In last month’s chapter, we examined one of the world’s first examples of horror fiction—The Epic of Gilgamesh. This month, that was supposed to lead into a chapter on Beowulf, Theseus and the Minotaur, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Oresteia, Dante’s Inferno, Lucian Samosata’s True History, and more.
I’ve decided we will get to those next month.
Instead, I’d like to use this month’s space to remember a mentor and dear friend of mine. I knew him as Dallas Mayr, but I first met him as Jack Ketchum (which is probably the name you know him by).
Dallas passed away last week, after a long illness. Those of us who knew him, knew that this was coming. We’d been told to expect it. But there’s no way to really prepare yourself for that kind of thing in advance, and in truth, I think most of us—while knowing this would be the end result—still didn’t expect it to happen quite this fast. Hell, just a week before Dallas passed, Richard Chizmar (your host here at Cemetery Dance) and I were with some peers in Arizona, and during a moment alone, Rich and I were talking about Dallas, and while we knew the situation wasn’t good, I don’t think either of us thought that a week later, he’d be gone.
As Jack Ketchum, Dallas strode across this genre and left some giant fucking footsteps in his wake. While an argument can certainly be made for the impact of each of his novels and short story collections (particularly Off Season and Peaceable Kingdom), the work that is most often cited and referenced is The Girl Next Door.
What follows is from my very limited (less than 100 copies) and out of print non-fiction collection Unsafe Spaces. Because of its limitation, the vast majority of you have never read it. It’s an essay about the legacy and impact of The Girl Next Door, but is now—in his passing—an essay about the legacy and impact of Dallas Mayr.
It also includes a history lesson at the beginning, complete with some of the works we’ve already talked about (if you’ve been paying attention), so I think it dovetails quite nicely with this column.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING: SOME THOUGHTS ON
JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
If you think of horror fiction in terms of water, we begin by throwing a rock into a small pool, creating ripples such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Lucian Samosata’s True History.
The ripples then become waves with Matthew Gregory’s The Monk (1796), Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and of course, the works of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and others. Those waves increase in size in the decades to follow, with work from such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, Frank Belknap Long, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, John Farris, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Ramsey Campbell, and so many others.
In the Sixties, contemporary locales such as suburbia become horror fiction’s default setting, rather than crumbling waterfront towns and sprawling Victorian mansions. At this point, our waves transform into a tidal wave capable of sinking ships and swamping coastal towns.
Then, with the advent of Stephen King, that tidal wave becomes a fucking tsunami.
The impact Stephen King’s work had on the mainstream popularity of horror fiction cannot be understated. (And yes, right now, some of you are hollering, “I thought this was supposed to be about Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door! What the hell, Keene?” Well, trust me. It is. Just be patient.)
Before Stephen King, horror fiction didn’t truly exist. Sometimes it was published as mainstream fiction, or occasionally mystery fiction. More often, it could be found safely ensconced with its siblings, science fiction and fantasy. The trio were considered a genre of one—most commonly referred to as speculative or “weird” fiction. When science-fiction became popular, booksellers and publishers created a marketing category to make it stand out on store shelves. When Stephen King became popular, the same was done for horror. A marketing category was created. Horror was stamped on the spines of books, and readers who were in-between the latest Stephen King or Dean Koontz novels could walk into a bookstore and find an entire genre of books that catered to them. The bookseller’s mantra became, “If you like Stephen King, you’ll like this.”
In terms of marketability and mainstream popularity, 1989 was perhaps horror fiction’s high-water mark. Every mainstream publisher of note was racing to keep up with the consumers’ demands for “more books like Stephen King’s” which led to an increase in the number of mid-list paperbacks being published. Often, these paperbacks played to the lowest common denominator, plastering their covers with Day-Glo skeletons, demons, or other garish imagery (that often had nothing to do with the novel itself) with the stated goal of attracting the horror fan. (Two years later, the genre would see the birth of the legendary Dell/Abyss publishing line, which had, in part, hoped to offer a counterpoint to that).
But 1989 offered more than just an ease of availability for horror fiction fans. Not only had horror, as a genre category, been created, but there were sub-genres and factions that catered to a readers’ individual tastes. Fans who wanted more mainstream chills, typified by works like Stephen King’s (and birthed by previous masters such as Richard Matheson and Rod Serling) found it in the works of writers like F. Paul Wilson, James Herbert, or Robert R. McCammon. Those who preferred the quiet, often literary approach of Shirley Jackson or M.R. James had an abundance of such from authors like Peter Straub, Charles Grant, or T.E.D. Klein. For pulp fans of writers like Robert Bloch or Robert E. Howard, there was Richard Laymon and William W. Johnstone. And those who loved the more lurid thrills offered by writers such as Hugh B. Cave or R. R. Ryan found an evolution among the splatterpunks, as typified by Clive Barker, David Schow, the duo of John Skipp and Craig Spector, or the selected early works of Joe R. Lansdale.
That’s where I come in.
In 1989, as a young man in my early-twenties, I was a voracious horror fiction reader, and I bought and devoured all of the above. My tastes were broad enough that I never allowed myself to become pigeonholed into liking one distinct sub-genre. Quiet or splatterpunk, literary or pulp, I read—and enjoyed—them all. But there was something missing. I didn’t know what that something was. I couldn’t articulate it. But I felt it just the same.
In the early Seventies, comic book scribe Steve Gerber made me want to be a writer. Later that decade, Stephen King made me want to be a horror writer. In the mid-Eighties, it was Richard Laymon’s first novel, The Cellar, that actually prodded me to believe that I, a lower-middle class kid with no hope of ever going to college, could actually become a horror novelist. And in 1989, it was Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door that actually showed me how, while simultaneously showing me what had been missing all along.
