Spotlight On: Jack Ketchum

In literary horror there is no shortage of tales about; ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and their ilk. But one author in the horror genre who has earned a massive cult following does not rely on any of these tropes, instead Jack Ketchum, writes books about humans, who in his hands become scarier than any monster. Over his long career, Ketchum has earned acclaim from fans and his fellow authors including Stephen King who claims his colleague is the scariest man in America. Due to the extremely frightening and often disturbing nature of his books, he has never found a mass audience. But if you believe you’re brave enough to open one of his unsettling novels, there are a few that stand out.


The Girl Next Door: Possibly the most popular book published from Ketchum, in which he takes inspiration from the real life crime of the murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965, and crafts a tale about the depth of human evil. The books follows a boy named David, who develops a bit of a crush on the young girl who has just moved in with his neighbors, but over the course of the summer, the mother who supposed to be caring for the girl descends into madness. Ketchum does an excellent job questioning the morality of when to speak out against evil, and solidifies to the reader that doing so is not always as easy as we tell ourselves.


Off Season: Cannibalism is always a popular trope in horror and it was a theme explored in Ketchum’s debut novel. A group from New York heads to the ominously named, Dead River in Maine and run afoul an inbred clan of cannibals. But like with the best works of Ketchum, when the protagonists are pushed they become just as morally questionable to the readers as the “monsters” in the book. In the initial publication, the powers that be had content edited out of the controversial book, but for those who think they can stomach the story in all of its gory splendor, it was republished in an unedited version in 1999.


The Crossings: Not all of Ketchum’s works are uncomfortably based in reality, yet his Western tale The Crossings is still just as captivating as his stories with a more modern setting. A reporter in the Old West in the time following the Mexican-American War is thrown together with a legendary gunfighter in order to confront a disturbing cult in Mexico. Ketchum brilliantly utilizes the time period and setting of this tale, in order to give a commentary on the depravities of war and lawlessness.


The Lost: In his novel, The Lost, the author provides a character study of a sociopathic young man, Ray, who gets away with murder and allows that lust for violence and control to grow over the next several years. What truly makes this story a fascinating read is the supporting cast; from his two cowardly friends to the detective who is still after Ray for his original murders. It all works its way into a madcap climax that will leave readers in its grasp.


The Woman: One of two sequels to his first novel, Off Season, this story follows one of the survivors of the savage cannibal clan who is taken in by the family of a prominent lawyer who attempt to civilize her. Unfortunately their means of doing so are more savage than anything the feral woman has possibly done. Adapted into a film by cult favorite filmmaker, Lucky McKee it caused quite a commotion on the film festival circle and makes for a great companion piece to the book.


Right to Life: A pregnant woman is kidnapped in broad daylight from the busy streets of Manhattan. She discovers things are much worse than she imagines as her captors hold a great deal of knowledge about her and utilize this knowledge exploit her and force her into slavery. An exploration of human evil coupled with social commentary this is an ideal book for fans of Jack Ketchum.