“You think you know about pain?”
These were the first words I ever read by Jack Ketchum.
That’s quite an opening, and quite a challenge.
I thought I knew about pain. Boy, was I ever wrong.
In 1999, I was living in Atlanta, GA. James A. Moore also lived there, and I had gotten to know him. It so happened that World Horror was going to be in town that year.
I’d originally planned to attend only one day. A quick in/out. Neil Gaiman was going to be there, and this was 1999, when you could still approach Neil Gaiman and have some one-on-one time with him. I wanted to interview him for a website I was working with.
Walking around the dealers’ room, I saw a lot of expensive books – mostly by people and publishers whom I was, if I’m being honest, mostly unfamiliar with.
“You think you know about horror?”
I didn’t. I thought I did, but I didn’t. Beyond King, Koontz, Barker, and a few others, I realized very quickly that the genre I thought I’d loved, was far bigger than I’d known, or even imagined.
Without warning, Jim Moore thrust a book at me. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum.
“You need to read this.”
I’ll be honest. Never heard of the book. Never heard of the author. Stephen King seemed to like it, though, and I spent a few minutes reading his introduction (this was the Overlook Connection Press hardcover – trade edition, I might add, because I had limited funds). The introduction hit a lot of notes for me that told me this might be a book and an author I would enjoy. Plus, they both had a “reputation.”
I tend to like things that have reputations.
I thought I knew about horror. I thought I knew about pain.
Later that afternoon, in the hotel room, I started the book.
Later that night (I think I may have stopped for dinner, I don’t recall), I finished the book.
The next morning, I spent the rest of my money on Jack Ketchum books.
As it turned out, Mr. Ketchum, or rather, some guy named Dallas Mayr was there. (It turned out that some guy named Jerzy Livingston was there, too, reading a story from a recently released collection called Broken on the Wheel of Sex, which I bought, too).
I walked over to Dallas, book in hand. I looked at him. I looked at the book. I probably sighed and gave him a look that showed him how much he’d hurt me. He probably laughed. I think I recall saying to him that his books and I were going to get along great. He signed the book (as well as the few others I had purchased). I got to interview Neil Gaiman, which was a Big Thing, but Dallas stole the show for me that weekend.
A few months later, Jim mentioned something to me that Dallas was looking for a new webmaster. I was interested. After World Horror, I’d been slowly filling in the gaps in my Jack Ketchum library as I could afford to on eBay. I emailed Dallas, and thus began an 18-year relationship. My version of his website went live in January 2000. I couldn’t tell you the exact date, but I’m willing to say we worked together for 18 years.
Oddly enough, beyond World Horror in 1999, Dallas and I only ever spent time together once more – the first Horrorfind Weekend, in Baltimore, 2001.
I wish I had more stories about Dallas. Everyone has stories about Dallas. Usually they seem to be along the lines of “I met Dallas at NECON, he helped me with a contract, and then we got drunk and somehow woke up in Johannesburg.”
My lack of Dallas adventures is not for lack of trying, mind you. We talked regularly about “one day” meeting for drinks in NYC. “One day,” going to Joanne. “One day,” if/when he was on the west coast, coming up my way to meet up.
Beware of “One Day.”
So, while I may have a lack of “adventure” stories to tell, I do have 18 years of a rich correspondence. A friendship based on everything from work (“Hey Kev, can you put this on the website, when you get a chance?”) to discussions about Henry Miller, Robert Bloch, life, humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and beauty, literature, exploitation films, and more. What started out as a strictly business relationship morphed into friendship, and finally to the point where Dallas was family. He’s dedicated two books to me, and killed me in a story – that’s love.
When Dallas first told me he was sick, my first question was “okay, what are we going to do with this?” There had been a string of deaths in the horror community right around then, and I know I was a little spooked. He told me he wanted to keep it quiet – he didn’t want people freaking out. He told me that if something was headed south, he’d tell me. Otherwise, assume that all is well, or at least “okay.” So, we kept on, as “normal.”
From what I gather, this is routine with Dallas. You think you know him, and then he drops a bomb on you. You randomly find things out, like he knows Lady Gaga (and has for years, like before she was a household name). My wife and I are huge Lady Gaga fans, but to find out that you have a random unexpected connection via Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum, fer chrissakes!) is mind-boggling, and can only ultimately elicit bewildered laughter, and the recognition that “of course.” It also explains an early interview I’d read with her years ago, where she recommended Dallas’s book Red, which at the time I thought was both completely random, and awesome.
In any event.
Jack Ketchum and Dallas Mayr taught me many things. Jerzy Livingston may have, too, but beyond “don’t take life TOO seriously,” that’s a conversation for another time.
Jack Ketchum taught me about writing; how to sculpt with words, not using more than necessary, and lovingly using the ones you choose.
