The novel is one extended flashback, told in the bitter and brittle voice of a guilt crushed man looking back at a horrific incident from his childhood. When he was a boy, the dead-end suburban street where he lived was just the sort of American Eden that Hollywood sells, historians dismiss, and cultural conservatives morn. Kids catch crayfish in tin cans, boys sneak peaks at their fathers' hidden Playboy stashes, and the arrival of the carnival – hosted by the Kiwanis Club, natch – is the highlight of the summer season.
Into the Mom-and-apple-pie world of the narrator's youth came Meg, the proverbial girl next door. Smart, beautiful, a bit of tomboy, the narrator immediately develops a crush on Meg. Which is unfortunate as she's the chief victim of this story.
Meg and her polio stricken sister, Susan, are orphans who lost their parents in a car wreck. They've been placed in the care of Ruth, a divorced mother of three boys, known in the neighborhood for her sailor's mouth and her negligent parenting style.
At first, Meg fits easily in this Leave It To Beaver world. The carnival comes and goes. The boys debate rock and roll lyrics, read Plastic Man comics, and wonder if they'll ever actually see a real, live breast.
But, slowly, things start to sour. Ruth's carefree persona begins to rot and warp. She starts to become vicious and brutal. Meg goes from her boarder to her prisoner. Standard juvenile punishments become more intense, more sexual, more perverse. Soon, Ruth is keeping Meg bound in her basement, naked and dangling from ropes tied to the crossbeams in the roof. And Ruth's influence extends to her children and their friends. Given permission to indulge in their baser desires, the children of neighborhood become willing accomplices in the brutal tortures Ruth inflicts on Meg. As the narrator fitfully tries to develop some moral sense in a world were the adults are vouchsafing even the most horrific acts of rape and abuse, we watch as Ruth and her brood heap outrage upon outrage on their powerless teen captive. Eventually, the story reaches its climax as the narrator, alternately repelled by what he witnesses and fascinated by the spectacle of power, is forced into a moral reckoning.
The Girl Next Door is a thoroughly unpleasant book. The sustained intensity and duration of its violence is mind-numbing and, in that department alone, outdoes many more-famous "transgressive" works: next to Ketchum's novel, the excesses of American Psycho seem absurd and melodramatic. The long dark tale of what becomes of poor Meg is relentless, grisly, and unleavened by humor, redemption, or hope. This is, I think, the darkest horror novel I've ever read.
But, for all its disturbing imagery and stomach-churning violence, Ketchum's novel is still essential. Despite the detail Ketchum brings to his scenes of rape and torture, what Ketchum's really focused on, what he is really chronicling, is the terrible moral flexibility of humans. Fear, authority, desire, power, and vulnerability all clash in the voice of the narrator. Even when the narrator refuses to describe the worst that happens (in a brilliant move, Ketchum leaves many of the worst acts "off-screen"), we know that these events are keenly felt by the narrator. When the parental voice, the lawgiver of a young boy's world, goes mad, we see the narrator struggle to create his own moral sense. We see him wrestle with the better and worse angels of his nature, forging a genuine morality out of the wreckage of Meg's degradation. Ketchum's narrator is a real achievement, one of the most finely drawn characters in genre.
Ketchum's other characters, while not so well built, help bring his story to chilling life. The neighborhood children devolve from Normal Rockwell-esque icons of American youth to exemplars of banal evil. Like hardened concentration camp guards, they crack jokes while inflicting heinous tortures. When they grow bored of branding Meg or cutting her, they open bottles of Coke and watch game shows upstairs. The mad Ruth, pack leader and subversive symbol of parental authority run amok, is rendered as a sort of force of nature. Though it means she often seems a bit thin, more symbol than human, it does resonate with how one imagines the narrator would have seen her as a young boy.
Meg and Susan are perhaps the most important weak points in the Ketchum's characterization. Besides being thinly built characters, Ketchum's inability to fully humanize them becomes the book's sole moral misstep. For all attention given to the narrator's inner being, Meg and Susan never come to life. As soon as the action begins to pile up, Susan drifts into the background to never fully resurface. Meg, on the other hand, is blandly "good." She's smart, funny, kind, caring, trustworthy, dignified, strong, etc. etc. She's tiresomely one note. I presume Ketchum wanted to make her unquestionably good to emphasize how undeserved her fate was, but this in a mistake. First, she seems less human, and therefore her fate less important, for her lack of characterization. Second, isn't the real point here that nobody, no matter who they were, would ever deserve what happens to Meg? Finally, and most importantly, the dehumanizing lack of characterization and the dehumanizing psychological aspect of torture dove-tails uncomfortably. For all of Ketchum's compassion for the narrator, he seems weirdly incapable of sympathizing with the victim. This compassion for the narrator/witness rather than the victim comes dangerously close to authorial self-indulgence, as if it was the narrator who is to be pitied for having to watch Meg's torture and not Meg.
Still, the uneven characterization does not dull the impact of the book's main idea. Though its violence makes it unsuitable for younger readers, this books nearest literary relative is not American Psycho, but The Outsiders. It is actually a finely detailed and emotional valid depiction of the birth of a truly moral individual. It's this theme, this important moral center, that redeems the novel's excesses, makes them necessary, and elevates them to the point that Ketchum makes the whole miserable trip worth taking.
The Girl Next Door is rightly viewed as one of the most brutal works of modern horror. The label is fair. And it would be possible to read it as the literary equivalent of those cinematic endurance tests that so capture the indie underground's attention. But to do so misses the achievement of what Ketchum's done. If you've got the stomach for the dark stuff, I recommend subjecting yourself to The Girl Next Door.
NB: Ketchum's inspiration for The Girl Next Door was a actual 1965 murder case dubbed "the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history". Follow the link for details, but be forewarned that they are, if anything, even worse than what happens in Ketchum's novel.