to work with, happy with whatever I was able to send his way — a story in Playboy, a reissue of THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI, whatever. And I negotiated his final book contract, for BOOK OF FRIENDS. Just before I left the agency I flew out to California to meet him, and that afternoon was nothing short of wonderful, a big part of the reason I eventually got up the courage to take a shot at being a writer myself. I wrote a longish memoir about him called HENRY MILLER AND THE PUSH which is collected in my little volume BOOK OF SOULS — guess where I got that title! — and I’ll direct you there for the full story. It’s available on e-book now. Cheap.
Do you think that there is an obsession with innocence in contemporary culture that is inherently corrupting, and is childhood ultimately a period of amorality, as William Golding portrayed it in Lord Of The Flies?
I think there’s an obsession with being twenty-something in this culture, not innocence. I live in an upscale neighborhood in New York City and see toddlers dressed as mini-twenty-somethings on a daily basis. What people spend on designer clothes that their kids will outgrow in a year would probably feed Haiti for a year. I also see fifty-somethings trying to look the part in tight shorts and jeans that would probably make their own kids blush with shame.
I recently watched a fine Korean movie called SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING, set on an island in a lake, a monastery, where a young boy grows to manhood under the teachings of a lone monk. One day the boy rows across the lake to shore and experiments with cruelty. He ties a stone to the body of a fish, then another to a frog, and another to a snake. He giggles at their struggles. In the morning he wakes up to find a large heavy stone tied to his own back. The monk tells him to row to shore again and find the fish, the frog and the snake and “if one of them has died, you will always carry that stone in your heart.” He struggles up the mountain he climbed easily the day before, finds the fish lying dead in the pond, frees the frog, and finds the snake torn apart, presumably by some animal, unable to get away. The snake breaks his heart.
The point here is that little kids have no concept of death at all, and not much concept of cruelty. They have to be taught. Each is a mystery and it’s probably only natural to try to probe those mysteries at an age when you have no real notion of the consequences of your
actions. With no one to teach us any better, we’re all candidates for the kids on that island in LORD OF THE FLIES. Which is why the book has such power to this day. And why it’s so easy to draft little boys into some murderous militia.
While any discerning reader instantly recognises the myths your fictions confront, certain quarters of the literary establishment were initially slow to accept the challenge. Do you think by subverting the idealised version of American culture the media thrives on, you excavated a deeper malaise?
I grew up at a time when freak was an endearment and establishment was a dirty word. I guess I still feel that way. Give me Lady GaGa’s Born This Way Foundation over the Republican Party any day in the week. The literary establishment are largely a bunch of self-satisfied wankers. Look how long it took them to realize that Stephen King wasn’t just some kid from Maine wearing a sheet over his head, that he was actually a pretty damn classy writer with some important stuff to say. As to me, I’ve rarely gotten really bad press on my work from the writers and critics who really understand suspense and horror. But I’ve been largely ignored by the mainstream. Fine with me. Stealth and cunning, I always say. Lurk in the tidepools and catch ’em by the balls as they swim on by. Stealth and cunning.
Do you think religious sexual hysteria is a bigger threat to human goodness than sex itself?
Actually religious sexual hysteria is a lot of fun! Just watch some of those neat old Italian nunsploitation movies. Girl-on-girl! Whips, chains, self-flagellation and best of all — hair shirts! Wimples and crucifixes in the dirt, shat-on rosaries…Mother Superior Jumped the Gun!
Seriously? Sex, whether its motive be to birth a child or just for fun, is by its nature pro-creative. Life-affirming. People reaching out to one another in the most intimate, open way. You can seriously screw it up if you mix it up with other things, like power and violence. But for most of us humans it’s the best thing going. Better than watermelon, even. On the other hand, forget religious sexual hysteria — religion, period, is the most destructive notion on the face of the earth. You can’t screw it up. It’s already screwed up right from the start. It’s also the dumbest notion on the face of said earth. Though the Tea Party is probably second runner-up.
In your brilliant novel The Girl Next Door, whose title itself may be said to indicate the level of objectification in the behaviour explored, Ruth needs to control and destroy pleasure. What does this tell us about the mind of a morally self-righteous psychopath?
I don’t necessarily see Ruth as a psychopath. To my mind a psychopath is someone wholly lacking in empathy and compassion — a psychopath is morally empty. Ruth’s more complex than that. Ruth hates herself, hates what she’s become and the trap she’s sprung on herself in life. She sees herself as weak, women as weak. She hates her own sex. Her violence is reserved entirely for women. She complains bitterly about her ex-husband but there doesn’t seem to be any real hatred there, and she’s certainly not been abusing her boys. Until Meg and Susan move in, things in the Chandler house seem to have been going along fairly well. Once they do, Ruth begins to disintegrate rapidly. In Meg she sees what she could have been as a girl, maybe even something of the girl she was, she sees the promise there. In Ruth herself, that promise was wasted. She can’t tolerate that. She needs to destroy it. In a way, she’s also murdering herself.
If you were to give advice to yourself as a younger man, what would you say?
I’d say stop trying to write the goddamn Great American Novel or trying to be the next Harold Pinter or Edward Albee. Get to work on what you can do, idiot!
What are you working on right now?
Lucky McKee and I had so much fun writing the novel and movie of THE WOMAN that we decided to go for it again — no relation to that story but a wholly different take on what we see as disturbing. We’re calling it I’M NOT SAM. The book’s being published by Cemetery Dance and hopefully will be out some time this year. We’re still at work on the screenplay. We also did a wacky little number called SQUIRRELY SHIRLEY, a longish dark comedy which Midnight Echo in Australia will be publishing shortly. We’ve scripted a little film based on that too.
Other than that, I’m trying with very little success to quit smoking. Right. Good luck on that one, Ketchum.
Jack thank you for a great and unforgettable Chin Wag.
Find everything Jack Ketchum at his website: all his novels, novels adapted to film, awards, social media links, the whole nine.