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Interview: Jack Ketchum

There’s a famous quote about Jack Ketchum that goes like this: “Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.” The author of that quote? Just some guy named Stephen King. Ketchum—who, in person, is amiable and personable enough to have once been a successful literary agent (he managed the career of literary icon Henry Miller, among others)—has always walked a unique line between mass market author and cult object. His first novel, Off Season, was released by Ballantine Books in 1980; in his introduction to a later reprint, Douglas Winter called the tale of a group of cave-dwelling and cannibalistic savages who prey on vacationing New Yorkers “raw and risky,” while the Village Voice criticized Ballantine for publishing violent pornography. The Girl Next Door, first published by Warner Books in 1989, was based on the real-life story of Sylvia Likens, a sixteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and tortured to death by neighbors; the book, which has been published in both foreign editions and special editions, was also adapted into a 2007 feature film that polarized critics (although King was again in Ketchum’s corner, calling the film “the dark-side-of-the-moon version of Stand By Me”). With the exception of She Wakes, Ketchum’s novels are non-supernatural and could be called crossover thrillers or suspense novels, but much of his award-winning short fiction does include more fantastic elements. Five feature films have been produced from Ketchum’s novels, starting with the 2006 adaptation The Lost, which was co-produced by Lucky McKee, who would go on to collaborate with Ketchum on the film The Woman (2011) and the Bram Stoker- and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novella, I’m Not Sam. This year, McKee and Ketchum co-wrote the novel The Secret Life of Souls, which Kirkus Reviews raved as “an otherworldly, satirically streaked thriller.” Ketchum, who is both a World Horror Convention Grand Master and a recipient of the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, lives in New York City.

When your first novel Off Season came out in 1980, you were an early harbinger of the coming splatterpunk movement of the ’80s (and in fact you’ve even been referred to as the “godfather of splatterpunk”). Did you ever consider yourself to be part of that group?

Not really. Though I did kind of like it when Edward Lee called me the “Godfather Of”. But David Schow came up with the term in ’86 and Paul Sammon’s seminal Splatterpunks anthology didn’t come out until 1990. Off Season was published in ’81, so I was getting the rough stuff in your face way before those guys. I didn’t mind opening the door, though. A lot of good writing’s come out of that school. Also a lot of garbage. But you could say the same about the vampire novel, too.

For me, The Girl Next Door remains one of the best novels to ever rip the ground cover away from 1950s America and peek into the dark secrets just under the surface. When you were growing up, did you have a sense that things were not as they seemed?

Thank you, and absolutely. My parents were good people, but they never should have married. So they’d sit there in front of the TV watching Father Knows Best and scream at one another in the wee hours of the morning. At an early age I got the disconnect. The 1950s were all about facades, a kind of bravado masking all the insecurities lying just beneath the surface. We’d won The War to End All Wars and our parents were proud of it, and rightly so. But just beneath that, following right on its heels, was Duck-And-Cover, the terror of The Bomb. Kids notice things, feel the tension between what ought to be and what is. We sure did. Our parents had GI-Billed their way into the middle class. Excellent! But now what? What part of your soul did you have to sell in order to stay there, with your three kids and your mortgage?

Only one of your novels (She Wakes) has been supernatural, whereas a number of your short stories have delved into more fantastic themes. Do you prefer working in short form when the story is supernatural?

I do. I find supernatural themes and situations hard to sustain over the long haul. You live with a book for a matter of months. Difficult for me to suspend my disbelief for that long. She Wakes was a one-time exception. I felt a big sense of spirit in Greece, felt it frequently, and all I had to do was remember that in order to write about it.

Your work—whether the warring couple of Stranglehold or the suburban husband vs. the savage female in The Woman—occasionally takes the notion of a battle of the sexes to extremes. Is it fair to say that you sometimes use your fiction to explore the position of women in the world?

Yeah, it’s fair to say that. I fact my tagline for the screenplay of my novel Ladies’ Night is “In the War Between Men and Women the Shooting Has Begun.” Pithy, no? But yes, I believe you’ll find me exploring that position in the world—or lack of it—in pretty much all my novels. Particularly The Girl Next Door, Stranglehold, The Woman and Joyride, but to a lesser or greater degree in all of it. I have great hopes for women in a truly civilized world.

One of my favorite characters in any thriller is Ray Pye in The Lost, the villain who puts crushed cans in his shoes to give himself more height. Ray works because—eccentricities and all—he seems so real. Are many of your characters based on people you’ve encountered in real life?

Either encountered in real life or in news accounts or the pages of a book, yes. Ray Pye was loosely based on the antics of Charles Howard Schmid, a mid-’60s murderer from Tucson, Arizona. And he really did walk around on crushed beer cans, the crazy bastard.

In the introduction to I’m Not Sam, you talk about the importance of fiction adhering to “the rule of silence”. Can you talk about how you use that in your work?

I’m very aware of good prose-writing being a lot like music, even partaking of a kind of music; the sounds of the words, lines and paragraphs as they strike the “ear” of your perception as you read them. So I try different sounds, different rhythms. I try to race you, lull you (sometimes into a false sense of security) and then maybe hit you with the kettle drums all of a sudden. I think it’s also important to pay attention to the starts and stops. When the sounds stop—at the end of a chapter, a section of a chapter, or at the actual end of the story—I want the silence that follows to have resonance, to stay with you like a tune you can’t quite let go of. Because usually that’s when you have your best chance to contemplate the meaning of the thing.

It’s interesting that your protagonist in I’m Not Sam is a graphic novelist, which seems to be one of the few areas of writing you haven’t explored extensively. Any chance of a Jack Ketchum graphic novel in the future?

There have been a couple adaptations of my stories, but no deal for a novel. Though I’d love to have one. Anybody listening out there? As we speak, Glenn Chadbourne’s working on an adaptation of Firedance, my story from Peaceable Kingdom, and I think he’ll do a great job. But I’d be happy to see more.

Do you think part of the point of much great horror prose is to suggest that we all carry the seed for savagery in us?

I don’t believe we all do, so I’d say no. But some of us do, and those are the folks you want to watch out for. I think the best horror is essentially cautionary, showing us the worst in people and in situations, showing how us normal people can either sink or swim when faced with them. I’d say the point of horror is to tell you to watch your step, for God’s sake! And do your best to beat the cost of those missteps in life.

Animals have played important parts in several of your stories—I’m thinking especially of Red and the cat in I’m Not Sam—and now the forthcoming The Secret Life of Souls. Have animals always held a special place in your life?

I could no sooner imagine my life without a cat or a dog in it than I could imagine my life without people in it. They’re essential to my sanity, my happiness and my sense of empathy. And I can’t think of a thing in the world more important than empathy.

Kirkus Reviews called The Secret Life of Souls “an otherworldly, satirically streaked thriller.” Is this book more deliberately satirical than, say, the family in The Woman?

I’d say on the satire front it would be hard for Lucky and I to beat Chris Cleek in The Woman. But it’s there in Souls all right. Part of it’s about Show Biz, after all. So how couldn’t it be?

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of nonfiction books, award-winning prose writer, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” Her most recent books include Ghosts: A Haunted History (which The Times Literary Supplement said “excels at presenting us with instances of the persistence of belief, across all times and cultures”), and the short story collection Cemetery Dance Select: Lisa Morton. A lifelong Californian, she lives in North Hollywood, and can be found online at lisamorton.com.