Guest Interview By Bracken MacLeod
Nearly thirty years ago Jack Ketchum (the pen-name of Dallas Mayr) published his first novel, Off Season, a story about a family of cannibals living in coastal Maine, inspired by the true story of the Sawney Beane family in 16th Century Scotland. In the intervening years Ketchum was professionally nurtured by Robert Bloch, the late author of the classic, “Psycho,” and has been dubbed by Stephen King, “A hero to those of us who write tales of terror and suspense.” In 2003, when King won the Nation Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he again gave a nod to Jack Ketchum, singling out for praise the novella, “The Crossings” (a book that suitably rests on any shelf next to Cormac McCarthy’s much-lauded “Blood Meridian”) and stated that Ketchum was partially responsible for “[remaking] the face of American popular fiction.”
Since “Off Season” first shook up the horror genre, Ketchum has published over a dozen successful novels, five short story collections, has won four Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association, and has seen four motion picture adaptations of his work brought to the screen. The fifth such cinematic work (currently in post-production) stems from his latest novel, “The Woman,” is a second sequel to “Off Season” co-written with director, Lucky McKee. Not bad for a former garbage-man, lumber salesman, teacher, and past literary agent for Henry Miller.
I was fortunate enough to get to ask Mr. Ketchum a few questions about the state of publishing, his opinion of the criticism of reality-based horror, and on cultural trepidation. As in his fiction, Ketchum neither shies away from telling it just the way he sees it, nor does he disappoint.
Q. Several of my favorite of your works are novellas and longer short stories (e.g., Ladies Night, The Passenger, and Closing Time). Are there aspects of the novella that appeal to you over the longer form?
JK. Keep in mind that if James M. Cain were writing today they’d say he was writing novellas, not novels. Other than size of canvas I don’t think there’s much difference between the two forms, though publishers obviously — and very annoyingly — do. To my way of thinking it’s the story that tells you how long it’s supposed to be. Unless he’s a hack for the publishers, the writer just obeys. I tend to write tight, with only a handful of major characters, so the shorter form works for me.
Q. A recent revival in genre film has been to venture into territory you’ve been working in for decades. Films like Martyrs, Irreversible, Audition, Wolf Creek, and Hostel all deal with the plausible, real world horrors of human cruelty and receive criticism similar to that given to your first book, Off Season. What do you think of “secular” horror vs. fantasy horror and the tendency of its detractors to try to dismiss it as violent pornography, i.e., “torture porn”?
JK. A term like torture porn when applied to any art is just plain ignorant. Was Bosch doing torture porn in THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS? You want to see real torture porn, you go on the net. There’s plenty there, a lot of it really quite gleeful. I do like the term secular horror, though. You invent that? No gods or demons, hmmm – good one! Seems to me there’s room for both kinds of horror. I know I like both. The important question is whether it’s done well or not. I don’t like grue for grue’s sake any more than I like to watch babes with fake boobs moan for an hour and a half. There’s got to be a point to it. People, a story. Some of the films you mention do that and do it very well. Others don’t much try. I’m all for the former and agin’ the latter.
Q. While most writers in the horror genre will stray from splatterpunk to psychological horror to out and out supernatural horror (your friend, Stephen King, comes immediately to mind), you’ve only written one novel dealing with the supernatural (“She Wakes”) and you seem fairly focused on the niche you’ve carved. Is this a strategic decision or a matter of the heart wants what it wants?
JK. SHE WAKES was a love-poem to Greece, albeit a scary one. I doubt I’ve got another novel like it in me. I’ve done a handful of ghost and zombie stories and one five-page vampire story, which is all have to say on the subject. What truly and always scares me is most is the thought of what people are capable of doing to one another. I kind of use the Stanislavski method. If I’m trying as a writer to make you cry, then I’d better make myself cry too. If I’m trying to scare you, then I’d better do a little cowering in my own dark night of the soul. It’s not a strategy, it’s just me.
