Reminding Me of Me

Published April 3, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

Joyride is my second Jack Ketchum novel, the first being The Girl Next Door. I’ve come to think of Ketchum’s writing as similar to a punch in the face–simple, brutal and effective. Despite the lurid material with which Ketchum works, despite the fact that most of it occurs “on-camera,” and despite having been considered by The Village Voice an author of torture porn, he does not linger too lovingly on the gory details; he just tells it like it is. This economical quality makes his prose both powerful and highly disturbing to read.

What separates any of us from someone like Wayne Lock? This is the question Rule faces at the end of the novel, when he realizes that he became so deeply involved in the case because Wayne reminded him of himself. Rule is no murderer; he is a good cop, but in his mind he destroys lives just as much as Lock does. We all do, simply “by being who we are.” It’s an issue few of us would care to examine in our own lives, the effect that any given word or deed may have on another. The insects splattered on Rule’s windshield at the beginning of the book illustrate the idea that even a harmless act like driving destroys lives we view as insignificant. Rule has recently ended a relationship and feels a tremendous amount of guilt for the effect it has had on his ex and her young daughter. While this appears to be a function of Rule’s ego as much as anything else, anyone who has ever experienced a bad break-up can attest that it feels a little bit, at first, like being murdered. But our every day behavior toward others, while less dramatic, can kill the spirit in a hundred little ways. A cruel word, a look, a laugh. How many victims might each of us claim? And what if one of those victims were recording each incident in a notebook…

Wayne Lock destroys lives quite literally. He compiles a list of people whose perceived offenses against him can be as minor as having a name he dislikes, but what makes him frightening is that we have all, at one time or another, kept a mental inventory of people who have wronged us. We have all thought at one time or another, “If I could just get my hands on so-and-so…” We can relate to him on that level, at least, and it’s a little horrifying. But most of us, of course, will never cross the line into violence, and witnessing an actual murder would certainly not encourage anyone who is mentally stable to start working on their own personal hit list. Wayne, inspired and excited after Carole and Lee’s murder of Carole’s abusive ex-husband, decides they will be the ones to help him attain the special feeling one achieves only through killing another person. He cannot distinguish that their act was driven by desperation, whereas Wayne wants to kill for the sheer enjoyment of it. By the time Wayne goes on the bloody rampage in his own neighborhood, with Lee dead and Carole severely injured, he is experiencing “the very best day of his life.” Through the act of murder, through his own death at the hands of the police, he has awakened to his own twisted version of love. After all, there are few acts more intimate than watching the life drain out of someone. This, along with Psycho, may be the only text in this class where I felt certain we were dealing with someone who is truly psychotic. Wayne’s mental state noticeably deteriorates throughout the course of the novel until, near the end, he is in the grip of a delusion so severe he does not even care that he’s about to die.

If there is one thing that bothers me about Ketchum’s writing it’s the relentlessness with which his female characters are abused. I’ve read only two of his books, but in both the female protagonist is beaten, raped and tortured almost non-stop. Carole survives and Lee does not, but that does not make her a “strong” character, for she is victimized by nearly everyone in the book, just like Meg (who does in fact die) in The Girl Next Door. Her portrayal of an abused woman is accurate–and unfortunately I know from experience–but it’s troubling that his characters are subjected to these things over and over again. Referring back to John Dixon’s post about Seven, I do have a “button” after all and this is it. While Wayne Lock, as a power/sadistic rapist, ties into the chapter on sexual predators we read in Howdunit, I share Kevin Smith’s disgust (as voiced in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated) at how often rape is used as a convenient plot device, both in Hollywood and in fiction. I started to question what sort of attitude Jack Ketchum truly harbors toward women. And that is a shame, because I admire him a great deal as a writer.

8 comments on “Reminding Me of Me

  • I often wonder if many horror writers, in both film and print, don't harbor disreputable attitudes towards women. The image of a terrified woman, usually half dressed, being hunted and terrorized, then murdered — usually by impalement of some kind — is so familiar to the genre as a whole that I can't escape the feeling that we are witnessing the author's fantasy rather than his fear.

