Monday, April 5, 2010

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door

As a dark fiction aficionado for most of my remembered life, I am at pains to divulge the sad fact that I have never read a book by Jack Ketchum. From a distance I have followed his career on the peripheral sidelines, often frequenting his website and keeping myself up to date with his resume and celluloid adaptations. As I type these words I am at a loss as to the precise reason I have never held one of his novels in my hand. Marketing is a big factor—during a thousand entrances into a thousand bookstores his name has never popped out among the ranks of many others. Even when strolling through the horror or fantasy sections with an eye for detail has my index finger skated across his name. And there exists no rhyme or reason to not having purchased one online. Chalk it up to the same fate that has befallen authors like Graham Masterson or even some of the authors whose name appears with mine in the editors/reviewers list on this site. There exists a desire to eventually get around to them … once I have gotten through the myriad of tomes in a perpetual and never ending reading list.
Regardless of never having tackled one of his books I do know that Jack Ketchum is held in very high regard among the collective tribe. His fans include the prolific and the not-so-prolific writers, as well as commanding a dedicated and loyal fan base of readers. The Girl Next Door has been adapted from a 1989 novel of the same name and stars a bunch of relative unknowns who give charm and sophistication to this harrowing study of human innocence; an education delving into dark regions that so far have been relatively uncharted in cinema …
To call this movie ‘harrowing’ is an underestimation. And a little too simply put as it does not fall neatly into the realm of horror. We begin our journey with the introduction and narration of an adult David Moran living in the present day. Plainly, emotional demons assail David as he recounts a sequence of events from his childhood where he bore witness – and participated in – unspeakable acts against an innocent girl. Think the same formula King utilized with IT or perhaps Hearts in Atlantis. Tapping into the nostalgic era of the 1950’s to present how inarguably terrible and magical puberty can be. This, however, works - and Ketchum and the filmmakers have their fingers pressed firmly on the button of bringing this period to life: the cars, fashion, hairstyles and politics are like a metaphor for what’s really going on; that lurking beneath the veneer of plastic suburbia beats the malicious human heart only waiting to rise to the surface and take over.
A typical teenager, David is introduced to a new girl who has recently moved into the neighborhood whilst catching crawfish. Megan Loughlin and her crippled little sister have come from another town to live with their Aunt Ruth Chandler (David’s next door neighbor and an eccentric divorcee). Ruth has three sons of her own and her house is like a relaxed beacon to the neighborhood kids during the summer: beers can be drunk within; cigarettes can be smoked. However, her authority and discipline can be just as far reaching as her philanthropy. At first, her chastisement of Megan for relatively benevolent or even nonexistent crimes is subtle – this is, after all, 1958. But when her unconventional ranting on why punishments must be dealt out to Megan fan out into madness, she proceeds to take the children on an odyssey of torture and clout where adults write the rule of Law and anything they say is permissible.
There are so many ethical and emotional questions raised in this film it would be foolhardly to list them all here: discover them for yourself. Answer them for yourself. The Girl Next Door is a devastating picture you will not easily forget.