Q. Your novella, “Weed Species,” was one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read (and enjoyed). You wrote in your article Splat goes the Hero: Visceral Horror, “There’s a fine line… between honesty and exploitation; I’ve walked it many times.” How do you find the line between art and going too far when you’re working on a project?
JK. It’s a visceral thing. When you’re writing you’re also reading — reading yourself. And you know what you like to read, tough as it may be, and what will simply turn you off. So you don’t write that shit. It’s like that famous Elmore Leonard line — when asked how he gets his stuff so tight he said something like, I leave out the boring parts.
Q. Lucky McKee recently wrapped filming The Woman, the sequel to Offspring, and I understand you were present for most, if not all, of the shoot up in Massachusetts. How did the experience of writing a work directly for the screen differ from seeing a work adapted?
JK. This was a real hands-on project from the very beginning. Lucky and I outlined the novel and script via a series of Instant Messages over the course of about three weeks, then he did the heavy lifting on the script and I did it on the novel. But at all times we were going back and forth on all the material, fine tuning, adding ideas, lines, whatever. Then Lucky asked me to stay on-set for as long as I could so I did, and we continued the process there. There were money and time issues for the film so we had to adapt as we went along, and we’d sit on the porch at night batting ideas around. It was great fun, and though I haven’t seen the final cut yet I’m betting on a hell of a movie.
Q. You have mentioned reading comic books as a younger reader. Any thoughts on why so many serious writers are focusing on this form to tell their stories these days. Can we expect to see any Ketchum work either adapted or written for sequential narratives?
JK. Nobody’s approached me but I’d be open to it. Probably the appeal to writers is the same as the appeal of movies — hell, we grew up on the stuff. Why wouldn’t we want to write it?
Q. Stephen King gave you a huge endorsement both as a blurb in Entertainment Weekly and as a shout out during his 2003 National Book Award acceptance speech. He even went so far as to write a long introduction to The Girl Next Door. Is there anyone you are reading these days whose work makes you want to run to the window and shout their name?
JK. I’m not sure he needs me to shout it but I’d sure shout Stewart O’Nan. The guy just keep surprising me every time. Same with Graham Joyce.
Q. Your hardcover releases and several of your paperback novellas come exclusively from small, indie publishers like Overlook Connection Press, Cemetery Dance, and Gauntlet Press. These days, given the state of the publishing industry, what are your thoughts on the experience of working with the smaller publishing houses?
JK. The publishing industry right now is a dog sniffing it’s own ass to see what it’s just shat. And that’s nothing new. Small press editors tend to publish what they like to read, which means that largely they have taste — not an army of accountants. My experience is that because they’re less fettered, so is the writer. I get cover art that I really like now, forinstance. I’m consulted. When I was only with the major houses they couldn’t have cared less what I thought should be on the cover. And no small press editor has ever tried to censor me. Not true elsewhere.
Q. What do you think of the new push in the industry towards self-publishing and working with companies who focus on marketing and distribution? Do you think there is a successful ‘iTunes’ model for books?
JK. I honestly don’t know how this will all turn out. I don’t think anybody does yet. It’s too early. Some years ago the common wisdom was that magazines were dead. Well, they’re not.
Q. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s when the level of national anxiety was lower, it seemed like there were more writers in the horror genre deliberately pushing boundaries (you, Kathe Koja, Clive Barker, and Skipp and Specter all come to mind) than there are presently. In the current state of high international and interpersonal tension (a sort of rising NASDAQ Fear Index) we’ve gotten a new genre of gelded teen paranormal romance that is predominating. Do you think that the fear of real world mass violence has made artists and readers more conservative when it comes to the horror genre?
JK. I think it’s the publishers who are more conservative. Not the writers. The publishers, editors, and the guys whose tails really wag all the dogs — the distributors. You want to place blame? Blame marketing. That’s why you get such a dumbed-down product. We writers are still in there pitching. We just have a rough go of it getting Budweiser or Nike to buy the commercial time.
Bracken MacLeod is a writer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Javed Jahangir also contributed to the interview.