Jack Ketchum is a best selling author. He is also the man that Stephen King claims is the scariest guy in America. The author of such novels as The Girl Next Door, The Lost, Off Season and Red scares the hell out of the man that scares everyone. That says a lot about Ketchum’s novels. Ketchum writes about the dark side of human nature, the evil that mankind is capable of, and shows his readers that many times, the acts we commit on each other are far more terrifying than that of demons and otherworldly beings. Sometimes, regrettably, reality is much scarier than fantasy.
The Girl Next Door is inspired by a true story. It is the tale of two recently orphaned sisters in a quiet suburban neighborhood in the summer of 1958 that are placed with their unstable aunt. But their Aunt Ruth has a depraved sense of discipline that eventually leads to unspeakable acts of abuse and torture that not only involve her young sons, but many neighborhood kids as well.
Bill Howard: I just recently watched The Girl Next Door, and I have to say, I’ve seen a lot of movies, and I don’t often get emotionally riled up, but by the end of Girl Next Door, I was ready to throw my TV out the bay window. The acts that Meg had to go through were so horrible that the viewer is just forced to watch in shock. But I think after you get through your initial reaction to the acts, what sticks with you is the courage, will and love that Meg displayed. The story really stuck with me for a long time after watching it.
Jack Ketchum: That’s great; it means it’s got legs.
BH: Definitely. So why do you think it is so important for people to experience what Meg had to go through?
JK: First of all I think that Meg is courageous, I admire Meg, I admired her when I was writing her. She takes all of this on herself, she is just a young girl, and there is no reason she should be this big spirited, except for her sister. There’s the bonding with her sister that’s so extraordinarily important, because she sees early on that if she doesn’t take this on herself, it will fall to her younger sister, who she clearly loves. So to that extent, the story is a bit about love as much as about what happens to her. I really see it as a twisted love story. Meg is the strong one in the entire damn book. It becomes a standoff between her and Ruth. Ruth is going insane, her strength is built out of weakness, and Meg’s is of total strength of character.
BH: Ruth was unlike any villain I’ve seen in a film, just relentless.
JK: She has a brand of quite insane evil. It’s just that she thinks she is completely right throughout; she thinks she is doing the correct thing. There’s no sense that she is off the handle, she’s considered, she’s measured, she doles out pain in measured doses, as perhaps, I don’t know, the Nazi’s did.
BH: So when you wrote the original novel, did you do much research into the actual crime, did you talk to anyone involved?
JK: No, no. I try not to over research, or it becomes a true crime book. So what I did is I took the story, and I transplanted it to the time and place when I was growing up. I was sitting on the idea of writing about this crime for a long, long time. When my mom died and I was back in my hometown settling up affairs, it became like a memory play and I thought, shit, I could put this here; I could put this where I was growing up, on this dead end street, where people kept secrets. My friend’s mom did come to the door with bruises on her face, and nobody talked about it. That secrecy was going on then and nobody talked. I just could imagine it going on there, in that time, and that was the key that told me I could actually write it. And writing it was actually pretty easy because all I had to do was think and remember. I just grafted the people who did this onto people I knew and grew up with. As for the true story, I was reading a compendium on American crime, and Gertrude, the real murderess, had a photo in there. And the photo was of this woman who looked like one day earlier she might have been somewhat attractive, she was wearing a Jackie Kennedy hairdo, and had pretty eyes. But she looked haunted and empty. So that photo riveted me. And it was a crime committed by a woman against a woman, which is relatively rare. And then she invited the kids in, so I thought, My God, this is an extraordinary story.
BH: What was your overall impression of the finished film; did it live up to the characters you created in your head?
JK: They did a really good job, as I said at the screening of Red, it’s not what you cut from the book, it’s what you leave in. And what they left in, the heart and soul of the book, is in the movie. That’s why it works and that’s why it’s disturbing. In some cases budget got in the way and they cut back on some things I wish they hadn’t, but it’s trivial compared to the fact that the movie has the impact that it has, it has a similar impact to the book, and that’s all I could have really asked, and that’s great, I’m very proud of it.
BH: I also just recently watched The Lost, another film based on one of your novels, and it also has similar themes of the dark side of human nature. What attracts you to that dark side, and to the true stories that inspire many of your books?
JK: Every now and then I will dip into the surreal or the supernatural, but what really scares me is us. When I can log into my own experiences, log into the people I’ve known, and use them as templates. I’ve never known anyone as bad as the people I’ve written, but you can certainly dig into your own subconscious, and ask what would it have been like for me growing up next to the girl next door, and to have had permission to abuse people. Would I have rejected that or not, I don’t know, it was never in front of me. I’m glad it wasn’t, but the possibility of my own violence and the possibilities of the violence around me, those are the things that scare me. You meet someone in a bar, you have a nice conversation with them, you don’t know what their background is, you have no idea, they may have abused their own kids, they may have abused their brother or sister, and there is nothing to tell you, you’re blind to all of that. It’s those blindnesses, the fact that we can’t possibly understand the people around us, that scare me. There are people who write supernatural horror far better than I ever will, Stephen King does it, Peter Straub does it, because that scares the hell out of them, and it did when they were little boys. What always scared me was the guy down the street who looked at me strange.
BH: I noticed in the two films that you have cameos in both. You do come from an acting background; do you have any interest in pursing that further?
KT: I have a cameo in Red as well, with lines, and I didn’t blow them. (laughs) But no I don’t want to act. I acted for a long time after college, trying to support acting by writing and writing by acting, but it didn’t work. Although I loved acting, it scared the shit out of me. The process of putting a play together with all those people was wonderful, but actually performing it terrified me. So with writing, I get to be the guy with the marionettes, nobody sees me. Doing walk on’s is great fun though, you get to meet all these cool people, these great actors. With Red I did a scene with Brian Cox, and he is an amazing actor, and watching him work was delightful.
BH: If you were to play a role in a film based on one of your books, is there any character that you would want to play?
JK: Wow, that’s one I’ve never been thrown before. If I thought I were good enough, which I don’t, I would have taken a crack at Avery in Red. Avery is who I’d like to be, who I’d like to grow up to be. He has that incredible gravitas and moral stance, so I would have liked to try that, but I’m glad I didn’t because Brian really kicks ass as Avery and I wouldn’t have.
BH: So why do you think filmmakers are finally taking interest in your work?
JK: I think it may be because of permission in horror. For some reason it’s okay now for this stuff, to be over the top with violence. If you want to see torture porn, as they call it, look on the net, the real stuff is there. This is not that kind of movie. This is scripted, it’s got a story, a point of view and it’s got a moral stance. And I think along with all the crap in horror, we are also getting a lot more intelligent horror. Look at Lucky McKee’s May, which is a great psychological horror film. It got great notice, and I don’t think it would have if it had been made ten years earlier. But horror has always been cyclical. The first wave of horror would have been the classics like Poe, and the second wave was the pulp writers of the 1950’s. Then Stephen King opened the door to the third wave. He comes in and has a couple of big hits, and horror is suddenly respectable again. Then is dies because it gets overdone, and you get all these V.C. Andrews clones. But now I think it is back in a really vital way. We’re hurting people out here, and that’s good, that’s what horror is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel some sense of loss, and not just some fear of death, but a fear of life. Life is a scary prospect, even in small, small things. Like King’s book Lisey’s Story, it’s not about big gestures, it’s about very small gestures, and I like those. So for me the bottom line is, do I see and like and care about the characters. For me it’s all about the people. I’ll read anything by anybody if I am absorbed by the people. That’s what I want you to do (after one of my books), I want you to close the cover and say, ‘Gee, I wish there were more.’