“I’m not going to tell you about this. I refuse to. There are things you know you’ll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen. I watched and saw.”
Jack Ketchum is a dark guy. Of course, coming from a horror blog that's a highly sincere compliment.
The Girl Next Door is a 1989 novel that slowly crept its way into the public conscious, eventually becoming an author-baptized film in 2007. One part Stand By Me and some parts The Incredible Torture Show, both book and film take one of those ripped-from-the-headlines horrors that even Dick Wolf's Law and Order staff wouldn't touch with a ten foot gavel.
In 1965 Indiana, a teenager named Sylvia Likens was sent to live with a single mother named Gertrude Baniszewski. Three months later, Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder while her children and several young neighbors were revealed to have tortured, beaten, and mutilated Likens under her encouraging watch.
Ketchum’s novel does not try to recreate the Likens tragedy (for a fairly accurate portrayal, see the Showtime original film An American Crime, starring the always fine Catherine Keener and a pre-Juno, reversed role Hard Candy Ellen Page). Instead, he takes the essence of this crime--adult sanctioned evil and how easily it can spread in anytown, USA--and moves it to the falsely idyllic 1950s suburbia.
Our narrator is David, a man who begins in the present day by telling us that real pain is something most people have never experienced. He's not kidding.
As a boy, David plays with the usual assortment of neighborhood kids, often under the lax supervision of Ruth Chandler, an embittered divorcee raising three alpha males. David's 13th summer begins with the arrival of Ruth's orphaned nieces Susan and Meg, the latter being beautiful, independent, two years older, and the obvious target of a street-wide crush and puppy love. In the real world, she could grow into the prom queen. In a V.C. Andrews' novel, Meg would overcome a series of gothic dramas to become a strong-willed heroine little girls could idolize. In The Girl Next Door, Meg has no such luck.
Ketchum's construction of Ruth is fascinating, if sketchy. As the girls slowly ease into their new family, Ruth begins to grow cruel towards the elder Meg, openly chiding her for her weight and burgeoning sexuality. What starts as a few minor punishments quickly escalates into full-blown torture, with Meg becoming a basement prisoner to be beaten, scarred, and raped under Ruth's supervision, David's confused observation, and our horror.
The Girl Next Door is as disturbing as you've heard, and depending on your stomach, more so than you can imagine. It's also incredibly absorbing and a fascinating delve into the terrible possibilities of child urges. The kids in Ketchum's world are cruel and sadistic, but like J.M. Barrie said, all kids are born heartless. Common assumption is that the adults--particularly mothers--will help children to tame their wildness and train their sympathies. What happens, asks Ketchum in his afterward, if an adult relinquishes that power? Worse, what happens (or, sadly enough, DID happen), when that figure of power gives into his or her own sick fantasies?
Meg is a vehicle for sexual and violent frustration, from Ruth's weird hatred of femininity to the boys' dangerously ranging hormones unleashed. Ketchum's real power comes from David's voice: like the film, he is mostly an observer, a powerless pre-teen who knows that what's happening is wrong, but is too scared, confused, and, for a time, fascinated to take any kind of physical or moral stand against it. David is, as Ruth says, "a nice boy and all," but he’s also a 13 year-old boy. The most disturbing passages of The Girl Next Door--of which there are many--come from the quick asides and observations of our flawed hero; here and there, David lets himself fantasize. He’s not a villain, but Ketchum’s willingness to smudge our hero’s intentions takes the novel to a much more complicated and scary place.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a dark, challenging, and skin crawling read. Ignore the original paperback cover, with a skeletal cheerleader straight off the poster for Return to Horror High. While I think the film did a decent job of capturing the dirty creepiness of the novel, Ketchum's original is a much more disturbing trip into believable hell.