Steve Mosby lives in Leeds. He went to university there and then spent a few years temping around, doing the usual menial and unfulfilling jobs for small amounts of money. He is the author of three psychological crime novels, The Third Person, The Cutting Crew and The 50/50 Killer, and he blogs at The Left Room. In this post Steve discusses Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door.
Steve Mosby on The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
Jack Ketchum, if he is known on these shores at all, is generally considered a horror writer, but his work is far too eclectic to fit into such a neat category, and too powerfully written to be tagged with a genre label that may compel some to dismiss his books without reading them. True, his first novel, Off Season, was a modern take on the tale of Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and was notorious at the time for its shocking violence, but it was also carefully written, keenly observed and delivered themes and plot developments that were far more complex and interesting than traditional 'good versus evil' horror fare. Fans of that extreme horror may have felt slightly let down by some of the novels that followed, which often touched on the genre without always fully embracing it. My second favourite Ketchum novel, for example, is Red, a poignant book about an old man whose dog is shot by some local teenagers for no particular reason: the story is as much about old age and attempting to make sense of the world as it is about monsters or violence, the calm prose mirroring the old man's steady, resilient pursuit of both understanding and some kind of justice or acknowledgement for his loss. My favourite of Ketchum's novels, however, is The Girl Next Door.
Like Off Season, The Girl Next Door is based on a true story: in this case, perhaps more controversially, the death of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, who was found tortured and murdered in Indianapolis in 1965. The crime was committed by 36-year-old Gertrude Baniszewski, who had been caring for Sylvia and her younger sister at the time; even more shocking, however, was the involvement, at Baniszewski's urging, of her own children and other children from the neighbourhood, all of whom participated in or colluded with abuse that escalated over a period of weeks. The reports make sickening reading, not only because of the assaults themselves, but also for the modern echo felt in the number of professionals who failed to intervene, and for the fact that children became so willingly complicit in such a terrible crime.
Ketchum sets most of his novel in New Jersey in 1958: portraying the supposed apple-pie innocence of that period before emphasizing the ridiculous, make-believe nostalgia inherent in such an idea. The narrator is David, a young boy who lives in an isolated street. He is next door to Ruth, a supposedly 'cool' adult - a single mother, abandoned by her husband, who treats her house as a hang-out for all the local children, even allowing them to drink and smoke so long as they don't tell. David learns they are to be joined that summer by Meg and Susan, who come to stay with Ruth, a distant aunt of theirs, following the death of their parents in a car crash. He is especially taken with the quiet, beautiful Meg, who, at 14, is an exciting couple of years older than him.
At first, of course, things seem fine, and Ketchum takes his time charting Ruth's gradual mental decline (the reasons for which are only hinted at) as the older woman develops a resentment and dislike for the younger, prettier girl who has entered her damaged life. The abuse begins in small ways, increasing by increments, and at first David is reluctant to accept the emotional and physical violence Meg claims is occurring behind closed doors: acts in which his friends are gradually becoming participants. The book could almost have been called The House Next Door, as the children, including David, drift casually in and out of a secluded, curdling environment of dominance and power, where 'play' has degenerated from bullying to violence, and morality has become a frog being slowly boiled. The influence of Lord of the Flies is obvious, but the addition of an adult figure - particularly a matriarch - and the sheer banality of the children's believable interactions make the story even more chilling. The abuse escalates from verbal to physical assault, until eventually Meg is confined in the basement, and David, now an observer himself, is forced to make a very adult decision about whether he joins the game or fights his way out of it.
As the subject matter would suggest, it is a harrowing and deeply disturbing read - but, although graphic, Ketchum never descends into exploitation or unnecessary depictions of the acts that drive the last half of the novel. His prose is clean and spare: an eye that neither flinches nor dwells. Despite the content, the real horror of the piece comes from the reader's shifting relationship with David, a child torn between doing the right thing and being swept along with his friends. We desperately want him to step in and save Meg, but he is too real a character to provide us with such a simple and comfortable solution. There are no happy endings or easy ways out. In Jack Ketchum's world, as in ours, people often don't want to get involved, and the hero arrives too late, too weak, if he arrives at all.
It provides a challenging experience for the reader. By turning the page, we become as complicit as David in what is unfolding, and yet, even though we come to despise him for his lack of action, we can still understand it. In fact, anyone expecting a gruesome but fun horror story is apt to be left shaken by the involvement demanded. We are in the position of wanting to close the book but continuing to read and, as such, we find ourselves mirrored in our conflicted narrator.
The novel is framed by a bleak, reflective narrative from an adult David, who now has a number of failed marriages stretching back through the emotional ruins of his life. Even the survivors haven't survived - and, having been through it with them, it's not a story that the reader will forget either. When I finished it, I had to fight a genuine compulsion to throw the book across the room. Instead, six years later, I re-read it and still marvel at the effect it has. It cast an enormous spell on me, and it remains the most powerful and disturbing piece of fiction I've ever read.