When I was in high school, I was an avid reader of the magazine Deep Red. In one issue, they gave a passionate recommendation for the novel Off Season by Jack Ketchum, supposedly the most intense, brutal horror novel ever written.
I had to read it. So I immediately downloaded a copy to my Kindle, and—
No, wait. This was the late ’80s. No internet. What I did was search used bookstores for a copy. For years. Every time I went into a bookstore, which was often, I tried with no success to find Off Season.
In college, I had a long bus ride home for Christmas, and the Greyhound station had a used bookstore right next to it…and there it was! Off Season! Holy crap! Not only had I found the book that had eluded me all this time, but I found it just as I had a few hours of uninterrupted reading time.
Well, almost. The sun was going to set soon. There were no reading lights on the bus, and I didn’t have a flashlight, so reading Off Season became an exercise in tearing through it as quickly as possible before I couldn’t see the words. I didn’t make it. I tried reading it in sudden bursts as we passed street lamps, but ultimately I had to finish it at home.
The book completely lived up to the Deep Red hype.
I’d eventually locate some of his other books (Hide and Seek, Cover, and the sequel Offspring when it was first published), though Off Season remained my favorite. In 1995, as a completely unpublished author, I went to the World Horror Convention, where Jack Ketchum (real name: Dallas Mayr) was an attendee. I was invited to go to lunch with a few people, but turned them down because Jack Ketchum was on the next panel discussion, and also suggested that they were crazy to miss it. Fools.
On that panel, which I think was “Realism in Horror,” somebody from the audience brought up The Girl Next Door, saying it was the most disturbing book they’d ever read. There was a murmur of agreement from everybody. He talked about the book for a while, including the infamous skeleton cheerleader cover, which basically made this horrific, unbearably dark tale look like a fun YA romp.
Obviously, I had to read this one, too. John McIlveen sent me a copy, and…yeah. This beautifully written novel doesn’t have the over-the-top gore of Off Season, but it’s a devastating kick to the teeth unlike anything I’d read before or since. This book hurts you. It remains one of the greatest books in the horror—or any—genre, though I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a starting place…
I met him in person in 2005, and he asked to see some of my work, so I sent him the Andrew Mayhem novels. To my surprise, he actually read them, and to my delight, he said he loved them. He would eventually give me a couple of great blurbs (“Jeff Strand is a funny, deeply disturbed individual.” – Jack Ketchum).
Ironically, he was a big fan of my horror/comedy and didn’t think I should be doing the “serious” horror like Pressure. (Though his blurb for Pressure said that Richard Laymon would have loved it. When Jack Ketchum says on the record that Richard Laymon would have loved your book, you freak the hell out. It’s the law.) He even e-mailed our editor at Leisure Books to tell him that he should be publishing my comedic work.
He thought I wussed out in one part of Casket For Sale (Only Used Once), and for that I apologize.
Sometimes people ask when you feel you’ve truly made it, and the answer is “I don’t. I mean, look at me. Duh.” That said, I was at a convention not too long ago, and I was walking down the hallway, and he was walking in the opposite direction. “Hey, Jeff.” “Hey, Dallas.” We passed each other and continued on our way. And a moment later I thought: Oh my God! I can casually greet Jack Freakin’ Ketchum in the hallway and continue on like it’s no big deal!
His book Stranglehold is one of his tamer offerings but has an ending that packs a punch to the gut that rivals The Girl Next Door. Which is pretty much how I felt when I saw the news on Facebook that he’d died. He’s not my first literary hero to die. He’s not my first friend to die. But I think he was the first to be both.
Most authors would love to have one of their novels become an inarguable and iconic genre classic. Jack Ketchum has two of them. RIP.