Jack Ketchum. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s one of those writers known for producing horror of the cringe-inducing variety. Off Season, Ladies’ Night, The Girl Next Door—all controversial books due to the nature of the stories. I read ’em, and I squirmed: I count myself as a somewhat squeamish horror writer, preferring (to use movies as exemplars) The Woman in Black (slow build, creepy horror) to anything in the Saw franchise (“If you look closely, you can still see the walls through the blood!”). I read them, and I squirmed, and I finished them, because Jack Ketchum has the ability to grab a reader, draw them in, and make them need to know how the whole damn thing is going to turn out, even though they hate what’s happening at the moment.
This brings us to Red (Overlook Connection/Dorchester, 2002; 47North, 2013).
I attended a panel of horror writers recently where Jack Ketchum was speaking, and the moderator asked the question “What do you have the hardest time writing about? What makes you squirm?” Several of the panelists mentioned having difficulty writing about things happening to children. When Ketchum’s turn to answer came, however, he said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that yes, he did have trouble writing about children, but he doesn’t have any; what he does have are cats, and that makes animals his real weakness.
In Red, it shows.
Red (and I’m not spoiling anything here, it says as much on the back of the book) is the story of an old man, Avery Ludlow, and his dog, Red—the best thing left in an old man’s life. Red is torn away from Ludlow, killed by privileged kids out of mere spite, and because they can. Avery goes off seeking justice for this outrage, going head-to-head with the McCormacks, the wealthy, powerful family trying to cover up the incident, and the plot unfolds. On the surface, this sounds like a tired old story of the wronged out for revenge: the perfect setting for some Ketchum-style violence, bloodshed, and gore.
That’s not the case here.
Right off the bat there is a difference: the death of Red—and yes, I’m sorry, the dog is shot—is handled almost respectfully, in a single sentence, with just enough detail to let the reader know what happened. The harder part to read—for me at least—was all of the details, scattered throughout the book, letting us know just what the dog meant to Ludlow, and why, and how much loss Red’s senseless death represents for the old man. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but Avery Ludlow is a man who has seen more than his share of senseless death, and this is one he intends not to stand for.
What you don’t expect from Ketchum (at least, I didn’t) is the dignity with which Ludlow sets about his task. As a Korean War veteran, Ludlow knows about doing difficult things that need to be done, and we are aware that he has access to violent means, but is choosing not to use them. With a restraint that makes us care for the character all the more, Ludlow tries again and again to do the right thing in the face of an opponent with seemingly unlimited resources, who thinks rules only apply to other people. This is very much a book about the haves vs. the have nots, and people doing what’s right rather than what they can get away with—though (spoiler alert) there is a pretty Ketchum-esque climax. It is Ketchum, after all.
When you’ve taken away all of the violence associated with Ketchum’s work, what you’re left with is the man’s ability to make you need to know how the story’s going to turn out, and his skill at producing characters that mean something to the reader. This skill shines through strongly in Red, undiluted by any gut-churning scenes; by the time the story’s done it feels as if you were hearing something about a dear friend you’ve known for years. When I finished Red I found myself sitting there saying Damn. That was good.
Having some friends who refer to themselves as “animal people” (dog people and crazy cat ladies, for the most part, but there are some horses in there, too), I feel I have to include this disclaimer: Red is about the killing of a dog, and the body is both seen after the fact and referred to several times during the story. There are some details; this is a Jack Ketchum book, and it is listed (erroneously, in my opinion) as horror.
However, if you’ve been giving Ketchum a pass all this time because, like me, you’re squirm factor is low and your gak factor is high, I suggest you give this one a try. If you do, I really hope you, too, wind up sitting there saying Damn. That was good.