A few years back I’ve watched a horror movie called “The Girl Next Door”. I was terrified. I was upset. It made me hate the adults and the kids with ferocity. A year later, I thought I’d found the book based on which the movie was made, but it turned out to be a dud. This year, I found the book. I finished it last night and I can say it’s more horrifying than the movie.
After that day I was like an addict, and my drug was knowing. Knowing what was possible. Knowing how far it could go. Where they’d dare to take it all.
Welcome to an American suburbia in the 1950’s. Whatever we consider the American dream, or what we think of as typical Americana, Ketchum destroys all original conceptions. So very often he’s lifted the curtain from the façade, to show us a dark reality of what lies behind the white picket fence. It all seems so idyllic at first.
Every family but the Zorns had kids. And every kid knew every other kid like he knew his own brother. So if you wanted company you could always find some back by the brook or the crabapple grove or up in somebody’s yard—whoever had the biggest plastic pool that year or the target for bow and arrow.
The story is centred on two young girls named Megan and Sarah. They’re held in the custody of their dysfunctional foster mother named Ruth, and her four sons. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of a man named David. A married stockbroker in the present, he looks back to his days of adolescence. From this point on we’re transported to middle America in the 1960s, where David was 12, Megan was 14 and her sister just 10. David meets Meg at the local brook and he starts falling for her – a New York city girl surrounded by a cloud of mystery and new-ness. Her parents died together in a horrific car crash that left her with some pretty bad scars and her sister with leg braces.
I know Meg attained a certain glamour for me then. Suddenly it was not just that she was pretty or smart or able to handle herself crossing the brook—she was almost unreal. Like no one I’d ever met or was likely to meet outside of books or the matinee. Like she was fiction, some sort of heroine. I pictured her back by the Rock and now I saw this person who was really brave lying next to me. I saw horror. Suffering, survival, disaster. Tragedy. All this in an instant.
Meg has been taken in by her mother’s sister, her aunt Ruth. As the events transpired, I think the name was pretty well chosen as it could be short for “Ruthless”. She’s a divorcee with 3-4 kids (all boys) and she has a down-to-earth attitude that makes her a friend to her kids’ friends. She gives them coke for the road, sneaks them beers and acts more as a conspirator than a parent. David’s mother can’t stand her very much and has had arguments in the past but being neighbours, all they can do is be polite to each other.
David still visits their house and listens captivated as Ruth tells them about adult things (some highly inappropriate).
Ruth laughed. “It’s dancing girls, I told you. Doncha know anything? Half naked too, some of them.”
She pulled the faded print dress back up to halfway over her thighs, held it there a moment, fluttered it at us, and then flapped it down again.
“Skirts up to here,” she said. “And little teeny brassieres and that’s all. Maybe a ruby in the belly button or something. With little dark red circles painted here, and here.”
She indicated her nipples, making slow circles with her fingers. Then she looked at us.
“What’d you think of that?”
What the addition of two new household members does to Ruth, we can only imagine. She complains about lack of money from her husband, the lack of jobs and oportunities for a mother of so many children and she seems to despise Meg and her sister. Meg caught on to it quite early on but there is nothing she can do. She’s a minor and the custody has been given to her aunt. And she has to think of her sister who can’t move very well and can barely walk.
“I mean, I do everything I can to make them like me. I do more than my share of the work. I try to talk with them, get to know them, get them to know me, but they just don’t seem to want to. It’s like they want to not like me. Like it’s better that way.”
The dislike turns into distate and Meg becomes the easy target of Ruth’s contempt. It’s clearly visible when they are burning nests of worms in the trees and Meg refuses to join in the cruelty.
“Look here,” she said. “What we’ve got here is a lesson in femininity.” She stepped up close.
“Meg’s squeamish. You understand how girls get squeamish, don’t you boys? Ladies do. And Meg here is a lady. Why sure she is!”
She dropped the heavy sarcasm then and you could see the naked anger there. “So what in the name of Jesus Christ do you suppose that makes me, Meggy? You suppose I’m not a lady? You figure ladies can’t do what’s necessary? Can’t get rid of the goddamn pests in their goddamn garden?”
Meg looked confused. It came so fast you couldn’t blame her.
The things in the next door house start to become tense. David is making a few suggestions on how to get closer to her auntie but it all backfires when Meg’s painting to David is regifted to the aunt who was clearly not the designated receiver. It turns into an attack on Meg and a twist of her intentions and an overt sexualisation of a teenage girl.
“So I’m just saying I hope that painting’s all you been giving him and all you will give him, and this is for your own good I’m telling you. Because you already got what men want right down here and it ain’t your goddamn artwork.”
The boys start becoming rougher with Meg, tickling her and at one pinching her breast. Outraged, Meg slaps one of the boys which then turns this story into one where he’s been unfairly victimised by an ungrateful house guest and without listening to both sides of the story, Ruth decides to punish Meg. Meg wasn’t there though so she turns her attentions to poor Susan who is unable to escape in her leg braces. She is dealt a beating in public, shameful and painful and brutal.
