by Tony Jones
"Who's the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum." – Stephen King
You have to love the often used Stephen King quote: "Who's the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum." Whenever Halloween, in particular, comes around ‘Horror Royalty’ such as King are often asked who their big favourites are, and we all know what an incredible student of the macabre King truly is…. Sure as fate when Halloween 2016 was upon us this superb quote resurfaced once again and this time I decided to take heed and check out Steve’s “scariest guy”.
I’ve read many of King’s recommendations over the years, and he sure does give many great tips and with any voracious reader certainly gives his fair share of leg-ups to lesser known authors, but for some reason or another in my thirty plus years reading horror I had NEVER tackled Jack Ketchum until the other week. So I decided to go right back to the beginning of his career and read his debut novel, the notorious ‘Off Season’ published originally in 1981 when paperback horror was at its peak and dominating the bestseller charts across the world. A second reason for finally checking Ketchum out is his tremendous influence in the horror world of today, just by reading the many excellent author interviews on the Ginger Nuts of Horror site, you’ll quickly realise many of them have been influenced by this guy.
So reading ‘Off Season’ as a 45-year-old 35 years after its initial publication was an interesting proposition…. So how did it hold up? Wow, what can I say….. It knocked me out. This astonishingly brutal and compelling short 300-page novel had me gripped from the start, and I’ve been wracking my brains about this and can’t come up with many examples, but rarely have I seen such levels of graphic violence in a novel. It’s aged incredibly well, and although I’m not a big reader of what is now known as ‘extreme’ horror I would be surprised if there is much around to rival this riveting tale of cannibalism in modern day Maine. The Brett Easton Ellis cult classic ‘American Psycho’ was the best I could come up with, not that they were similar at all, as ‘Off Season’ didn’t really glorify the violence in the same way that ‘American Psycho’ did and had a deceptively simple plot which suckered the reader right onto the skewers of the cannibals.
Onto the minimal plot, it’s holiday ‘Off Season’, and six city yuppy types hire a vacation home in a somewhat remote part of Maine, they don’t realise that an extended family of cannibals have been living there on and off as the house has rarely been rented in the last couple of years. Set over a very brief fifty hour period the cannibal family mount an attack on the home on the first night all six are sleeping in the house and the subsequent fifty hours is one of the finest exercises in terror I have read in a long time. The second death, just outside the house, while the other four holidaymakers are hiding inside really sets the scene as the woman is tied up slit open from groin to neck, has her heart pulled out while still beating and slowly roasted while all the cannibal kids dance around in glee and anticipation for man flesh. It was truly nasty but written so well it knocked me for six especially as the author killed off a likeable character who had set the scene for the arrival of her five friends.
So in 1981 horror ruled the world, but the publishing world still wasn’t ready for the extraordinary level of taboo-breaking violence in this horrible little book… I read the 2006 reprint of the ‘Unexpurgated Edition’ which was first published in 1999 and Ketchum provides a fascinating account of the troubled history of his debut novel and the ‘censorship’ [or editing] issues which dogged its birth. To get his first book deal, he gave the publisher way too much power and they forced many cuts from his original text he definitely did not want. This quote sums it up in his discussions with the editor/censor….. “I’ll give you this bludgeoning if you leave me that beheading…” Many things were completely cut including the recipe to make “man meat jerky”, and the editor also forced his to change the ending and not kill-off a major character. Even with these cuts, the publisher didn’t get behind the book and even though it sold well initially it continued to pick up a lot of criticism for the levels of violence and in the pre-internet world became hard to find. It seems the mainstream publishing world of 1981 wasn’t ready for ‘Off Season’ after all.
It must have been terrible for the author seeing his work cut to pieces, I don’t think the 1999 version restored everything verbatim as the original manuscript was lost or destroyed, but much of it is back, ‘so and so’ [no spoilers] dies again and the full astonishingly bleak ending is restored in all its horrific glory. And what an ending.
1981 was also a good year for the slasher film and on paper ‘Off Season’ sounds like something you might have seen in the cinema, but it works incredibly well as pulp horror. The second 150 pages are set over mere hours when Nick begins to stalk the cannibals as they have run off with the two surviving women back to their lair. Seen in tandem from all points of view, and the police who begin to put two and two together it is the proverbial rollercoaster. It’s loosely based on the same Sawney Bean story that inspired ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, and it was amusing that this tale was set in Maine rather the backwater locations we would expect from the likes of ‘Deliverance’, ‘Wrong Turn’ and other American hick or mountain towns.
But the violence. Inflicting pain and suffering from the cannibal’s point of view were just daily life, and that’s the way that Ketchum portrays it, very matter of factly, and although it’s grisly, it doesn’t wallow in it the way that the ‘extreme horror’ I have read seems to do. Towards the end, there is a scene which tops anything from a Lucio Fulci or Umberto Lenzi cannibal film by some distance, and a character gets back their legs and arms chopped off at the knees and elbows, then the wounds are cauterised to keep them alive before their tongue is cut out and eaten. Yes, really. It was a scene you’d expect in a nasty horror film, but although it was deeply unpleasant within the context of the book it added layers of momentum as it span towards the conclusion.
So many characters were killed off. The cannibal children were horrible creations and when the story was told from the point of view of the savages, and we’re told man flesh was good for soup because the meat did not sink in the pot I felt my stomach drop. I find a lot of horror from this period has dated in many ways, not so for this book, apart from the obvious absence of mobile phones it is pretty difficult to tell when it was written.
All in all, it was a pretty simple, pulpy, and very compact story: six tourists are stalked, mutilated, tortured, but in turn fight back against crazy cannibal family. But the trick is the way the story is told, it had such flow and gripped from beginning to end. Which Jack Ketchum novel do I try next then? Can anything top this terrific debut? There are a lot to choose from….
Jack Ketchum’s debut novel Off Season made a huge impact on the horror scene with its initial publication in 1980. It became so controversial that the original publisher withdrew their support of the novel. Now award-winning specialty publisher Dark Regions Press is bringing Ketchum’s debut novel back in its best form yet.
The 35th anniversary edition of Off Season includes the author’s originally intended version of the novel (unexpurgated), a new short story based in the Off Season universe, a new afterword from the author, the novelette Winter Child, five full page interior illustrations by Tomislav Tikulin and stunning full color wraparound dust jacket artwork by David Stoupakis.
Now available for preorder from Dark Regions Press in two collectible formats: signed and numbered slipcased hardcover and deluxe lettered traycased hardcover. Production is slated to begin by Halloween, meaning this volume will be in the hands of Ketchum fans by Q1 2017.
If the special treatment that Dark Regions Press gave Richard Laymon’s Night Show is any indication, Jack Ketchum fans are in for a beautiful volume with comprehensive materials to dig into. Make sure to preorder your copy today on DarkRegions.com at: http://www.darkregions.com/books/new-releases/off-season-35th-anniversary-edition-jack-ketchum