Have you ever seen a car wreck on the side of the road? With the emergency vehicle lights pooling over the asphalt, and workers milling around the twisted steel like ants, and people sobbing and stretchers and bandages and dirt and blood, and you know that you should not stop and stare, that it’ a tragedy and watching would be sick and that the humane thing to do is hope for the best, send up a prayer, and press down on the gas pedal, but you just cannot keep going past and your neck turns to stare as you drive by and your eyes gorge themselves on the pain and suffering and misery? And you do not feel satisfied afterward, but instead you feel sick and dirty and guilty, but it just could not be helped; you had to look. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum is the literary equivalent of that feeling. I did not want to know what happened next. I knew that it would turn my stomach; that it would offend all sense of human decency, but I could not stop turning the pages. I read the entire novel in one sitting.
The Girl Next Door is not “fun” scary. It is pure horror, disturbing and black. There are brief periods during the story in which rays of light break through the dark thunderheads, but they are soon consumed, leaving the reader with a hollow, sinking feeling of despair and helplessness. The Girl Next Door is not about the battle of good and evil. In fact, there really are no heroes, just villains and victims. The narrator is a man reflecting back on what had happened to him as a boy, and for a time I hoped that he was a hero. But as the novel progressed, I hated him. Not for the evil that he commits, but the evil that he allows to exist. For his cowardice, for his flaws, and for being weak. For being human. For being scared.
Ketchum does not use the supernatural for this story, in fact, he based it on a real case from 1965, and that is what makes it so powerful. There are no monsters under the bed, or aliens beyond the stars. The evil lives inside the hearts of our friends and neighbors, inside of us, and when that evil is too strong to be denied, the horrors that pour forth are gut-wrenching. Throughout the book all I wanted was for someone to stand up and say “stop” but by the time it happens, all hell has broken loose and it is far too late to turn back.
The premise of the story is familiar: all that evil requires to take root is the indifference of good, and Ketchum uses a young boy, a young girl, and a cruel aunt as his vehicles. None of this sounds new or different, I know, and in fact the novel is over twenty years old (I apologize for posting about older books, but consider a lecture in the classics), and it was even adapted into a film back in 2007. That being said, Ketchum takes such a basic idea and turns it into a spectacular work of terror that disgusted and repulsed me to the point that at times I had to set the book down for a moment before I could continue. The most important thing I can say is that I did continue. I did not want to stop reading, no matter how sickened the story made me. It is a rare talent to revolt and offend a reader constantly and leave them coming back for more, but Ketchum makes it look easy. I am in awe of his realism, and jealous of his talent. If you do not have a weak stomach, or a faint heart, then pick up the book, but I did warn you.