Friday, August 15, 2008

THE LOST (2005), and Why Jack Ketchum Scares Me

Jack Ketchum scares me, and he should scare you. Praised by Stephen King when he accepted his National Book Foundation Award, Ketchum has written some of the most disturbing fiction in recent memory, including OFF SEASON, RIGHT TO LIFE, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, and THE LOST. The latter draws inspiration from the real life serial killer, Charles Schmid, the "Pied Piper of Tucson," who also served as the basis for Joyce Carol Oates' short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." In fact, Ketchum shares with Oates a general fascination with "human monsters," as evidenced by his most famous novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, a text based upon the heart-breaking Sylvia Marie Likens murder. But that's not what scares me about Jack Ketchum. What scares me about his work is how effectively he calls for us to reflect on our own "gaze," the way he makes us ask ourselves, "Should I really be reading this, much less enjoying it?" Look at the screenshot above, taken from the masterful film version of THE LOST (directed by Chris Siverston.) That scene occurs during a crucial moment of the story, when this bound character cannot scream, cannot cry, but only look upon the grisly work of Ray Pye with horrified fascination. That's a visual story of our relationship to Ketchum's work.

Like the "Pied Piper of Tucson," Ketchum's Ray Pye wears make-up, stuffs his shoes with crushed beer cans so that he can appear taller, and surrounds himself with teenagers who look in awe upon his swagger and bravado. Like the book, the film begins Pye stumbling on two girls (one played by Erin Brown), camping in the woods. Stalking them later that evening, he murders them with his shot-gun, his only motivation stemming from his apparent suspicion that they are lesbians. As Pye, Mark Senter captures the chaos of a mind shifting randomly from childlike insecurity to violent psychosis. In a role that could easily become a cartoon, his performance is nothing short of brilliant, just as Chris Siverston more than ably handles the source material. Siverston, who also directed the underrated American giallo, I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, achieves a gritty 1970s-grindhouse style of horror film-making without resorting to the gimmicks that many of his peers have used unsuccessfully.

Yes, Jack Ketchum scares me, and he reminds me of another reason why in the commentary he recorded for the DVD (along with fellow writer Monica O'Rourke). This narrative, as well as his many others, serve to remind us that we're not safe, that every day we live counts as another miracle. Just try watching the end of this film without gratefully drawing your next breath. As Hollywood continues to cannibalize itself with remakes and more remakes, it's unfortunate that most of us won't have the opportunity to see this on the big screen.

One shouldn't miss the message that the filmmakers included at the end of the credits--to read the book if you liked the movie, and to read the book if you didn't like the movie. Hopefully, Siverston's film helps Ketchum's work find the wider audience that it deserves.


kindertrauma said...

Great post and your point about Ketchum forcing the reader to reflect on his or her compliance is spot on. The most horrific aspect of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR I thought, was that he made it believable that some one could stand by and do nothing, even the protagonist we're supposed to identify with and he did it slowly, in increments. A near impossible task for a writer I would think, and yet Ketchum really does pull it off in a way that leaves you stunned. -unk

The Headless Werewolf said...

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is still the most disturbing reading experience I've ever had. At the same time, I thought that the film version of that story was handled in a mediocre way--at least as far as the ending goes. THE LOST is much more successful!