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“Twenty-to-life at Florida State Prison.”
That’s what Jack Ketchum says he’d likely be doing if he
hadn’t spent the past three decades delving into the horrors that humans are
able to do to one another. It’s a quick, witty answer and one that fits both the
man and his style of writing.
In essence, such a response is the perfect summary of the
man behind gut (and heart) wrenching novels such as THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and RED;
tales of a girl beaten, raped and abused at the hands of her would-be guardians
and, in the latter, an examination of the lengths one man will go to to see
justice served after his dog is viciously killed by a group of young thugs.
While many genre authors shine a flashlight on the thing in the corner of the
darkened room, Ketchum illuminates the darkness in people’s hearts and souls.
“The simple reason is that people scare me more,” Ketchum
tells Fango. “Monsters and demons and vampires can be scary, but they're also
the fun part of horror because we know they don't exist. The real horrors do
exist, and I'd prefer to point them out to you other than just thrill and
entertain you. I want to do that too, but make the chill run deeper.”
Anyone familiar with Ketchum’s work knows all too well what
he means and just how successful he is in achieving that goal. Bursting onto
the scene in 1980 with his highly controversial debut novel OFF SEASON, Ketchum
has been awarded four Bram Stoker Awards and nominated for three others. He’s
also been named the recipient of this year’s World Horror Convention Grand
Master Award, an honor bestowed on such heavyweights as Stephen King, Robert
Bloch, and Ramsey Campbell in the past.
OFF SEASON—a gritty novel about a cannibalistic family
residing in caves and living off the flesh of passersby and tourists—caused a
whirlwind of controversy upon its publication due to its graphic violence.
Flash forward 30 years, and Ketchum is once again riding a wave of controversy
due to violence.
A few years ago, Ketchum and director Lucky McKee (MAY, THE
WOODS) became friends after he produced a film adaptation of Ketchum’s novel THE
LOST and partially-directed RED, also based on a book by the esteemed author.
That friendship led to the pair writing the current, controversial film THE
WOMAN, the second sequel to OFF SEASON, telling the story of the last surviving
member of the cannibals and one man’s attempts to tame and domesticate her.
As Ketchum explains it, after McKee saw the Andrew van den
Houten-directed OFFSPRING, the pair decided a sequel was needed.
“We agreed that (actress) Pollyanna McIntosh was so powerful
she deserved a movie all to herself, and decided to write one. We agreed also
that this should be both a book and a movie, so we Instant Messaged one another
for several months, getting down the themes, plot, characters and kept the IMs
so that we had a working outline before we even began writing,” Ketchum says.
“It was great fun, we think so alike. So then, Lucky did the heavy lifting with
the script version, sending the stuff to me for revisions, and I did the heavy
lifting on the novel, sending chunks to him; great experience. And then, since
I was there for virtually the entire shoot, if we came up to a money or time
roadblock on the filming we could think-tank the changes right on the spot and
come up with something that would work; often something better.”
The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film
Festival with one man being ushered out of a screening after he protested the
film’s violence and the audience’s seemingly cheerful reaction. His tirade, in
which he claims the movie should be destroyed, was caught on film and hit big
“I think I should send this guy flowers next Valentine's
Day,” Ketchum says. “His five-minute rant went so viral that the next day we
had 30,000 hits, and it just went on from there. The movie couldn't have bought
better publicity. THE WOMAN wants to generate both positive and negative
publicity. To my mind, this movie's the real deal. [It’s] disturbing in the way
good psychological horror should always be, throwing you back on yourself and
the people you may or may not know, the urges you may or may not have. It's
subversive—about the American nuclear family, about women's rights, about privilege
and the lack of it—about many things. If this stuff doesn't disturb some people
deeply, Lucky and I and company haven't done our jobs.”
In the past five years, Ketchum has had five novels turned
into films, each with varying degrees of success. While some authors are simply
given a “based on” credit, Ketchum says he’s been fortunate to be included, not
excluded, from the creative process of turning his own written words into
“A movie takes a village. You're only apprehensive if you're
not sure of the company you're keeping. If you are sure, you just lean back and
enjoy what good creative minds bring to your subject matter, as happened in THE
WOMAN,” he says. “And that can be great enjoyment indeed. I've made some minor
mistakes in not vetting some folks completely, some ideas completely. But
usually a writer isn't even invited in on these decisions, and I've been lucky
enough so that for the most part everybody's let me in to a great extent, asked
for my feedback, instead of shutting the writer out. I can live with that.”
Ketchum is also living with changes to the way his books
reach readers. With the popularity of eBooks and eReaders soaring, most of
Ketchum’s library is easily accessible for consumers; though, when asked if the
electronic format is helping or hindering authors, the writer shrugs.
“Got me. I'm new at it. I can't say the royalties have been
rolling in, but in time, maybe they will. I don't currently own one, but that
may change this year as I'm doing a lot of long-distance travelling and books
can get heavy if you read as many as I do.”
Regardless of format, Ketchum says fans can continue to
expect the visceral horror he’s been dealing for 30 years. He’s currently
working on a new book and screenplay with McKee, as well as a script by himself
based on his novella WEED SPECIES. He describes the script as “so twisted that
nobody in their right mind will ever produce it”; a lofty statement from a man
who’s no stranger to controversy and censorship. Stephen King once said Ketchum
is probably the scariest guy in America, but even Ketchum himself says there
are some paths he simply can’t tread too long.
“Nothing is taboo for me. But I do edit myself while writing.
There are images, or more often series of images, I don't really want to live
with for the time it takes to face them down and get them down truthfully and
honestly on paper. I've considered doing a book about animal abuse for a long
time, for instance, but I don't know if I'll ever write it. There are scenes in
many of my books and stories in which animals are abused but they never last
long, and whoever does the abusing will pay dearly for it eventually. But an
entire book? I'm not sure.”
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