A Conversation with Jack Ketchum

A note from interviewer Mike Noble:

Dallas “Jack Ketchum” Mayr and Mike Noble

When I got word from Blu Gilliand that Cemetery Dance was going to release an online preview of my interview with Dallas Mayr (known to horror fans the world over as Jack Ketchum), I was excited that I would finally be able to share something with Dallas. We started this interview at Joanne Trattoria in New York city in 2009 and ended it via email on November 11, 2017.

I knew how sick Dallas was and I emailed him often to check and see how he was doing. I stopped getting replies a couple of weeks before he passed. It wasn’t the first time there had been long gap between replies—he kept himself very busy—so I was hopeful his health wasn’t the reason. He had bounced back before.

On January 24th, Dallas Mayr died. Although I should have not have been surprised, the news hit me like a ton of bricks.

I’m still wrapping my head around the loss. I had already written an introduction for this. It was primarily about what a legend Dallas was—how he had redefined the horror genre and how he had won the admiration of legions of accomplished and talented writers from Chuck Palahniuk to his long-time friend Stephen King. King has given plenty of blurbs in his day but I doubt he will ever top the one he gave to Dallas: “Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.”

Now I find myself writing something that is more of a eulogy than an interview introduction, and it’s a sad task. My heart goes out to Dallas’s family and friends, particularly the love of his life, Paula; his agent, Alice (I always loved when I got to start out an email with “Dallas & Alice”); and his friend and collaborator, Lucky McKee. Lucky answered a few questions about Dallas for me and I was looking forward to Dallas reading the sweet things Lucky said about him.

I’ve also been thinking of writers like Brian Keene, who Dallas befriended and mentored early on in his career. Looking at the outpouring of love that has emerged since Dallas’s passing, it is astonishing how many people he gave his time to. All you had to do was reach out to him with a story and he would read it and give you the best advice you could possibly ask for.

At heart I believe Dallas was a teacher and I think he thought of the aspiring writers and filmmakers who reached out to him as students. I thought of him as a teacher and a mentor for sure. How lucky am I to have been able to bend the ear of a man who was the literary agent of Norman Mailer, Robert Bloch AND Henry Miller? And that was before he revolutionized an entire genre.

I’m so thankful for the time I got to spend with Dallas. Whether I was interviewing him or having a drink with him or exchanging emails, I knew that time in his company was precious. I’ll miss his warmth and his humor and his infectious laughter and his big smiles.

I spent the evening Dallas died in a manner I knew he would approve of: drinking wine and going through my book collection. I leafed through the books he signed for me. One of my all-time favorite Jack Ketchum books is a western, The Crossings. He signed it the day we started this interview:


Mike –
Stay strong…

I’m trying. Rest in peace, Dallas.

CEMETERY DANCE: You have a new short story collection out, Gorilla in My Room (published by Cemetery Dance). Long-time Jack Ketchum fans will be pleased by it—the cannibal family from Off Season, Offspring and The Woman make up a prominent chunk of the book.

JACK KETCHUM: That they do. These are largely uncollected newer pieces, which have appeared in various anthologies since the publication of my last collection, Closing Time and Other Stories. There’s also The Transformed Mouse, based on a fable from the Panchatantra (an ancient collection of stories from India written in Sanskrit), which has only come out in a pricey collector’s edition—a kind of fun bonus.

What else is happening with your work that your readers will be excited about? Even better, what are you excited about?

Well, I’m working on a new novel/screenplay project with Lucky McKee (director of Ketchum-based films The Woman and Red and co-author, with Ketchum, of the novels The Woman and Secret Life of Souls). We’re having a great time. And shooting has begun on Pollyanna McIntosh’s script for Darlin’, the sequel to The Woman. Pollyanna’s also directing. I’ll be flying down to Louisiana to have an on-set look.

Did you enjoy the adaptation of “The Box” from the all-female-directed anthology XX?

