Jack Ketchum is responsible for one of the stand-out reading experiences of my life. When I was in high school, I got pretty deep into horror. Monsters, vampires, haunted houses, all the typical stuff. I bought a copy of his novel The Girl Next Door upon a friend’s feverish recommendation. I had no idea what I was in for. Here was a horror novel with no supernatural elements; no ghosts or ghoulies for metaphor and meaning to hide behind. It was the story of a young girl in a 1950s suburb who is systematically tortured in a basement by her aunt and a group of neighborhood boys. It’s a visceral, unadorned, and unflinching look innate, human evil. That book broke me; I thought it was brilliant.
Others of Ketchum’s work I haven’t enjoyed as much. His cannibal novel Off Season contains one of the ballsiest plot moves I’ve seen in a novel, but the humanity and meaning that I found in The Girl Next Door was absent in that gruesome tale, or, at least, I did not find the meaning I found compelling. I think Ketchum is at his best when he gives human context and weight to violence—his cannibal novels feature a family of murderous hill people, and while that premise in itself is frightening in its way, I was never fundamentally rocked like I was when I read his account of the supposedly idyllic 1950s.
It was within that context that I picked up The Woman, Ketchum’s latest work, which is the foundation for a movie of the same name that made a splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The set up for this book reads like a strange amalgam of his previous work. A cannibal woman (from the same group we saw in Off Season and its sequel, Offspring), wounded and subsisting alone in the Canadian wilderness, is captured by Chris Cleek, a lawyer outdoorsman who stumbles across her while on a hunting trip and decides to force her into submission and civilize her. I was hoping for another thoughtful and gruesome interrogation of the banal roots of evil, but this novel contains none of the subtly of Ketchum’s better work.
The Cleek family’s myriad issues are peeled away layer by layer as the novel progresses, but I think that by the end Ketchum has freighted the father with so much misogyny, amorality, and lack of empathy that the central question the novel purports to ask is betrayed. The diminished result is a simple inversion of expectations—yes, the cannibal woman is wild and unencumbered by the morals and expectations of the civilized life that Cleek expounds. Ironically, though, it is the civilized people who are the most brutal. That’s the novel’s whole trick. And it’s not a particularly smart one. The problem, I think, is that Ketchum takes the evil of the family, especially the father, into ludicrous territory. In The Girl Next Door, we saw a woman and a group of boys descend into evil. In The Woman, we find a family patriarch who has already, long ago, made that descent. The ultimate reveal of the depths of that depravity ring hollow as a result. There’s no change, only revelation. And for that reason, I thought that this novel, which attempts to make criticisms of both the notion of civilized culture and the noble savage myth, ultimately fails at its goal. What I was left with was a novel filled with violence for the sake of violence, with neither side of the conflict offering anything redeeming or illuminating.
Ketchum’s writing remains tight and engaging, but at the end I was left feeling pretty let down. The strange epilogue story, titled “The Cow,” I skimmed and was glad for it. For those reasons, The Woman by Jack Ketchum gets two pieces of lasagna from me.