Jack Ketchum is the author that Stephen King referred to as “The scariest guy in America.” He first burst onto the scene in 1980 with the brutal, stunning Off Season, in which a group of holidaying yuppies fall victim to a family of savages living in the woods. The novel’s sequels Offspring and The Woman would be adapted into films (Lucky McKee’s The Woman would find controversy and acclaim in equal measure), as would The Girl Next Door, The Lost and Red.
Over the course of his career, Ketchum has presented his readers with challenging, shocking and unforgettable stories. From the real-life horror story of The Girl Next Door to his most recent collaboration with McKee I’m Not Sam, he has remained a distinctive and compelling voice in genre fiction. In this interview, SciFiNow talks to the author about his inspirations, challenges, and whether or not he sees himself as a horror writer at all.
Some of your best known work deals with people confronting a savage nature, both in themselves and in others. Was that always a subject that you were drawn to as a writer?
Seems to me that nature, human and otherwise, is all about conflict and the resolution of conflict. It’s the basic stuff of life and death, and good stories, no matter what medium they’re told in, always reflect that. I read very early on, and was exposed to movies and TV early, so I was pretty much nurtured on conflict. That’s not to mention what was going on in my family as a kid. That’s another story. But a lot of that conflict was violent, even though the cowboys on TV never bled when they were gunned down and they censored King Kong stepping on the natives. My first poem was about a deer getting shot in the forest. I was probably channeling Bambi’s mother. My first story was a first-person account of Hector being dragged around the walls of Troy – from Hector’s point of view! All of my early plays and stories, though not all that violent per se, were pretty dark. I think when I wrote Off Season I was finally ready to tackle savagery head-on, but it was no surprise to me when I got there.
Off Season really was like a punch to the gut. Did you set out with the intent to shock or were you more interested in writing about the clash of civilisation and brutality?
Both. I wanted a book with the right-in-your-face look at violence that you saw in Chainsaw, Living Dead, etc, but which weren’t in books. Even the best books tended not to focus too closely on the details. But I also wanted the book to say something about the effects of extreme violence on normal, healthy individuals. To have a point of view. I wanted to ask, what would you do under these circumstances? How far would you go to survive?
It’s interesting to compare Off Season and its follow-ups with The Girl Next Door. Was writing the development of monstrosity more challenging than presenting it as this existing force?
In a way. In Off Season the “monsters” come to you full-blown. They’re cannibals, from the adults to the kids. They are what they are. They attack. In The Girl Next Door there’s a gradual sink into evil, or monstrosity if you will, led by Ruth, the adult, who’s disintegrating, and then breeding slowly inside the kids. To write that I had to go more deeply into the arc of the characters. Show the slide. Be much more subtle than full-on attack. Of course Off Season all occurs during a single day and night, while Girl has a much broader time-frame, which gives you more room for characterization. Each story dictated its form and structure. But I’d already done similar things with Hide And Seek and Cover, both of which were more character-driven and occur over the course of time. So I was ready for that.
The Girl Next Door is, very sadly, based on a true story. How did the fact that this actually happened affect the writing of it?
I wrote it very carefully. I didn’t want to wind up accusing myself of ripping off the victims, just as I was careful not to rip off the Vietnam vets in Cover. It’s important to get the tones right, to approach the subject with a certain gravitas. I never want to trivialise suffering.
You’ve spoken about how your publishers wanted Ladies’ Night to be a Salem’s Lot-style follow-up to Off Season. Is it difficult as a writer to be given that sort of goal and to be compared to an author?
Well, they weren’t comparing me to Steve King exactly, though they were envisioning that same kind of launch for me. My editor for Off Season said, “this book is gonna make you, rich, son!” So of course there was a lot of pressure to get the second one right. I wrote a long outline for them and then followed it slavishly, which for me is a miserable way to write. But I was afraid of being a one-book wonder so I did. I’ll never do it again. And then of course Off Season didn’t make me rich. Later, when I cut the hell out of Ladies’ Night there was a nice little book in there that sort of resembled Off Season. So I’m happy I wrote it. But never again.
The story of Off Season’s publication troubles made for compelling reading but it must have been fairly traumatic. How do you feel the situation has changed for young horror authors with the ever-growing number of self-published titles?
Traumatic but instructive. I learned to trust editors but not publishers. I learned that it was best to write what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. I have to say I’m distrustful of self-publishing, at least at the start of someone’s career. Once you’re established and really know your craft, why not? Money goes directly to you and not the middle-man. But good editors and agents are a winnowing factor, cutting out a lot of the rubbish out there. They’re what stands between the wannabees and the real thing. They’re the ones who tell you no – and for beginning writers a lot of nos are a good thing. They make you ask, why not? They make you work harder. Learn your craft. I think that in general, self-publishing is dumbing down the gene pool.
How did Lucky McKee approach you to write the novel The Woman and how did you find the collaborative process? We’re assuming it was a good one as you also wrote I’m Not Sam together…
Writing with Lucky’s a total pleasure. We’re always on the same page and we laugh a lot, and at the same time we’re dead serious. Sometimes I feel like I’ve met my not-so-evil Evil Twin, or given our age difference, maybe Evil Godson. When I wrote the script for Offspring I killed off the character of The Woman as I had in the novel, but the director, Andrew van den Houten, saw Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance and said no way. She was that good. I was worried at first and then I saw her and damned if I blamed him. We brought in Lucky for a screening and he and I agreed that she and the character needed a movie all to herself, so we started brainstorming immediately. We thought, what if she’s the protagonist this time? The victim. If so, who’s the really bad guy? How can we switch empathy to a woman who eats people? And we came up with Chris Cleek.
Were you surprised by the reaction to the film adaptation of The Woman?
Me? Not at all. You’d have to ask Lucky. But I knew we were pushing some buttons here. We wanted to.
Have you ever found the label horror author restrictive? Some of your work doesn’t fit particularly comfortably into that genre.
My readers give me a lot of leeway. I led with Off Season, which is definitely a horror novel. Then there was Hide And Seek, an Old Dark House story, so horror was where my editors positioned me. But I think I confused everybody with the next one, Cover, because it pushed hard at the edges of what you could really call horror. And I’ve mostly continued in that vein. The only supernatural novel I’ve written is She Wakes, and I’m not sure I’ll ever write another. So when people ask me, I say I writer horror and suspense, or suspense and horror. Depends on my mood which comes first and who I’m talking to. Edward Lee called me “the godfather of splatterpunk” because of Off Season. I liked that and I thank you, Ed. On the other hand Peter Straub once paid me the high compliment of saying that he thought people came to my stuff for the wrong reasons, but stayed for the right ones. Meaning that they simply like what I do. I write sad. I write funny. Personally I feel I’m all over the place. My readers hang in.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just completed a book of essays called What They Wrote, appreciations of other people’s scary stuff, and a book of poetry — yeah, poetry — called Notes From The Cathouse. I’ve got one or two more pieces to write toward a new collection, so that’s next. It’s been six years since Closing Time And Other Stories. I figure it’s about time.