I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum.
Before picking this one up, I heard repeatedly of people not being able to finish it, because it was so intense and disturbing. For me, that took the shape of not being able to put it down, because I needed to know how it ended for this girl, and there's no way I could walk away from it without knowing. I read it in a 24-hour time frame. The last book I read like that was The Exorcist, years ago, pre-kids, when I had the time to do that.
Inspired by a true story, The Girl Next Door is about a 16-year-old girl held captive and tortured by the woman charged with caring for her. Eventually, that woman's sons and various neighborhood children join in the torture and humiliation. The narrator is a boy living next door who witnesses much of the torture. He battles with transitioning between being fascinated and repulsed, confused about his feelings, defending his best friend (one of the sons), and alternates between putting the girl on a pedestal and loathing her for her helplessness.
The most disturbing part about this story is the utter helplessness and lack of hope. The book is set in the 50s, a time when the police weren't going to step in when a teenage girl said she was being punished a little too forcefully, when mothers believed a girl must be a slut and deserve punishment, when propriety dictated not digging into what your neighbors were doing, when kids were out all day without their parents necessarily knowing where they were or what they were doing.
This was well written, the pacing intense, the characters drawn well enough to engage the reader without questioning their behavior. The narrator is especially well realized. The depravity depicted is grotesque, horrific, and terrifying, because it starts out as a basic indignation that becomes pure, mindless hatred, the evil of jealousy and bitterness sucking down everyone within reach. Events escalate from semi-rational to all out insane and criminal, leaving the reader desperate for a satisfying resolution.
This story will certainly stick with me for a long while.
If you're curious about the real life story, which this loosely follows, look up Sylvia Likens, the name of the girl who was tortured. I wouldn't look it up until after you read the book if you're inclined to do so, though.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Girl Next Door (Jack Ketchum)
3. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
4. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
5. A Choir of Ill Children (Tom Piccirilli)
6. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010 (Paula Guran)
7. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
8. Needful Things (Stephen King)
9. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
10. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
11. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror (Ellen Datlow)
12. 20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill)
13. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
14. Dark Forces (Kirby McCauly)
15. Swan Song (Robert McCammon)
16. Audrey's Door (Sarah Langan)
17. Dawn (Xenogenesis, Book 1) (Octavia E. Butler)
18. Wet Work (Philip Nutman)
19. The Stranger (Albert Camus)
20. Dead in the Water (Nancy Holder)
21. The Witches (Roald Dahl)
22. Psycho (Robert Bloch)
23. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
24. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
25. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
26. Prime Evil (Douglas E. Winter)
27. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
28. Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)
29. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
30. Shadowland (Peter Straub)
31. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
32. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
33. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
34. Penpal (Dathan Auerbach)
36. World War Z (Max Brooks)
36. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
37. The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan)
38. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
39. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
40. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
41. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
42. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
43. Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)
I've also finished both John Dies at the End and Night Visions, so will be reviewing them over the next month or so.
Have you read this book or seen the movie it was based on? Have you read anything by Jack Ketchum? What did you think? Do you find the human monsters scarier or less scary than the ones with fangs and claws?
May you find your Muse.