“The worst is missing them, you know? And knowing they won’t be back again. Just knowing that. Sometimes you forget and it’s as though they’re on vacation or something and you think, gee, I wish they’d call. You miss them. You forget they’re really gone. You forget the past six months even happened. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that crazy? Then you catch yourself… and it’s real again.”
~ from The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
I’m sad to say I never really knew Jack Ketchum except in the sense that I was an avid reader of his work. In the days since his recent passing, I’ve heard a lot of my fellow horror writers who did know him share fond memories using his real name, Dallas Mayr, but I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to talk about him like that. For better or worse, he’ll always be Jack Ketchum to me.
When I was a freshman in high school, I read my first Ketchum book. It came in the mail, a random selection from the Leisure Horror Book Club, of which I was a member. The book’s title? The Girl Next Door. I had no idea what I was in for.
Inspired by the true-life murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, The Girl Next Door is a heartbreaking, stomach-churning, limit-testing story of pitiless monstrosity hiding not beyond any veil of the supernatural, but in the hearts and minds of everyday people who are all too willing to act on their darkest impulses when given permission. Far from an exploitation of the Likens case, Ketchum’s fictional remix is more an exploration of the tragedy’s most damning philosophical and psychological implications. As Alan Moore once famously wrote, great artists uses lies to tell the truth. Sure enough, Ketchum was indeed a great artist.
To date, I still consider The Girl Next Door to be one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. I’m not going to lie, the first time I got through it I cried. See, one of the things that made Ketchum so special as a writer was not just the way he directed your eyes towards the harshest real-world atrocities imaginable, all while daring you not to blink, but the way he was able to do so without sacrificing genuine emotion to one-dimensional shock or sadism. The point of Ketchum’s horror was not merely to dwell on human cruelty, but to cut through to the sorrow beneath it. For Ketchum, no character was merely a disposable victim; they were all living, breathing, suffering people. Violence was not something to revel in; it was something to fear and loathe, an expression of one broken soul’s own trauma, which only served to spread that trauma to others.
Jack Ketchum broke my heart with The Girl Next Door, and he did it again later with his novels The Lost, Red, and The Woman, and with his Bram Stoker Award-winning short story “The Box.” Again and again and again, Ketchum challenged me to face true horror and, in doing so, tasked me with not just being a better reader and writer, but being a better person. Ketchum didn’t just want his too-real terrors to scare us, he wanted them to hurt and anger us; he was encouraging us to do better, to not tolerate injustice, to always have empathy for those who have fallen victim to it.
That’s what the name Jack Ketchum means to me: A brilliant storyteller who didn’t just write entertaining stories, but powerful ones. His fiction was, as I interpret it, specifically designed to make the world a better place even if, to do that, he had to shine a light on just how awful it can so often be.
With all that he gave to me and to millions of readers the world over, it’s a great regret of mine that I never had a chance to to meet Jack Ketchum, to say “thank you” to him, and to maybe get to know Dallas Mayr a little, too.