Gotta Ketchum All? Nope. A Review of The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
I actually might have read this bloviating mess once before and completely forgotten that I did so. Doesn’t matter, it would have been just as bad and forgettable then as it was on this reading. In the bookstore The Girl Next Door is shelved as horror, which it’s not. It’s called horrific by readers — no more so than watching Forensic Files, (RIP Peter Thomas, I took many a nap to your great voice). What this book, thing, collection of pages, packed and sliced sawdust is, rigorously and thoroughly, is twaddle. It’s stupid prattle à la King, Stephen King that is. To place Ketchum on a scale, Stephen King is his normal below average, Justin Cronin is only a tad better, Dan Brown and King’s kid are perhaps the worst, and Jack Ketchum barely trumps Brown. Yikes! Their names read like next year’s roster for the special-ed class.
Ketchup’s, I mean Ketchum’s novel is two things, nearly the entire first half is mattress padding. Kids’ inane conversations circle around stuff kids do. The “horrific” part of the story starts about half way into the thick book when the same kids kidnap, and over the course of three or so weeks, torture, and eventually kill a girl. I won’t detail them but you can guess the progression of wrongs. Be forewarned the scenes are all so poorly written that they make the sensationalized items in the New York Post look like Dostoyevsky. I’m not saying The Girl Next Door is boring but it did make the ten hour movie March of the Giant Tortoises seem quite thrilling. By the end of the book the kids are found out and basically slapped on the wrist because they are minors. [Insert big yawn here.] It’s all a muddy mess and as Ernest Lawrence Thayer once wrote, “there is no joy in Mudville.”
This nauseating writing made me feel like I’d picked up a flu virus. Here’s an example at the start:
“She is driving down a rain-slick highway on a hot summer morning in a rented Volvo, her lover by her side, driving slowly and carefully because she knows how treacherous new rain on hot streets can be, when a Volkswagen passes her and fishtails into her lane. Its rear bumper with the “Live Free or Die” plates slides over and kisses her grille.”
Most people agree that openings of novels are important so let’s look. What specifically does knowing the brands of the cars offer this scene? Nothing I can see. Why not say “wet road” rather than fancify with a phrase that may be confused with “rain-slicker?” She drives slowly on a highway and I’d like to point out that there is a minimum speed limit on highways. She drives carefully but obviously not very carefully as she allows a car near her and in front of her to hit the front of her car. Note it’s not the side, but the front, thus the other car would have had to be in front of her. I guess she was a distracted driver or she didn’t know where the brake was. Next she is on a street, which was the highway. There is a technical difference. In reality, the New Hampshire slogan on the plate is all capital letters. What does the verb “kisses” offer here? It’s a dog’s lunch of unconsidered dreck.
Here is a scene randomly selected from later in the book, as written:
“Like Ruth was a ghost who haunted us, her sons and me. Who’d haunt us forever if we pushed or disobeyed her.
“And I think I realized then the sharp razor edge she’d honed to her permission.”
You’ve done this frequently right? This honing to permission. Don’t ask me, I really don’t know what I’m reading here. “Like Ruth” huh? Do I like Ruth? Like Ruth (her name?) was….was a ghost? “Who haunted us” and “Who’d haunt us” is simply buggy. Oh, Ode to mass market authors who as moths fly to the bright light of repetition. Or, maybe their super-strategic editors demand they to do this because their readership is only cognitively able to half-pay attention so repetition becomes necessary?
What disturbed me most about The Girl Next Door book was the apparent level of acceptance the author had for the normativity of violence toward women. Writing fiction in which an author details violence against women, or in this instance a girl, is still perpetuating the form of violence against women. That the book is based on a true story, as Ketchum says, is no excuse for the perpetuation the form. This in and of itself hints at a larger problem as follows.
In their paper The consumption of patriarchy: commodification to facilitation and reification (1), Victoria Collins and Dawn Rothe argue that “violence against women is commodified and eagerly consumed in an age of neo-liberalism, legitimizing the patriarchal power structures that subordinate women.” I draw attention to their phrase “eagerly consumed.” Women become expendable objects, all for the sake of the story, really for the sake of selling. The continual use of the motif both creates and perpetuates a media culture of violence of women. Oddly, the fact that the same “woke” people of all genders who protest in the street and who engage in twit-storms about violence against women, and who often call themselves feminists, continue to pay good money to enjoy depictions of violence against women in the books and movies they regularly consume. These same woke people support entire industries seem intent on making money off violence against women and implicated in turn are producers, directors, publishers and writers. Do you not find this troubling?