I did. Had some trepidations at first about changing the parents’ gender but in the end I thought Jovanka’s ideas worked out fine.

It must have been gratifying to have your story included in XX, considering you’ve had to deal with accusations of misogyny in your work. I’m referring specifically to some of the reactions to The Woman, like the man who freaked out on Lucky at the Sundance premiere.

Anybody who thinks I’m a misogynist hasn’t really read me, if you know what I mean. I write for good readers, not people with agendas. And the guy who freaked over The Woman at Sundance did us a big favor. The thing went viral and scored us great free publicity.

The Crossings would make a great film.

You’re like me. You like westerns.

Oh, yeah. You know, and I love the way that that visceral horror mixes so well with the western genre—the book really captured the best of both genres.

It was fun to do.

The original idea on that, when did it come about?

It started out its life as film. I wrote about half of a film script. I based on two things really, the Rancho El Ángel muders in Mexico in the 1960s and then this incident that happened, I think in the 1950s, when this truck driver is going along some road late at night and he sees two naked women come out of the bushes. They had been held in a camp by these white slavers or white Mexican slavers, whatever they were. And they busted the ranch that this was on. They were Satan worshippers, and they were selling women into prostitution, etc.

My idea was to take it back in the old West. I thought that would be a lot more fun because then the cowboys, the people who find her, could get involved. In the real case, the cops were the ones who busted in.

I thought, okay, again, if you take the classic western, the hero riding to save the victim and save the girlfriend, what if you take that and pop it back to right after the Mexican War? So I researched the Mexican War. I figured that was a really good time to do it because that was such a bloodthirsty conflict. I wanted it to be across the Rio Grande, so that seemed the right time to do it.

Where did the characters come from? Heart, Mother Knuckles…

It’s a buddy movie. It’s a three-way buddy movie, basically. The reporter is the coming-of-age guy. He’s watching this. And I thought of Ned Buntline. He’s hanging on to Wild Bill Hickok’s coattails basically and writing about him. He did like a hundred books about Wild Bill Hickok, most of them lies. I thought of Buntline doing that, getting on to some character who’s really bigger than life.

I was able to get on a little bit of soap box about race relations, just a little, in the course of an action story. I try to do that. I try to not preach, but to advance my ideas, my causes in a fictional setting.

What do you think those causes are?

Animal rights, for one thing. Not even animal rights, that sounds like too PETA, who are idiots. But animal care. And environment. I write a lot about the Maine woods. And people have asked me how come? I live in New York. Well, I love the environment, and I love the Maine woods.

My Maine woods are basically a combination of Maine and New Hampshire because that’s where I’ve spent a lot of time. Although they’re very different, they’re also very much the same. The “Mainiacs” and the people from New Hampshire are probably going to take issue with that, but there is a similar sensibility about the terrain there. I always have loved that. I spent a lot of time there in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

A kind of overreaching arc throughout your work is the search and the eventual finding of strength.

Yeah. That’s always interested me. Put into extraordinary circumstances, can you find some inner strength? It’s sort of what I wish for, for my friends and for myself I suppose. But it’s a wish that we can transcend ourselves and be better, and call upon reserves we didn’t think we had. And it’s almost always in the face of some sort of loss.

Jack Ketchum
(Photo Copyright Steve Thornton)

You’ve said that you’ve had to find strength in your life, do you care to talk about that?

Let me see if I can retrieve this. The film I just saw, it was a Spanish film. It’s called Don’t Look Down. It’s fairly obscure, but it’s on Netflix. And I came to it because I thought, like Peter Straub’s comment, he came for the wrong reasons and stayed for the right ones. It’s an erotic piece. And it is. It’s quite hot. But it’s also about sex affirming life.

It’s about a boy whose father has just died, and he’s very troubled by that. He has death fantasies, and he walks in his sleep. And he meets this woman, who is an older woman, and they have a brief affair. And she teaches him all about sex and how sex can be life-affirming. And she leaves. She’s older. She’s got a job, and she goes to Barcelona. He stays.

