Ketchum has you Cover-ed

I’ve waited a long time for an excuse to rant about my adoration for the work of Jack Ketchum (a.k.a. Dallas Mayr). Now that day has come because Leisure is re-releasing one of my favorite Ketchum novels in paperback.

Cover demonstrates all the things I love about Ketchum’s writing. Condemned for writing “violent pornography” with Off Season in 1981, Ketchum has long been a divisive literary figure. If you look beyond the hype and dive-in, I think you will find something quite different than you were expecting. His work is frequently upsetting and shocking, but by no means would I say it falls into the splatter genre. Ketchum is a master of taking familiar genre troupes and either subverting, inverting or obliterating them all together. Cover illustrates this beautifully by taking a fairly familiar “slasher” setup and turning it upside down.

Ketchum structures the novel with two alternating viewpoints. We see the story through the eyes of both Lee, a reclusive Vietnam veteran who lives in the woods with his dog growing marijuana and staying away from civilization, and the group of people who trespass on his territory and pay dearly.

What’s remarkable about Cover is how deeply we feel for Lee, who is by all accounts the antagonist. By humanizing violence and its effects, Ketchum turns it into something repugnant and unappealing, instead of glorifying it like many of his lesser peers.

As relevant today, if not more so, as when it was written. Cover also touches on the effects of war on the people who have to fight and die in them.

Well, do I have anything bad to say about the re-release of Cover? Yes, two minor things actually. Ironically the cover for Cover is kinda ugly and the paperback lacks the wonderful interior art that came in the Hardcover edition.

Enough of that. Back to the adoration:

Literary without being alienating. Ketchum’s prose is crisp and “to the point” while still carrying a lyric quality missing in most horror fiction. His work has more in common with Cormac McCarthy (who seems to be a hero of Ketchum, with quotes popping up as epitaphs frequently) than it does more traditional horror.

Do I suggest Cover as your first Ketchum book? I would if you are familiar with the horror genre, but I would also hesitate slightly as it is one of the least “genre” books in his oeuvre (with the exception of his collection of early shorts Broken on the Wheel of Sex and his drop-dead-amazing novella The Crossings which is a western). By this I mean, outside of some scary violence it is mostly a suspense/survival story.

I know what some of you are saying. You’re saying: “I don’t know the first thing about horror fiction. Where do I start with Ketchum?” (in this case you are my relatives, who read this out of obligation). I, myself, began with what is probably his most famous (notorious) novel: The Girl Next Door. While fantastic (many would argue his best) it is also his most troubling. I suggest Red to lure you in, so you can “work your way up.” Red is an uncharacteristically lowkey story of an aging man whose dog is killed by local punks. It is a quick read and it will give you a feel for Ketchum’s ability to brilliantly partner brutality with pathos.

If you love Red and/or Cover (which you will damnit!) I would then suggest you move on to either The Lost (in my opinion the writer’s magnum opus) or his collection of shorts Peacable Kingdom. From there…well… track down everything else the man has written.

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