Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (A Review)

***Spoilers ahead***

This is not a book I've read recently, but it's one I remember vividly. If anyone ever asks me what the most disturbing horror book I've ever read is I'll tell them that it is The Girl Next Door. Of course, there are plenty of books that I've heard about that are disturbing, too. Books like Succulent Prey by Wrath James White, Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez, and Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite are ones that I've heard about but have never gotten around to. I do not believe there is a horror novel that could be more disturbing than the one I'm about to review, but if any of the books I mentioned are then I'll have to put them down or not even bother to seek them out. I don't think I could take them.

The attraction I have to certain hardcore splatterpunk (or whatever it's called) is a peculiar one. I suppose some folks call it "torture porn," but I'm not reading this because I'm getting off on the disturbing stuff. Hell, no. I'm just as disturbed at certain things as other people are. But that doesn't mean I'm squeamish or that I believe something is real when I know it isn't. But there does come a point where the comfort level I have with a piece of entertainment is tenuous at best. And that's when it ceases to be entertainment and becomes something else. Depending on the level of the craftsmanship it becomes either filth or a gut-wrenching work of art. Well, maybe not art, but it's something akin to it.

Movies like Irreversible and Deadgirl are good examples of what I'm talking about. Anybody who watches Saw and calls it torture porn honestly needs to watch these movies. Saw is the Wizard of Oz compared to those flicks. But the movies aren't entirely bad. The original Last House on the Left is borderline filth because the direction is poor and the quality is poor. I can't speak for the remake because I haven't seen it.

But no movie, regardless of how gory or disturbing, can quite catch the horror of a well-crafted book. Even the movie adaptation of The Girl Next Door is diluted just a bit. Not by much, mind you. The movie is still pretty disturbing and follows the book too closely to be enjoyed by the average film-goer, but the movie is not quite the book's equal.

I read Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door in three or four days, I think. Probably three. I literally could not put it down. I enjoyed it.  Well, as much as I possibly could considering the subject matter. It's incredibly fast-paced. It has to be. No one wants to read a slow-paced book about child abuse and torture. I don't believe anyone can, either. The book is about 340 pages. My version contains two bonus stories (Returns and Do You Love Your Wife?) and an interview with Ketchum and the screenwriters of the movie version. If you want the book then that is the version I recommend.

Now this book could easily have turned into an exploitation tale. And it could easily be interpreted as one. But it is not. Jack Ketchum didn't just throw a whole bunch of blood and shit against the wall to see what stuck. No, no, no. He remembered the true story of Sylvia Likens and he gave her life again in the form of Meg Loughlin. And we see every horrible thing that happens to her through the eyes of the narrator, David. More than some horror exploitation book, this is a very dark tale of morality and childhood. It's The Body from Hell.

To be honest, I've often compared The Girl Next Door to the movie The Passion of the Christ. Meg Loughlin gets the shit beaten out of her. She's raped and then maimed. But at the end she still puts her sister's life above her own. She still has a heart to care about others. And I consider David to be like all those who just watched Christ get crucified in the movie. No, David didn't participate in any of the deeds. He didn't beat her. He didn't rape her. He didn't do anything. That is just the point. He just watched. He didn't try to help her until it had escalated far beyond control.

I, as the reader, felt a strong sense of guilt for just turning a page. I think Jack Ketchum wanted me and everyone else who read the book to feel that way. Pretty sure he said so in the interview at the end of the book. He wanted us to be like David. He wanted us to be voyeurs. We aren't doing anything. We are just watching. Just reading. But why do we feel like we are doing something wrong? Because Jack Ketchum didn't cut us any slack. He's showing us everything. He's putting us in the room. This isn't some crime documentary where the atmosphere seems so cold and clinical. No, here everything is alive and breathing. You can see it all and you can feel it. Even touch it and taste it. If you want to. If you don't you can just stand back and watch it all like David.

As a novel, the telling of this story is peculiar. Because the narrator doesn't do anything. Who ever heard of a narrator barely involved in his own story? Well, that's why the book works so well. That is why the guilt factor is cranked up so high. If this book was written from the third person then the story would lose its potency. If it was written in the first person from one of the characters who performed any of the dark deeds then it would be unbearable and far too much to take. The way that this book is written makes for the perfect delivery. You can see it all, but it is like you are not there. You are a villain by association, but you try to be the hero at the end. And you almost succeed. When you can't save the unfortunate heroin you kill the bitch who caused all the turmoil. But are your hands clean?

That is what is at the heart of The Girl Next Door. It's like that quote about how all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. Or in this case, a good boy. Because David is just a boy and no one gets scared quite like a child.

I do recommend this book for extreme horror fans. This is the pinnacle, really. If you think you can take it then give it a shot, but it will leave you shaken and scarred. I promise. If you think you can't then don't even bother because you can't. Take my word for it.

I loved this book, but I don't think I can ever attempt a re-read.

NOTE: I know a movie was made that is based more on the actual events that inspired this novel. I believe it is called An American Crime. However, it doesn't have the emotional punch that this book has and it skimps on the true nature of the crime. Even if all the things in this books didn't truly happen (remember that this book is based off the true story and inspired by it, but it is not the actual story itself), I don't believe An American Crime really gets to the heart of the matter. Ketchum's book does, though. More than any movie could, too.

1 comment:

  1. I have not read the book and I don't think I can after seeing the movie. I didn't know anything about it this story and I picked the movie up when we were watching the horror flicks in October. It was one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. It was well made and it was certainly horrifying. The movie was gripping and held my attention to the end but this is a story I do not want to revisit anytime soon. Of course what really pushes this over the edge is the ages of those involved.

    When you said this, "To be honest, I've often compared The Girl Next Door to the movie The Passion of the Christ.," I had to laugh. I guess you could say, "one man's torture is another man's religion." It's a good point though. Some people that complain about one form of violence celebrate another.