Only Women Bleed: The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

Has the whole world gone crazy? We as a culture/subculture/peoples have plenty of opportunities to ask ourselves this question on a daily basis. Here’s one more:

There is a new book co-written by Jack Ketchum out and the world hasn’t taken enough notice.

A new Ketchum book, let alone one co-authored by filmmaker Lucky McKee (the man behind the indie neo-classic May and is also responsible for what I feel is the best Ketchum screen adaptation: Red) is a reason to celebrate, people!

A quasi-followup to Ketchum’s Off Season and its sequel Offpring, The Woman‘s titular character is the lone surviving member of the cannibal tribe in the first book. At the beginning of the story The Woman, injured and alone, is found by Chris Cleek, a small town lawyer and closet psychopath. Cleek captures The Woman and brings her home where he keeps her in his fruit cellar and tries to “civilize” her with the help of his family. Any more synopsis is spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

Those who read that description and shudder that Ketchum and McKee will be content to settle for exploiting the ol’ horror chestnut of “modern man is the real monster” can breathe a sigh of relief. The authors take the trope of man’s bottomless capacity for cruelty and twist it, emphasizing the “man” part (and place it in direct contrast to “woman”) and creating a bold novel that simultaneously works on two levels as both a philosophical critique of misogyny and an explosive, disturbing horror novel.

The work’s staunchest detractors (aside from those violently off-put by the subject matter, but let’s not count them) will probably claim that this is Ketchum returning to the well-trod “woman is bound and tortured” setup one too many times. I can see value in this argument as The Girl Next Door and Right to Life share similar themes and plot conceits. The Girl Next Door is probably Ketchum’s most widely read and controversial book, but where The Woman owes most similarities is to the lesser-known novella Right to Life. Much of The Woman‘s middle section parallel’s Life‘s prisoner/captor dynamic pretty closely, but there are some fundamental differences that not only make The Woman a very different novel, but a much better one.

First and foremost among those reasons: the ending. The final quarter of The Woman is absolute dynamite, truly the most satisfying and legitimately scary (how many horror novels these days actually pull that one off?) climax that I’ve read in ages.

Secondly: its literary weight. Ketchum knows his way around a pen, and, looking at the evidence, McKee does as well. The prose in The Woman is a strong confident step above most of the genre. It’s a short book, but that’s because it’s not bogged down by excess fat or padding. Every word counts and while every passage may not ring as lyrically, the book has more than it’s fair share of beauty(and purposeful, abject ugliness). I read it on the Kindle, and while I do enjoy being able to save parts for later, it is very rare that my fingers get such a workout highlighting so many passages. American Pastoral and Horns are the only books I’ve used that function as much for and those things were behemoths.

Finally: The Woman, though upsetting and unnerving in many places, devotes very little of its page count to descriptions of Cleek’s cruelty. For me, this is a huge plus. Ketchum and McKee wrote a book that is more about the ideas of ugliness and destruction than it is about the actual acts. It is a book that launches these ideas into the air, bats them about, and takes an introspective look at the wreckage.

I wrestled with the idea of not reading this book, as McKee had filmed a feature adaptation around the time the novel was being written. What we have here strikes me as a chicken/egg type of question. Of two works created at the same time, which will emerge as the dominant form of the story? Does there have to be one? We’ll see.

I’m more than excited for the film adaptation, but I’m also glad I got to experience the novel with all its shocks and surprises intact.

You can start reading The Woman instantly if you get the ebook from Crossroads Press. Cemetery Dance is also offering a hardcover edition, with a bonus novella “Cow” (that’s one double-dip I’ll be partaking in).

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