Pseudo-scholars will imagine I’m calling for censorship. I am not. No way and no how. Readers have the right to bore themselves silly if they choose to do so.
Worse, as Collins and Rothe point out there is “relative silence on the broader issue of neo-liberal commodification and the willing consummation” of depictions of violence against women in the media. It is a subject one does not hear much about. Note there is little to no outcry about violence against women in major movies or television series. It simply continues uncontested. Indeed, the researchers further found that a backlash occurs when such a dominant ideas are challenged.
Other justifications for the continual use of violence against women in for example movies and books are statements like “we live in a patriarchal society” or “there are some movies in which women obtain power by dishing out the violence,” in other words, either the arts simply mimic society which is acceptable or the exceptions to the norm make the norm okay. Without going much deeper on this issue here, both supposed rationales contort valid arguments for the sake of a capitalist, neo-liberal agenda. Finally on this brief foray into the issue, I agree with Collins and Rothe who draw upon Baudrillard saying that such consumption is a “pathological behavior, disconnected from reality, a form of ‘magical thinking,’ but we also contend that it masks a broader neo-liberal cultural (re)production of of hegemonic patriarchal social control.” What I’m driving at here is that I find the motives of people, such as authors, who simply use these motifs to have motives that I find suspect. Thus, I find phrases like, “it happened in real life” to be red herrings drawing attention away from more insidious and probably unrecognized issues and perhaps motivations.
In a brief note at the end of the novel, Ketchum writes, “I’d wanted to write about one of these bastards for a long time.” The bastard meaning bad people who do bad things. However he offers little to no insight, no psychological or theoretical understanding. He only seems to perpetuate the violence. It’s tough to grant him a pardon. Ketchum also thinks that by using the first person voice he “can automatically shift the reader’s sympathy directly to the object of violence.” Note his statement does not say “the person against whom violence is directed,” but the “object” of violence, one that can be and is commodified. Generally the first person voice didn’t work for me as he wanted it to. The kid and narrator engenders no empathy. He is as psychopathic as the others and any remorse he offers rings false. That’s about it for the novel itself.
A larger question looms. What is it that makes bad mass market novels like this so bad?
Again, the lack of ready discussion on this probably demonstrates a kowtowing to the market agenda, a don’t trash the hand that feeds you mentality. Still examples may be found and they are delicious.
Kara Nesvig on her blog (2) says she tried to read only Danielle Steel novels for an entire summer. She bought 16 novels. A week into the project she was done. She’d made it through only four. She found the novels formulaic, redundant, and she said she was gagging over the repetitive phrases.
Dan Brown was taken to task by Matthew Walther, (3) who called the author “a very bad writer.” In the interest of disclosure, The DaVinci Code is the only book I really did throw across the room, (insert nod to Dorothy Parker here) into a jacuzzi tub if you must know. Walther calls Brown’s work “appallingly, insultingly, groan-inducingly written” and in his view, Brown takes “what might be charitably described as a loose view of the relations between nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, between words in general.” Walther suggests that while the sentences might elicit a groan in any moderately educated reader, they probably seemed quite plausible to the author.
Let’s look at the bad book flags waving in the wind. They are: Sloppiness, all trees and no woods, a lack of coherent motivations and actions, a lack of coherent time in relation to the flow of the words, a lack of alignment with the way people really think and act, imprecision, complacency, naval gazing, the overwrought, the fancified, and the hack. Such books ooze with the arrogance of a first year undergraduate student who is smarter than any professor, in fact smarter than all geniuses combined. These bad novel-like things are designed to sell only themselves and a such are unable to plumb deeper ideas and deeper human emotions. They seek to manipulate through the right gestures and words, they cue us to react with a specific emotion, and in doing so they are hyper-smarmy, cutesy, and surface. Ultimately they function as do advertisements and over the course of the novel they are relentless in their intellect crushing obviousness. Ketchum’s book is no exception to the general rule that bad writing walks hand in hand with immodesty.
1. Collins, V. & Rothe, D. (2017). The consumption of patriarchy: commodification to facilitation and reification. Contemporary Justice Review, Vol 20 (2).
2. Nesvig, K. (June 7, 2015). I Tried To Only Read Danielle Steel Novels For An Entire Summer, Here’s What I Learned. Thought Catalog. Retrieved from https://thoughtcatalog.com/kara-nesvig/2015/06/i-tried-to-only-read-danielle-steel-novels-for-an-entire-summer-heres-what-i-learned/
3. Walther, M. (October 17, 2017). Dan Brown is a very bad writer. The Week. Retrieved from https://theweek.com/articles/730426/dan-brown-bad-writer