Jack Ketchum, The Lost (Leisure, 2001)
[originally posted 20Dec2001]
Stephen King has called Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door one of the best books ever written. Previous to that, Ketchum was the horror world’s best-kept secret, the Einstürzende Neubauten of scary stories: influential to just about everyone working in the field, unknown outside it. Now, thanks to one offhand sentence in one very widely read treatise on how to write, Jack Ketchum has become collectible overnight. Don’t try to find a copy of The Girl Next Door unless you’re willing to pay $30 for a dogeared reading copy. But Ketchum has released a brand-spanking-new one recently, and until you come up with the scratch for the out-of-print monsters, this’ll do just fine, thankyouverymuch.
The Lost tells the story of Ray Pye, sociopath extraordinaire, who kills a camper and puts another one on life support in 1965, then waltzes off scot-free because no one can put him at the scene, find the murder weapon, or any other useful little prosecutorial trick for actually convicting someone. Most of the book’s four hundred pages take place four years later, in the weeks following the death of the second camper after spending the intervening time in a coma and hooked to a life support system. One of the case’s original detectives has retired, but is still obsessed with putting Ray away. His partner is still on the job and obsessed with putting Ray away. The two friends who were with Ray when he shot the two girls are now his slaves, for all intents and purposes, having been manipulated with the usual “turn me in and you get hit with accessory-before-the-fact” ploy. With the death of the second camper, the cops become even more obsessed, Ray becomes more sociopathic, the friends become even more enslaved, and we start heading to the denouement.
The question almost everyone who picks this book up is going to be asking himself is “is this guy really as good as Steve King says he is?” Yup. He’s that good. The question I ended up asking myself is “why is this guy considered a horror writer?” The Lost is your basic detective story where you know who the killer is from page one and the tension rests on the cops trying to pin the murders on the killer. It’s no more horror than the stuff Joe Lansdale’s been writing since Savage Season; it sits nestled firmly in the crook of the arm between mystery and thriller. But there’s more to it than that. Ketchum has a sense of delicacy one doesn’t find much in either horror novels or mysteries, and he knows how to use conscious symbolism—almost unheard of in genre fiction of any sort. Granted, it gets spread a little thick at times, but it’s amazing to see it at all. Add it all up and note that Ketchum never pulls a single punch throughout and you’ve got yourself one serious bang-up ride waiting to happen. I suggest taking it as soon as you can. ****