“Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.”
– Stephen King
I still remember the thrill of reading my first novel by Jack Ketchum. I remember the cover. It featured a cave full of bones, a cage to one side and the toys of children strewn among the banes. There was a pot cooking in the center of the cover and some kind of makeshift wood and bone tripod was being used to hold it aloft of the fire. A beautiful sunset, it’s always sunset with these horror novel covers, burned the sky beyond the cave and spilled into the cave giving the whole image reddish orange hues. I was instantly intrigued. Then the blurbs of white text below the author’s name, a line of praise from Stephen King! Amazing, I thought. Then at the bottom in much smaller, red letters above the title, words promised that this edition would be “The author’s uncut, uncensored version!” I confess that I bought it on the spot. I was curious to see what made this an author’s preferred edition, and I simply had to know what Stephen King found so terrifying.
I cracked the book open on a Friday afternoon, I remember I was in the break room of the pool I was lifeguarding at, and I started reading. It was raining out, a thunderous beast of a storm that bruised the sky and beat the heavens with its fury as it assaulted our tiny aquatics facility. The book was perfect reading for such weather and several hours passed this way. Over those few hours—and the day or two after—I was immersed in a world of over-the-top violence, wanton and depraved acts of sex and misogyny, and a story that was satisfying in its conclusion. I remember a strong sense of having survived this book, rather than of reading it. I had never read anything so transgressive or raw, and it changed the way I viewed horror fiction. It opened a door for me, a pathway that led to all the great splatterpunk writers and all the extreme horror writers out there. Because of Jack Ketchum, I learned about Edward Lee and Lucky McKee and Wrath James White and Brian Keene and whole host of incredible authors whose work remains just off the beaten path. Easy to find if you are looking but hard to see if you never knew to look, if your literary world is the one existing solely in HuffPost top ten listicals telling you which books are the best ones to help you center yourself. Put down You are a bad ass and pick up Off Season, or really any of Ketchum’s works, and give yourself a dose of shock therapy. Or do it to to honor the memory of one of the most influential horror writers of all time. Or do it to discover one of the most influential horror authors of all time.
Honoring Jack Ketchum is why I am writing this. It is not a news piece, it’s my best attempt at honoring an author who had a lasting impact on my literary viewpoint, who showed me that you can write about the things that no one wants to think about or talk about and that you do so in a powerful and effective way, one that is blunt and brutal and direct. There will be no more words written by Mr. Ketchum though, he passed away earlier this month at the age of 71 after finally succumbing to cancer. Ketchum, whose real name was Dallas Mayr, was spoken of as fine and upstanding friend and family member and his legacy is one that will whisper throughout the hallowed stacks of literary history forevermore. One only has to follow that whisper to discover worlds of depravity, horror and terror but also of hope, survival and the glorification of the human spirit, which Ketchum notes can be bent and broken and changed but never fully extinguished. I urge you: find a book of his, crack open the cover, and try to survive unscathed until bloody end.