First published back in November of 1989, US horror author Jack Ketchum’s (aka Dallas William Mayr) novel ‘The Girl Next Door’ quickly became infamous due to the extreme and graphic depictions of sadistic violence, torture and rape that it contains.  The tale was loosely based on the real life murder of Sylvia Likens at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski which also involved Baniszewski allowing her children and the neighbourhood children to torture and abuse the girl.  The most unnerving fact of all is that the true life events are as equally shocking and horrific as Ketchum’s fictional representation.

DLS Synopsis:
David Moran lived in a small neighbourhood where everyone knew each other, and the kids all played together in their dead-end street.  When the parents of the young sisters, Meg and Susan Loughlin, are killed in a car accident, the two young girls go to live with their aunt, Ruth Chandler.  However, Chandler is a single mother of her own two young boys and has proven to be far from the most suitable parent.

Ruth Chandler is a chain-smoking alcoholic with serious behavioural issues.  Over the years, she has built up a reputation with the local neighbourhood kids as being ‘one of the gang’.  In her house, she allows the kids to run amok, providing them with beers and delivering pearls of bitter wisdom of ‘how the world really is’.  And as such, the neighbourhood kids think the absolute world of her and the freedom her house brings.

Having been uprooted and put into this new life isn’t so easy going for Meg Loughlin.  After arriving at her new home, with Chandler now responsible for her and her younger sister, Meg soon notices that Ruth shows her a lot of ill feeling at every possible opportunity.  Meg attempts to tell her new friend David of the developing situation, but David finds it highly unlikely that Ruth would be like that to anyone.  But as the days go by, the hostility grows.

When Ruth learns of ‘The Game’ that has been played by the kids numerous times over the years, she sees a new avenue for her growing madness to explore.  And with Meg suddenly standing up to the unjustified tormenting of Ruth, the opportunity is there for the taking.  Together with her sons, Ruth bundles Meg into the old nuclear fallout bunker that her ex-husband built within her basement.  In the dank confines of this barren cell, Meg is strung up, stripped, beaten and humiliated.  But that first day is just the very beginning of the torture that is to follow...

DLS Review:
The simple fact that Ketchum’s novel ‘The Girl Next Door’ is based on a true story is so utterly horrifying that it’s hard to put your mind to anything else after you’ve read the book.  It is unquestionably one of the most harrowing and disturbing novels that has been published to date (a few others do spring to mind though).  Even for the most hardy of horror and disturbing-fiction fans, this novel chills you to your very core.  There is no getting away from the fact that this is a horrifically nasty read.

In the novel Ketchum gradually and skilfully builds on the various characters, setting the late 1950’s scene and allowing the reader to absorb the atmosphere and feel properly acquainted with the situation.  Once this is set in place, Ketchum begins to create the unnerving tension, which gradually builds day-by-day. 

The next minute it’s all there and it’s in your face.  The violence is suddenly real.  The torture and humiliation is escalating by the day, and inside the voyeuristic narrator’s eyes, the reader is caught up and trapped in this spiralling madness.  As we see through his eyes, the passiveness of our narrator is projected into us - the reader; sickening and appalling us as if we are the ones witnessing but not acting upon these vicious acts.

Like with Mendal Johnson’s novel ‘Let’s Go Play At The Adams'’ (1974) (which is also based on the events that led up to Sylvia Likens’ death), Ketchum’s novel systematically escalates the levels of violence and torture at a steady and unrelenting pace.  The momentum seems unstoppable, and yet the question is always “how far can they possibly go with this?”.  But the answer always seems a mile off, as the brutality towards the defenceless girl keeps getting worse. 

Ketchum’s decision to depict these sadistic attacks on Meg is portrayed in all of its grotesque glory; bringing the reader into the thick of the violence, almost as one of the co-conspirators – a voyeur to these horrendous acts of systematic torture.  And then unsurprisingly, you have that gnawing feeling at the back of your skull of guilt.  Guilt for even reading the book.  Almost as if you had actually been witnessing the events in Ruth’s basement.

Cleverly written using the past tense from our narrator, from the outset we already know that he will be ok at the end.  In this way, nearly all worries are projected on to the two Loughlin girls, particularly Meg.  When the violence comes to an all-time pinnacle, Ketchum takes the decision to leave this particular graphic portrayal of this final atrocity to the reader’s imagination (if they so wish to really think further into it).  However, this final act is laid out on a plate for the reader to know exactly what is going to happen before Ketchum basically says ‘enough is enough’.  This in itself makes the final act of violence on the poor girl a hundred times more impactful.

The ending is what it can only be - brave and somehow dignified to the very last page.  This is a truly heart-racing read that becomes all-engrossing from the moment the violence and degradation starts to escalate.  It’s certainly a difficult read, but somehow it’s harder still to put down.

All in all, the novel is a truly harrowing and impactful piece of fiction.  It’s certainly a brave story to tell in such a graphic manner.  Ketchum sets down the tale with the skill and ease of a master writer, keeping the pace flowing and the characters rich and involved.  There is no escaping the fact that this is a gripping and engrossing read, but one which leaves the reader cold and numb afterwards.

The tale runs for a total of 334 pages.

The story was later adapted in 2007 into the film of the same name by Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman.  The book includes a seven page interview with Ketchum, Farrands & Nutman entitled ‘We Have Permission’, which was conducted by Quentin Dunne.  The interview offers an interesting insight into the novel, the adaptation to the screenplay and the final film itself.

The later additions of the novel include the above printed interview, as well as a six-page author’s note on the writing of ‘The Girl Next Door’ and the following two bonus short stories:

Do You Love Your Wife? – 17 pages
Bass is a married man now.  But he and his wife are missing something.  Part of Bass seemed to die away when Annabel moved on and married someone else.  Now, years later, with his wife away from home visiting an ex-lover, Bass decides to take the bull by the horns and meet Annabel’s new man, and maybe, just maybe, reclaim a bit of what he’d lost.

Published here for the first time, Ketchum’s oddly surreal little short is certainly an intriguing tale of characters, affairs, open-relationships and bitter past-reflection.  Bass is a straight-forward, easy to like guy with a chip on his shoulder.  A chip that comes out at night in his dreams.  But how he’ll rectify the situation is perhaps even more bizarre.  A somewhat abrupt but quietly cold finale to what is quite a meandering and unobtrusive short story.

Returns – 8 pages
Four days ago a cab cut down and killed a man.  This same man is now standing in front of his alcoholic wife and their cat Zoey, watching as her life is slowly crumbling away.  But the cat Zoey can see him.  However, a knock at the door is about to change the sadness he is feeling for his wife for good...it’s the reason he has returned.

First published in his 2002 novella and short fiction book ‘Right To Life’, Ketchum’s short ‘Returns’ is written in the first-person perspective of a ghost who has returned in order for him to be there when something dramatic and close to his heart happens.  The small twist is heart-warming and delivered with a carefully emotional conclusion.  A delightful little short with a very well delivered first-person-perspective of a ghost.  Emotional and eloquent to the end.

© DLS Reviews

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