In his seminal speech at the 1998 Bram Stoker Awards, author, editor, and scholar Douglas E. Winter stated, “Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.”
Never has this been more apt than when it comes to discussing Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.
In 1989, a year when readers could choose between the traditional, literary, suggestively quiet horror typified by Grant, Klein, or Straub, and the artfully-gory, hyper-intensive limitless horror of the splatterpunks, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door arrived with (perhaps unknowingly) a middle finger firmly extended to both camps. It eschewed genre subcategories while simultaneously straddling them. The prose was lean when it needed to be (think Richard Laymon by way of Charles Bukowski or Ernest Hemingway), and more expansive and literary when the narrative called for it. There were quiet, heartfelt, descriptive moments (especially at the beginning when protagonist David is introducing the reader to the town and the cast and what life is like for them) but these then give way to some of the most soul-rending physical and sexual atrocities ever committed to the printed page.
Because of the latter, some critics labeled The Girl Next Door as a new splatterpunk novel, but it wasn’t. While it certainly contained enough violence and blood to qualify as such, it differed on an emotional level from the standard splatterpunk fare. Until that point, even the most exceptional splatterpunk novel (and there were many) had been about art. Splatterpunk’s stated intention was that of the court jester, utilizing graphic, extremely gory prose to, as Phillip Nutman put it, “reflect the moral chaos of our times.” And while splatterpunk certainly succeeded with blood red colors at doing this, the artistic aspect was always prevalent, and thus, the reader’s emotional attachment to the work was often subdued. The best splatterpunk novels were like pretty paintings on the walls. You marveled at their beauty, but you couldn’t walk inside the painting and feel them. The same went for the other side of the genre. The quiet, traditional horror, while quite lovely to read, too often felt detached, and hard to connect with emotionally.
Emotion—primal emotion—was what had been missing from much of Eighties’ horror fiction, and The Girl Next Door brought it in spades. The novel went places that horror fiction simply wasn’t supposed to go, but not just through the physical violence depicted therein. No. It evoked an emotional response in readers that horror fiction had long been lacking. If splatterpunk did indeed reflect humanity’s moral chaos, then The Girl Next Door was a mirror image of its pathos and sheer nihilism.
The Girl Next Door defied every subcategory that existed within the horror genre, and in doing so, set itself apart as something new. Something different. It wasn’t a novel painted in black and white, but in murky shades of gray. And red. There were no good guys. No last minute reprieves. No happy endings. The Girl Next Door didn’t just break down storytelling tropes and genre expectations—it gutted them in a basement bomb shelter and left them bleeding out on the floor. And in the process, it left many readers feeling the same way.
It left them feeling.
The Girl Next Door wasn’t Ketchum’s first novel. It was preceded by Off Season, Hide and Seek, Cover, and She Wakes. Nor was it his goriest novel (at that point, Off Season held that distinction). But the emotional gamut that Ketchum puts both the characters and the reader through in The Girl Next Door made it feel like one of the goriest, most extreme works within the genre to that date.
And that feeling still resonates today.
It resonates every time you read something written by myself. Or Christopher Golden. Or Joe Hill. Bryan Smith. Tim Lebbon. J. F. Gonzalez. Craig Davidson (who also writes as Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka). Carlton Mellick. Tim Waggoneer. Mary SanGiovanni. Cody Goodfellow. Laird Barron. Wrath James White. Geoff Cooper. And so on. Indeed, there are quite literally multiple dozens among today’s current generation of prominent horror authors who include The Girl Next Door as a major influence on their work. (The only other novels that have had as much influence are Stephen King’s IT and Joe R. Lansdale’s The Drive-In). And, as evidenced by the only partial list of authors above, they hail from all of the genre’s different and divergent subcategories. And they all agree that The Girl Next Door defied those categories, and created something new—a blueprint, from which a new generation of authors often operated.
When I first purchased The Girl Next Door, I had no idea of the emotionally-harrowing ride I was about to take. I bought it simply because I’d enjoyed Off Season in High School, and it was written by the same guy, and there was a skeleton cheerleader on the cover. Yes, that old Warner Books cover is unfortunate, but it served its purpose at the time—letting young people like myself know that here was a book we might like to read.
And read it I did.
The book left me broken, upon finishing. But it also had me breaking down my own then-meager attempts at writing, and starting over again, once more with feeling. That had been the missing ingredient. Feeling. And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that, were it not for that novel, I might not be doing this for a living today. And some of the writers I mentioned above, ones who were also inspired by it, have said the same thing about its impact on them.
To learn, years later, that the inspirational basis for the novel stemmed from true events (the Sylvia Likens murder), only enforces the theory that it was a mirror image of humanity’s pathos and nihilism. Re-reading the novel after discovering its origin only increases the emotional impact. And re-reading it a third time, years later, as a parent… let’s just say I was broken all over again.
Years ago, Jack Ketchum sat in a bar and negotiated my very first novel contract for me (for a book called The Rising, which Delirium Books and Dorchester Publishing had both made offers on, for hardcover and paperback, respectively). When he’d finished red-penning the Dorchester contract, Ketchum told me to keep it and use it as a template for every novel contract I’d negotiate in the future. I have done just that, and I will always be grateful to him for that kindness, and the friendship we’ve developed in years since. But I’m even more grateful to him for writing The Girl Next Door. I know what it’s like to read it, but can you imagine what it was like to actually write it? The emotional toll must have been devastating at times—but worth it, in the end.
Our genre would be very different without it. And so would the emotional impact that our genre, when at its best, has provided since then.
Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.