Jack Ketchum: “Loss, in any form, scares me”

Interview by Amet Kemalidinov, May 2017.

(this interview originally appeared in Russian, in Darker Magazine)

First off, Dallas, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule for us. It’s a great honor for us to interview you. Thanks.

My first question is, of course, is about Russia. Stephen King in his Danse Macabre tells that he’s never been so afraid as he was in the day the USSR launched its first satellite into the space. Have you got any stories like that? What does Russia mean to you?

My earliest memory of Russia is Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the U.N. and saying “we will bury you.”  I remember thinking that this fat old man was just a ridiculous joke.  Of course my generation had been prepared to think something like that, after all the ludicrous “duck and cover” nuclear war drills our schools put us through as kids.  My school had us parade down to the boiler room.  I recall thinking that if the bomb ever does drop, I’ll probably get scalded to death!

People in Russia know you mostly through an old and pretty ugly edition of Off Season and Offspring. The 90s were a great decade for horror fans in Russia, though most publishers didn’t give a damn about publishing rights, quality covers/translations, etc. What did you think of the book? Did you get any money for it?

Not a penny.  Those books were stolen by an American magazine editor and sold without my knowing a thing about it.  One day I got this hardcover book in the mail, the cover of which seemed to feature a terrified-looking guy dressed in some uniform that made him look like a cross between a New York City cop and a Nazi Storm Trooper, flanked by what appeared to be a bunch of zombies.  There was no return address on the package, so I’ve no idea where it came from. 

You are often (if not always) labeled as a “horror author”, but most of your novels are not horror at all. I’ve never read your books for the same reasons I read other horror authors; I’ve never thought “he’s trying to scare me”, on the contrary, I always think the only thing you try to do is to make your readers at least a bit better. Don’t you think this label turns a lot of people away from your books? Don’t you think it lays restraint on your work? Do you mind being called a horror author at all?

I don’t mind being called a horror writer, though you’re right, most of my stuff may frighten you but it rarely partakes of the kinds of tropes associated with horror as a genre — and here I have to agree wholeheartedly with critic and novelist Douglas Winter, who said horror’s not a genre at all, it’s an emotion.  Which is probably why I don’t mind.  Emotions and characters are what most interest me, not plot devices.  A reader of mine once told me he though almost all my stuff was about a sense of loss.  Thinking about it, I had to agree with him.  And loss, in its many forms, tends to scare me.

Well, I know that you’ve answered the question a million times, but we’re publishing The Girl Next Door in Russian for the first time, and I can’t avoid talking about the book. What do you think of fifties today? To what extent did your own childhood reflect in the book?

When I was writing it, my mom had just died, so almost every weekend I took a bus from New York back to her home — the home I’d grown up in — to sell her house, deal with her belongings and generally settle her affairs.  I realized I could set the true story of poor Sylvia Likens here and in the fifties when I was a kid.  Royal Avenue was a dead-end street at the time.  Isolated.  Only a handful of homes lining the block.  Everybody knew everybody.  And everybody had their not-so-secret secrets.  We kids knew a lot more of them than our parents thought we did.  What do I think of the fifties today?  At the time we thought we were growing up at a pretty scary time — nuclear war hanging over our heads.  For our parents, prosperity looking a lot less prosperous than they’d imagined.  But those of us in the baby-boom generation were actually the tip of a very positive iceberg.  The Civil Rights Movement had just begun.  Ahead were the Women’s Movement and massive civilian protests against a war — Vietnam — here in a country which had never, ever seen anything like that.  And as for scary, the world’s a lot scarier today than it was then.  It won’t last, though.  Two steps forward, one step back.  That’s my feeling.

Hide And Seek is a great, fast-paced, biting book that, unfortunately, always remains in the shadow of your better known books and it’s probably the most underdiscussed one. Can you introduce the book, please?

It’s a love story.  Good kids in love playing dangerous games with one another, culminating in a single terrible night in an Old Dark House.  As in The Girl Next Door, the narrator’s looking back.  And there’s that sense of loss again.

When I was reading Joyride I immediately thought about La Bete Humaine after the mountain scene and it was great to see that I was right about the parallels I’d made when I got to the afterword. Do you often steal (it’s your own definition, ha-ha, I’d say “incorporate other people’s ideas”) from other books? If so, do you do it consciously or subconsciously?

Consciously.  And yes, I do it often.  If it’s a great move, stylistically or plot-wise, see what you can do with it that makes it new and different.  Like that Willie Nelson song…”so let’s settle down and steal another song.”

(A reader’s question) Some writers like to tie the settings of their novels to the places where they grew up, or lived for many years. For example, Stephen King and Maine, Joe Lansdale and Texas, Bentley Little and Arizona… And how do you choose the settings for your works?

It’s so much easier if you use a setting you know.  You don’t have to rely on research nearly as much.  And I’m not a big research person to start with.  I’ve used New Jersey, New York, Greece, Maine, New Hampshire, Florida — all place I’ve spent a good deal of time in.  It’s easier, and I think it comes off feeling truer on the page, more effortless.  And writing should appear effortless even though often, it isn’t.

(A reader’s question) Whether or not you’re going to return with your own extreme horror soon? (Also, I’d add: What are you working at now? Any plans on autobiography? I’d love to read Jack Ketchum’s Book of Friends.)

I may be done with extreme horror, though you never know.  I’ve sure explored it enough over the years.  But as I grow older, the more subtle horrors seem to interest me more.  And god knows there are plenty of them.  You don’t want to feel like you’re retracing your steps.  It’s got to feel exciting and new to you.  Like play.  When I started out, writing was simply that — high-level play.  And it’s been that way ever since, as it should be.  When I speak to new writers I always tell them, be sure you have fun!

I’m dealing with some health issues right now, so I’m mostly doing short stuff, if anything at all.  I’ve never minded taking a vacation from writing.  I’m not driven to write as some folks are.  And I’m not financially ambitious.  So I’m fine with taking some time off to smell the roses. 

What do you thing about the future of horror fiction? Can you name any new voices?

I’m not going to name names because I’m very likely to leave somebody out who should be in, and then have them say, what am I, huh?  Chopped liver?  But I’m very enthusiastic about the future for fiction that partakes of the horrific.  Because I’m seeing a lot of it, and there’s a lot of really fine stuff coming our way, largely inventive and character-driven.  More interested in the human condition in extremis than in buckets of blood.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s still plenty of room for stark realism, for the in-your-face stuff, but what I’m seeing is that even when that’s there, the accent is on the people, on empathy, on us caring, not the horrific circumstances.  If my own work has in any way helped to advance that position, I’m very gratified indeed.

And our traditional question:  what would you like to wish to our readers?

May the Bluebird of Happiness never shit on your shoulder, and may you spend many days in the company of others, real or fictional, human or otherwise, who you love.