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  • I agree with you in that Wayne's effectiveness as a psycho lies in his similarity to the way in which an average person might think, like remembering those he views as having wronged him. I think most everyone has a thought now and then of just doing whatever they want, without fear of consequences, and that's what Wayne did. He went on a killing spree without a care of what would happen to him, or as you wrote was severely delusional at the time of his death. However, it's an interesting point you made about Ketchum's other female characters and that staple of abuse within this genre. I didn't really like this book as much as some of the others we've read thus far, but the short writing style was both brutal and affective as you wrote.

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  • Woo hoo! You've found your inner button! I've read nearly everything Ketchum's written, and while I understand your line of thought — especially given that you've only read JOYRIDE and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, I have to say I don't get the sense that he's against women or fantasizing on the page. Over the course of his books, women do suffer greatly, and there's often a sexual element, but Ketchum's stuff as a whole veers into that darkness without the reckless abandon of someone like Richard Laymon or the techno-thriller porn fantasies of John Ringo. Ketchum's females seem realistic to me, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, etc… Their fates are often rough — and this is bound to push the buttons you've mentioned — but I can't say I get the sense he's harboring "disreputable attitudes toward women", to borrow Miles's phrase. I get the sense that Ketchum sees a horrible trajectory and follows it out unflinchingly. Someone could certainly argue that he goes to this specific brand of horror too frequently, but I really get the sense that _he_ is horrified himself during these passages, that he hates what's happening to these women. In books like THE LOST, he builds fascinating and sometimes sympathetic female characters and then does horrible stuff to them, just as he builds sympathetic male characters and does stuff to them. RED is a heart breaker. I don't know if I'm making myself clear. I guess it's a tone thing. Sometimes, when I'm reading horror and sexual torture comes up, I get the sense that the author's getting off on it. With Ketchum, I'm reminded of a medium channeling something awful. He faithfully goes to the worst thing he can imagine and puts it on the page; but I don't get the sense he's getting off on it; I get the sense that he's horrified. Bah. I don't think I've done a very good job of this. Read RED and THE LOST. He's also interested in femme fatales. They pop up frequently in his work. If we back up from your button — buttons suck, don't they? — and think along gender lines, this is an interesting line of inquiry. I confess to liking femme fatale stories, too, so I've never really pushed out into the "why" of Ketchum's frequent inclusion of femme fatales, but if you ever want to see a great one, read HIDE AND SEEK. Casey is very strong and definitely poisonous. But now that I think about it, the ending might push your button. Can't remember. It's been a long time…Maybe some of my defensiveness comes as a result of knowing Ketchum, too. I've known him about a decade, and consider him a friend. We've spent hours standing around, drinking and talking, and I can tell you, he's not only a fantastic guy, he has emotional POWER. He nearly brought me to tears with stories about his own life, particularly in relation to his late friend and mentor, Robert Bloch. It sounds weird — and this might be the first time this sentence has ever been written in the history of humankind — but rape scenes and gore aside, he's a really sweet guy.This goes without saying, but I'm not poo-pooing your button or the fact that these books pushed it, of course. I just didn't want you to swear off Ketchum. His stuff's too good to miss.

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  • I do enjoy his writing, and I don't think he gets off on what he writes about–in that case, I'd have expected him to dwell lovingly, Hostel-like, on every last detail. For me, this kind of thing prompts a reaction in me similar to the way Carla responded to Misery–because of personal experiences, there are certain things I just don't want to read about anymore. They dredge up some bad memories, and it's not so much a reflection on the author as on the things still hiding in the darker recesses of my mind.

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  • "What separates any of us from someone like Wayne Lock?"That's a great question. The book does a wonderful job of shoving that in our faces to make us look more closely at each other and ourselves.

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  • I love your assessment of Ketchum's writing. I couldn't have put it any more succinctly. And his economy of words is something I aspire to. Your picking of the quote about Wayne's best day ever reminded me of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, where the best day ever really wasn't. Pretty much the same in Joyride.

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