Cannibals, in the confines of horror cinema and literature, are some of my favorite people. There's something refreshingly reductive about them. They reduce everything down to what is perhaps the most basic dramatic motivation: hunger. They want food and you're it. There's also something powerful about the reduction of people to food. Beyond the horrific potential of being slaughtered, the violation is so much more total than that of your basic, murdering, slasher-type. Doctor, engineer, filmmaker, anthropologist, male, female, black, white – it doesn't matter to the cannibal. To them, everybody is just meat. That's about as close to genuine nihilism as Western fiction gets.
Given my cannibal thing, I was excited to read Off Season, the famed first novel of Jack Ketchum, author of the truly brilliant and truly horrifying The Girl Next Door. The plot of Off Season is wonderfully simple: vacationing New Yorkers in Maine cabin come under siege by a tribe of atavistic cannibals. Original? Not even when it was written. But still, why screw around with a successful template?
Unfortunately, Off Season is a bit of a disappointment. I expect partly because, coming on the heels of my reading of the superlative GND, it can't help but seem a bit thin. Unlike that better book, Off Season is a thrill machine. Its action takes place over three blood soaked days and nights, and Ketchum propels his story forward, rolling past characterization points, meditative moments, and tangles of illogic. The star of the book is the violent struggle for survival and that, rather than any particular character, takes center stage. On this surface level, Ketchum delivers big time. The book takes an almost sadistic glee in putting its main characters through the wringer. One almost feels like our protagonists' main enemy in not the cannibal tribe (itself a bit of a knock-off from the original The Hills Have Eyes - even down to the presence of a large, extremely strong, bald and muscle-bound caveman), but the author who seems to have it out for them. The pacing is swift, the action engrossing, and the violence extreme.
What it doesn't have is the human connection. The Girl Next Door was one off those rare books that linked you directly to genuine human evil and did so not by scaring you, but my making you extend your sympathies. Off Season is, by comparison, a sort of gory burlesque of evil played for the relatively low stakes of shock-entertainment. It is well done, but it is what it is.
For the curious, the edition I read was the new "un-expurgated" edition. The edition features Ketchum on how Off Season came to be published. He tells of how, after picking up what they thought was a hot and daring new property, his publisher began making cut after cut to the text. Eager to please and hungry to see his novel in print, Ketchum gave on nearly every demand. His story of what got cut and what stayed (as well as what he cut and lost the manuscript for – so it is gone for good) makes for an entertaining look at one author's frustrating experiences in the pop lit biz.