And his father comes to visit him one last time. His father has been appearing as a ghost every now and then. And his father says to him something like… Let’s see if I can get this right: “You’ll lose people all along the way. Don’t let that stop you loving.” And that struck me as a very important thing to say. It’s kind of what I’ve been trying to write about a lot.

Donovan once said, “Don’t let the changes get you down, man.” If you live long enough, that man was right. That ghost was right. I’ve lost my father. I’ve lost my mother. I’ve lost countless women and men who were important to me. I lost some friends, early on, to AIDS. Because I was an actor for a long time, I’ve got lots of friends who are gay. I’ve watched that sweep across the fucking nation. Vietnam, I lost people in Vietnam.

You can’t get to be this age and not have lost a lot of people and experienced a lot of loss of not just people, but also friendships that disappear, betrayals that you didn’t expect. Our courage is all about, I think, all about dealing with that, going on and still remaining humane, loving people.

Hell, I’ve lost five cats now. I’ve got four. They’ll go too, probably, before me. I don’t care. I actually do care, but that won’t stop me from getting another one. And they’re not replacements. There’s no replacing somebody you love. You love them forever. But there is room for another soul to come into your environment, into your sphere. So, yeah, you mourn the cat you’ve lost, or you mourn the friend you’ve lost, and you make another one. That’s what cool about us.

Do you remember the first concise set of words that kind of set you off? And do you also remember the first time that you put some words together that just made your jaw drop? I know you’ve had those moments.

I’ve had those moments. I can’t say what the first was. It’s going way too far back for me to answer your first question. I know that I do remember, vividly, reading. My father and I took a trip to California on a plane. In those days, it was a prop. This was a long trip.

My father, who had been on a plane before, was pointing out the window going, “Look at that. Look at that.” I said, “Dad, I’m reading Dracula.” I read it all through that afternoon and all that night. And I just… I could not get out of Dracula. And my father gave up on me. My father always gave up on me. He was like, “He’s a reader. Give up on him.” And he finally stopped pointing out the window.

But I do remember Dracula as being a riveting experience.

What was the second part of the question? Oh, eureka moments.

I can’t say exactly what it was. But the first time I was really aware of having written a story that was really a story, and it was more than just… it was maybe important. I had a girlfriend in college who dumped me for a guy who she was already going with when I met her. And I wrote about loss, the heartbreak of loss.

I sent it to Robert Bloch who was, by then, and for years before, my mentor. He had read all my poems and all my fragments and all kinds of stuff for years since high school. I think I was probably a sophomore in college when I wrote this. And he wrote me back a letter saying, “I think that there are some things that you do better now than I’ve ever done.” That was a eureka moment.

And exactly what he was referring to, I don’t know. But I think I broke his heart a little. I think that’s what it was, because Bob was never into… he was not a sentimental man and he didn’t write sentimental. He was a sweet guy, but he didn’t write that way. I think I maybe brought a tear to his eye. I think that’s maybe what he’s referring to. So getting that letter was certainly one of them.

Every now and then you’ll get something that you know is exactly right. The first line to The Girl Next Door, “Do you think you know about pain?” I went, “Oh! I nailed that sucker.”

It’s really funny. Before this interview, I asked Brian Keene, “So, what are two questions you should never ask at an author interview?” He said, “First off, don’t ask where you get your ideas from. The second one, don’t say, ‘Do you know Stephen King?’”

You’ve got to mention Stephen King if you’re talking about me because Stephen has been an incredible cheerleader for what I do, and that’s not true of everybody. I’m never hesitant to talk about Steve.

Do you enjoy writing a novel more or a short story?

They’re different enjoyments. A novel is scarier because once you start it, you’re going to finish it. I’ve said this before: A novel is like a marriage. A short story is like a one-night stand. They’re both good. They’re excellent.
With the novel, you sort of have to know or feel going in where it’s going to come out and where it’s going to finally resolve itself in some big way or strong way.

