Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book: Second to the last house on the left.

With is combination of retro-50s setting, first person narration, and horrific torture scenes, Jack Ketchum's justly infamous novel The Girl Next Door seems like some nightmare version of The Wonder Years as re-imagined by the creators of Hostel.

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.


Anonymous said...

That wikipedia link was extremely disturbing. I mean, I enjoy the true-crime archives (mayhem.net, IIRC) for reading up on serial killers, but, wow.. You'd think someone would have tracked down all those kids to see where they are.

This one was more disturbing than that crazy canadian woman who got out recently (who killed her sister after drugging her so her husband could rape her etc.)

CRwM said...

According to crimelibrary, here's what happened to the kids:

Richard Hobbs, who did most of the dirty work of etching the words into Sylvia and half that of burning the “3,” died of cancer when he was only 21.

Coy Hubbard, who took such excessive revenge again and again for a slur against his ladylove, Stephanie Baniszewski, served time for burglary some years after his brief stint in the reformatory. He obtained work as a mechanic. He was later tried but acquitted for the murders of two men.

John Baniszewski surfaced a few years ago after the Jonesboro, Arkansas tragedy in which a couple of junior high school students gunned down four peers and a teacher. He decided to come forward to say that there is hope for young murderers and that they can turn their lives around. Baniszewski had changed his name to John Blake.

When he spoke publicly for the first time about Sylvia’s death he said he still could not adequately explain why he and the others turned on the girl the way they did. He said that he harbored a great deal of anger over his parents’ marital break-up and the lack of adequate food and clothing for him and his siblings.

Blake acknowledges that his punishment was inadequate to the terrible crime. “A more severe punishment would have been just,” he comments. Blake claims he turned his life around after finding God. However, the Baniszewski family went to a fundamentalist church both before and during the time the unfortunate Likens girls boarded with them. In his adult life, Blake has had no run-ins with the law. He has worked as a truck driver and realtor and served as a lay pastor. He is happily married and the father of three although he is now disabled by diabetes. His vision is blurred and he requires the assistance of a cane or walker to get around.

Stephanie Baniszewski became a schoolteacher. She also married and had kids as did Paula, who moved to Iowa and is said to live on a small farm there. It is not known whether or not she had contact with her paroled mother.

Anonymous said...

That Canadian crime Sask' is talking about: Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo were the couple, and Homolka was released.
Laura Prepon ("Donna") of THAT 70'S SHOW actually, mind-numbingly, played Homolka in a movie!
I haven't seen it, but the film's called KARLA.

I say "mind-numbingly" only because on paper it seems a disturbing combo and juxtaposition of elements. But, I guess the film explores the case fairly legitmately, based on at least one comment on IMDb.
Living in the Buffalo, NY area, this case actually made local news because it occurred more or less just over the border.
Extremely notorious.
Which just adds to the whole weirdness of "Donna" playing this woman in a movie, let alone knowing a movie was made of the events. Although, that in itself isn't surprising.

Meanwhile, the story that CRwM posted about: cripes. I read the Wikipedia article and I tried to articulate my reactions and I couldn't do it.
But, you're observation/criticism about the tormented girl in Ketchum's book makes sense. I think making her "purer" changes things a bit.
If she had done even some of the things touched on in the Wikipedia article, I could see her blaming herself (unfairly) for her treatment based on her typical teen, human behavior, such as having a boy "feel herself up," and her wondering if God would allow such misery to befall her if she had been a "good girl" instead? I could see her descend into self-loathing that would be totally unjustified in a normal world but totally understandable
being a permanent resident in hell and just trying to make some sort of moral sense of it all.
Does that make any sense?

The other stuff going through my head I can't quite sort out: artistic issues about making a film or story of this case.
Basically, the story is SO awful, part of me feels it seems legitimate creative fodder, but then the question is, to what end. If not for exploitation purposes, then how do you achieve a higher goal for it? I guess making it a character study of the criminals would be my answer.
Trying to make accessible a series of behaviors that seem incomprehensible, beyond attributing it to mere "sickness", mental instability or "evil."
But if something like this happens literally next door... it seems the story is worthy of intense examination and some sort of understanding.

bla bla bla

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattleworks:

Seems a movie version of the novel is already in the can. IMDB says it is slated for an 2007 release. No big names (mostly TV guys) are attached and it is the director's second flick.

I have reservations about a film version. What made the book more than just an extreme-horror style gross out was the fact that we were in the narrator's head, following his emotional reactions. Without that interiority, I'm not sure it will have the same impact.

Anonymous said...

As usual, I was trying to think of an effective way to do this story on film without degenerating into immoral pornography.
I wondered if it could be possible to do it purely a la REAR WINDOW. You never go in the house next door, just what you see and hear from the tormented young girl(the black eye, etc.) whenever she's outside, the behavior of the kids in the house and their overheard conversations, the behavior of the mother.
And also what are the neighbors saying about what they see?
So, if we're in the same position as the neighbors, would we have lifted a finger or was there enough doubt not to act?
And if not, why don't we act?

Having said that, that interior monologue is what I missed from Will Graham's character in Mann's MANHUNTER.
I think they tried to accomodate it with Graham talking to himself as he tries to recreate the crime in the house, but it wasn't quite as effective.
Definitely, I agree with you, an interior monologue/narrator is a "book" strength that's really difficult to translate effectively to the film medium.
But, not impossible.

Lunchmeat said...

Great review! I've heard a lot about the book. I'm going to give it a whirl.

CRwM said...


Thanks for droppin' by and leaving a comment. Glad you liked the review. I'm reading another Ketchum book right now and I should have the review up sometime next week.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, thin characterization is one of the reasons I've never been too thrilled by ketchum. However, ketchum has stated that the main character David is supposed to be him-his real name is Dallas Mayr. This helps to explain why David M. is the sympathetic character..Dallas is writing how he would feel as a young boy watching all that..I guess he doesn't know what the young girl Meg would feel..I would have liked to see a lot more of what Meg is thinking than David in that novel.

CRwM said...


I've only read three Ketchum books at this point and GND is the only one that really spends any effort on characterization. Though, to be fair, characterization would be sort of beside the point in a meat-grinder like Off Season. If heard that his Red is another slow burn character study type book, so that might be the test case to see whether or not his lack of characterization is a choice or a limitation he sometimes luckily transcends.

As for getting inside's Meg's head – I would argue that it was ultimately a wise decision to keep us locked in the head of David. I think the moral core of the book involves the reader pondering what they would do a situation where authority figures approve of something that they might otherwise find horrifying. If the book focused on Meg and put us in her position there wouldn't be much to think about. Regardless of the situation, nobody wants to e on the receiving end of torture. But, distance us a little, and all sorts of moral questions about community guilt, the abuse of power, and the responsibilities of the individual. Few of us will ever be in Meg's position, but all of us will, at one time or another, be witness to something we know is wrong. The book's kick – for me anyway – comes from taking that latter situation to a sort of extreme limit.