Jack Ketchum taught me about what I affectionately call “the knife twist” – that moment when you think you’ve just finished reading a brutal story, but with one sentence, or one phrase, it takes on a whole new dimension – see his short story, Megan’s Law, or his book Stranglehold aka Only Child.
Jack Ketchum taught me to be brave about subject matter. People do horrible things, but it is not the norm. As insane as the situations in some of Jack’s books are – The Girl Next Door, Right to Life, there are far worse things happening in the world in real life – I wonder what Dallas would have thought of the Turpin family holding their 12 children hostage for years. We often exchanged news stories, and both felt a deep attachment to Sylvia Likens, who was the inspiration for Meg in The Girl Next Door.
In a non-fiction piece, called Splat Goes the Hero, published by LitReactor, Jack Ketchum writes: “There is nothing I can think of that is ennobling about pain. Emotional or physical. Suffering breaks us down in both body and spirit, isolates us in our misery, cuts us off from one another. It’s also something we’ll all experience someday in one form or another, whether in a hospital bed or on a dark city street in the wrong part of town. Pain partakes of something primal in us, something all sentient creatures know, not just humans. And we’d damn sure better have a look at it. At what it does to us, how it changes us, at why and how it grows.“
Jack Ketchum taught me that the victims in his stories were human, and not just there to be mowed down by cannibals or killers.
Dallas Mayr taught me more practical lessons: keep your foreign rights, and your film rights.
Dallas Mayr taught me “don’t be afraid to read everything.”
Dallas Mayr taught me the importance of copy editing – he told me he’d once inadvertently given a character three arms.
Dallas Mayr taught me about friendship and loyalty.
This is not to say we always agreed on things. I like Lovecraft. Dallas hated Lovecraft. Even so, we both got a laugh out of Edmund Wilson’s critique of Lovecraft:
“One of Lovecraft’s worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as ‘horrible,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘frightful,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘eerie,’ ‘weird,’ ‘forbidden,’ ‘unhallowed,’ ‘unholy,’ ‘blasphemous,’ ‘hellish,’ and ‘infernal.’ Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words – especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistiling octopus.”
I’m not sure which of them – Jack or Dallas – taught me just how many different skull t-shirts exist in this world.
In 18 years as Dallas’s webmaster, and his gatekeeper contact via the web, we dealt with unsolicited manuscripts, offers to publish him “for the exposure,” a flood of autograph requests from Russia (for reasons we never figured out), a death threat, a request for Dallas to inscribe a book with a marriage proposal, and an assortment of other odd requests. That Dallas was game for most of these (we finally gave up on Russia, and decided not to respond to the death threat), speaks to his sense of fun, his good nature, and his willingness (despite his private nature), to connect with fans.
My greatest fear when I first started reading Jack Ketchum, and working with Dallas was that he would be an obscurity – someone only those “in the know” would be aware of. Increasingly tattered copies of Off Season would be passed around like contraband. Sometime in the year 2057, someone would say “Oh my God, this guy is amazing!” and there would be a flourishing posthumous renaissance of Jack Ketchum books.
During the time we worked together, I’ve seen him published and republished by a major paperback publisher (which has pretty much imploded from what I understand), to films both short and feature length being made from his books and stories, and increased recognition when I’d drop the name “Jack Ketchum” to people. He won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association. Each of these things made me proud of him, because I knew he deserved it.
As his webmaster, my goal now is to keep the legacy alive. I will be refocusing this website as an archive and informational resource.
I could go on for days. I think we all could. We all have so many Dallas stories. When the hell did he actually write?!
I live in Santa Rosa, California. You might have heard about us in the news back in October, 2017 – we were busy trying not to burn to the ground. I’d send Dallas photos and video, and he was utterly floored by how much damage had been done, and the insane efforts being put forth to get it all under control.
The city is still recovering, and it no longer looks like London after the Blitz. In the immediate aftermath, driving through it every day wasn’t always easy.
I mentioned it to Dallas in an email on November 29.
His response: “you’re driving through memories every day, and I can see how that would be difficult indeed. I don’t envy you. But be glad you can feel this way, Kev. It means you’re in touch with something very human. And part of why it’s good to know you.”
Do I think I know about pain?
Yeah, maybe I do.
I would like to offer two suggestions:
1. Write your idols. I never expected to be working with Jack Ketchum (or Dallas Mayr), but thanks to an email, I did. Every email I received from a fan was forwarded to him. The impact he had on people’s lives was something we marveled at. To hear that The Girl Next Door gave someone the courage to put a stop to their own abuse and heal from it is staggering.
2. Stop saying “One Day” – there’s no better time than the present. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Dallas passed away on January 24, 2018.
Exactly 5 years prior, on January 24, 2013, a website called The Original Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology posted an interview with Dallas. This was the final question:“What do you think you would like your famous last words to be if you had one final thing to say to the world?”
Dallas’s response: Na pas sto kalo. That’s Greek for “go with the good.”
I will if you will.