With a short story, you pretty much know going in how it’s going to come out in two days, three days. It’s a great pleasure to get that thing off so fast and know that you’ve got it as a piece.

The pleasure of a novel is the exploratory sense, when you can craft time every day to sit down and go, “Okay. Here’s what I wrote yesterday. Here’s where it’s going today. Here’s where it may go tomorrow.” That’s a different kind of pleasure altogether.

And do you map it out?

Not too carefully. I scrapbook. I put notes to myself up on the bulletin board when I’m doing a long piece.

What is your current thing? What are you reading right now?

Right now? Larry McMurtry’s book on Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. I forget what it’s called. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately. I read all over the board, and I tell people who are coming up as writers that they should be doing that. McMurtry is a novelist. This is a nonfiction book by a novelist.

Just before this, I read The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan. O’Nan is a fabulous novelist. But one day, he’s looking for some information on the circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, in I think it was 1943 or something like that. He realized there was no book written about it because he couldn’t find the information he wanted. So he wrote his own book about it. It’s a brilliant, moving, nonfiction book by a novelist, which feels like a novel.

Too many kids coming up are reading in their genre only, and they’re reading only the stuff that they think they want to write. Ain’t supposed to do that. You’re supposed to read everything. Read the damn newspaper. Take your ideas from everywhere. Read Maureen Dowd’s column in the Times. She’s a funny writer, and she’s smart. Don’t just read Anne Rice and write the next vampire novel.

That’s how we start reading anyway, isn’t it? I’m saying how I started reading. We had an attic, and my mom was a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club. So I’d go up and look in the attic. It was all stuff she had read. “Okay. That’s a nice cover.” I’d open it up and read a couple of paragraphs. I still have this test. The first couple of paragraphs I’ll read it. If it sucks, put it away.

That was my mom’s boxes of books. I read Somerset Maugham that way the first time. I read Tennessee Williams the first time. Book-of-the-Month Club. It was just like, “Look at the cover. If the cover looks good, okay. Open it up. Read the paragraph. It sounds excellent. I think I’ll read that.”

Jack Ketchum
(Photo Copyright Steve Thornton)

The last couple of years have been very productive. You’ve published a number of short stories, the Gorilla in My Room collection, The Secret Life of Souls, and a 35th anniversary edition of Off Season with Dark Regions Press. I know you’ve had a lot to contend with personally. How have you managed to keep that pace up?

Having a bad day? Try getting creative. It works like a charm. I have a t-shirt a friend gave me which says EVIL KEEPS ME YOUNG. I wear that shirt a lot.

Thank you for taking the time to do this. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

You’re welcome.

(The full version of this interview will appear in Cemetery Dance #77)

Mike Noble is a freelance producer/editor/writer in the NYC area.  He has worked with Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, SYFY, PBS and many other networks and production entities.  He lives with his wife and kids and their dog, Queen Buzzy.

4 thoughts on “A Conversation with Jack Ketchum”

  1. Mike,

    Excellent interview excerpt. Can’t wait to read the full interview. Met Dallas once at WHC 2015 and it was a joy to see him and hear him speak, having been a fan of his writing for many years. I wrote him an actual letter back in the early days of the internet after I deciphered his real name and sussed out his mailing address. He signed 3 books for me and asked how I figured out he was Dallas. I said I have my secrets and you have yours.? Great writer, better man.

    Take care,

    1. Ha. I’m sure he appreciated that. He was the coolest cat on the planet and he was also very kind and generous with his time, especially to his fans. I think a lot of the reason he was so giving of his time and attention to his fans was the example that Robert Bloch set for him. Bloch was a mentor of his. The full-length interview goes into how his relationship with Robert Bloch came to be and how he eventually became his literary agent. Amazing real-life story actually.

Leave a Reply