Title: The Girl Next Door
Author: Jack Ketchum
Published: Leisure Books (2005); originally published in 1989
This is the second Jack Ketchum novel I've had the privilege to read, the first being She Wakes. The Girl Next Door, unlike She Wakes, is not a supernatural horror story, but a starkly realistic and gut-wrenching story that may be the most chilling novel I've read. Heck, I may as well go on that limb and say it is the most chilling novel I have read yet.
I had no reason to doubt Ketchum's faithful and other horror fans for their touting this novel as one of the very best and a compulsory read of any self-respecting fan of the genre. But now, after reading it for myself, I'm left with a pseudo-shame for having not read it sooner. Dammit, he's good.
The story is told by David, now a forty-two year old, twice divorced broker on Wall Street, as he writes about a horrifying summer during his childhood in his hometown during 1958. Long since removed from those times, he remembers that summer through a kind of confession--a final purge, perhaps, of those memories as he tries for a third time to enter into married life.
David's story begins at a small creek behind his house on a dead-end street. An innocent boy just hunting crayfish who meets a startlingly pretty, yet older, girl name Meg. She has a sister, Susan, and is now living right next door with David's best friend, Donnie Chandler, and brothers, Willie and Woofer, and their mother, Ruth. That's where it starts, and where it ends can only be describes as a tragic rendering that leaves no life untouched or unscathed.
Meg's and Susan's parents died in a car accident, so they're fostered to their aunt Ruth. For David, it's an added treat for a summer that promises to be one to remember. It's a veneer, however, and everything David's come to know about childhood innocence, and the goings-on of the Chandler house next door, decays and reveals a darkness that's been festering not only inside Ruth, but in her sons and even in David, himself.
It happens rarely, but there are books I have read over the years that have forced me to stop reading after a certain point just to take a break. I'm not talking about times when a book bores me or disappoints me to the point where I want to quit. I'm referring to those visceral moments in a story where I've become so invested in the characters and the scene they're in smashes me in the ribs with such force, I literally want to crawl out of my skin to get away from the book for a little bit--maybe listen to some cheery pop music or something to lighten the mood. Do you know what I'm talking about here? Those scenes so genuine, yet so torturous, you wonder how a book could affect you.
While I sympathized with David, I had those moments where the insanity of his worsening situation had me questioning how something could be allowed to go on. And I think that's exactly what Ketchum was aiming for, because there is a disturbing humanity found within the cruelty depicted in many of the scenes within this book's pages. You want to be the angel on David's shoulder telling him to do the right thing, to help Meg and her sister Susan.
Maybe it's the sick voyeurism I felt reading some of the harsher scenes that had me squirming. That line where I knew it was all fiction, but my suspension of disbelief has me standing in David's shoes and shuddering at what happens next. Because there's more than just Meg and Susan being held hostage within those walls, as David--a free and willing visitor to the Chandler home--is a hostage in his own right.
I think this is exactly the kind of book that a horror fan should hold up as an example of how great a tale of terror can be while keeping its feet firmly on the ground. The premise may have seemed outlandish and beyond belief in the past, but if you've seen the news lately in this information age, you're all too aware of how depraved we humans can be when we think no one can see us.
Read the book. You won't be able to unread it, that's for sure.
You can read another review of this novel at HorrorScope.