I was surprised and saddened to hear about horror author Jack Ketchum's passing last week (he died from cancer, he was 71). Although he first published his controversial cannibal-horror novel “Off Season” in 1980, over the past decade Jack Ketchum (which is actually a pseudonym, his real name was Dallas Mayr, the name usually found on the copyright notice inside the front pages of his paperbacks) was coming more into the spotlight due to the recent “extreme” horror film adaptations of his works, which at times were met with almost as much controversy as their literary origins. DVD distributor Anchor Bay became involved with the film versions of The Girl Next Door and The Lost, and later Ketchum would team up with young filmmaker Lucky McKee to co-write the wildly controversial horror movie The Woman.
Usually I'm very good at remembering where I'd first heard about any author, band, or film director that I'm regularly into (or whose work I become obsessed with), but with Jack Ketchum, the events that lead up to me seeking out, finding, and purchasing his first novel “Off Season” have, over time, slipped my mind. I want to tell you that I read about Ketchum's “Off Season” from Stephen King – but upon checking back through King's horror-reference book Dance Macabre, I was unable to verify that notion. But however I'd heard about Ketchum's cannibal book, it was pre-internet, sometime in the early nineties, and I managed to find an original first-printing paperback for dirt cheap – but again, I can't remember from which used bookstore. I could take an educated guess, but it would still be a guess. What I do remember was my actual first reading of “Off Season”, and how it grabbed me immediately, and I swallowed the entire thing in one sitting. I was blown away, and “Off Season” became one of my top-five books of all time for nearly two decades. I do remember trying to find more Jack Ketchum books throughout the nineties, and finding two (then-new) Jove paperbacks at a Coles bookstore (when those existed) – “Joyride” and “Stranglehold”. I would tell anyone within earshot how awesome Jack Ketchum was and how “Off Season rocks.” (I remember actually saying that to a stranger in a used bookstore one time). I remember vividly the day I read “Stranglehold”, I was reading this book in the wait-times between a marathon of films during a day at the Vancouver International Film Festival; I'd taken that day off of work just to see a half dozen films – and I still remember Ketchum's novel most of all from that day. “Stranglehold” was the most brutal, gut-wrenching, emotionally-wringing and terrifyingly real novel I have ever read to date. Which is why, after experiencing similar reactions to the film version of The Girl Next Door, it took me a little time to build up the courage to crack open that book. Leaving viewers inside the cinema emotionally and psychologically wracked, a friend and I agreed that there would be no need to revisit that film – and to this day, I haven't; and there has been no need to, the horrifying thwart of the perception of Americana through a Norman Rockwell lens and its twist into the utter horrors of jealousy, manipulation, under-education, narcissism, and torture is still lingering in my mind over a decade later.
Around this same time period, 2007 and earlier, the Dorchester publishing company was releasing several of Jack Ketchum's titles (old and new) through their Leisure Horror paperbacks line, which was actually an amazing horror line. Not all of the freshly-printed Ketchum novels were of the raw and emotional brutality-type that “Stranglehold”, “The Girl Next Door”, and “Red” were, some were just teeth-grittingly violent horror-thrillers, like “Offspring” (the sequel to “Off Season”) and one of my favourites, “She Wakes”. Leisure Horror also published an anthology book titled “Triage”, featuring three stories from the late great Richard Laymon, Edward Lee, and Jack Ketchum, whose novella "Sheep Meadow Story” is not only the best story in “Triage”, it is one of the true highlights in his creative career.
Now, sadly, Jack Ketchum, one of my favourite authors for the past 33 years, has joined some of the horror greats who have recently shoved off this mortal coil, leaving us with an astounding legacy of their genre work – and for Jack Ketchum in particular, it's a legacy of work that remains locked (and sometimes tortured) in readers' minds and emotions long, long after the last page of the novel has been turned, and the last frame of the film has flickered out. Dallas William “Jack Ketchum” Mayr was a true American original. Plus, he had the coolest-looking author's profile pic ever. RIP.