“C‘mon, hon’,” she said. “It’s for your own good. I got to teach you about connivance. You see, Meg’s not here for her share. So you got to get it for both of you. Your share’s for not saying, hey, cut that out, Meg—sister or no sister. Right’s right. Her share’s for doing it in the first place. So you come on over here now. Don’t make me drag you.”
“You stay put, boys. Girls just cry. There’s nothing you can do about it. But this is for her own good and you being here’s a part of it and I want you to stay.”
Punishments were private. At my house they were at least. At everybody’s house, as far as I knew. This wasn’t punishment. This was The Game. Seventeen. Eighteen. Susan fell to the floor. Ruth bent over her. She was sobbing, her whole frail body twitching now, head buried between her arms, her knees drawn up as tight to her chest as the casts permitted.
It nearly made me put down the book and get a cup of tea. What sort of an adult is able to do this to a helpless 10 year-old – without cause?
David musters over this from his “outsider” position. It’s only when Meg starts to stand her ground and show her strength against her abusive aunt that the issues escalate.
Kids were powerless. Almost by definition. Kids were supposed to endure humiliation, or run away from it. If you protested, it had to be oblique. You ran into your room and slammed the door. You screamed and yelled. You brooded through dinner. You acted out—or broke things accidentally on purpose. You were sullen, silent. You screwed up in school. And that was about it. All the guns in your arsenal. But what you did not do was you did not stand up to an adult and say go fuck yourself in so many words. You did not simply stand there and calmly say no. We were still too young for that. So that now it was pretty amazing. Ruth smiled and stubbed out her cigarette in the cluttered ashtray. “I guess I’ll go get Susan,” she said. “I expect she’s in her room.” And then it was her turn to stare Meg down.
Meg is now a hostage in a house where she is not loved and she has been demoted to a position of less than human. She is chained in the basement, refused food or water and then even the toilet / wash breaks. When she is indeed let out to wash, she is scalded in boiling water, all under the threat that if she doesn’t do it willingly, they’ll put her sister in there instead.
I’ve asked myself since, when did it happen? when was I, yes, corrupted? and I keep coming back to exactly this moment, these thoughts. And I ask myself: Whom did I hate? Whom and what did I fear? In the basement, with Ruth, I began to learn that anger, hate, fear and loneliness are all one button awaiting the touch of just a single finger to set them blazing toward destruction. And I learned that they can taste like winning.
Throughout the film, we witness a world of torture, cruelty, and manipulation. We’re forced to watch Megan endure suffering on a level that few are capable of imagining. Horror continually takes us out of our comfort zone; it touches upon emotions and feelings, which we’re not in touch with on a daily basis. By forcing us to watch someone suffer helplessly, it forces us to confront a part of ourselves that we would like to ignore, but sometimes lack the ability to do so.
David becomes the proverbial witness to atrocity; frequently visiting the home and watching these horrible events unfold. In some ways, his role is very similar to the members in the viewing audience. He sits in the foreground watching some of worst things imaginable, lacking the ability to intervene.
Woofer whirled on me. “We’ve got permission!” he screamed.
“We do! I say we take off her clothes! I say strip her!” We looked at Ruth. She stood leaning in the doorway, her arms folded close into her belly. There was something keyed tight about her, like she was angry or doing some hard thinking. Her lips pressed together in a characteristic straight thin line. Her eyes never left Meg’s body. Then finally she shrugged.
“That’s The Game, isn’t it?” she said.
At no point does anyone stop and look at the picture and say “That’s not right”. Sexuality mingled with hormonal desires and cruelty of children mix into this “Lord of the Flies” do-over. David wants to leave but his own urges make him feel conflicted.
I saw tiny freckles on her upper thighs. I saw the small fold of flesh half hidden between her legs.
I studied her. Her breasts. How would they feel to touch?
Her flesh was unimaginable to me. The hair between her legs. I knew it would be soft. Softer than mine. I wanted to touch her. Her body would be hot. It trembled uncontrollably. Her belly, her thighs, her strong pale white ass. The stew of sex ripened, thickened in me.
The room reeked of sex. I felt a hard weight between my legs. I moved forward, fascinated. I stepped past Susan. I saw Woofer’s face, pale and bloodless as he watched. I saw Willie’s eyes riveted to that tuft of down. Meg had stopped crying now.
As she sits there naked, bound, gagged and blindfolded, she is just an object to be desired and played with. It’s only when she is given some water and talks again with dignity and pride that the spell is broken.
Talking, it was Meg again. Not some beautiful naked victim, but Meg. A person with a mind, a voice to express her mind, and maybe even rights of her own. Taking the gag off was a mistake. It left us feeling sullen and angry and frustrated. So we stood there.
There’s no getting around the visceral nature of these scenes. They’ll make you cringe, as well as leave a lasting effect on you. However, they’re also presented in a way that doesn’t resemble a snuff film. Much of the emphasis is placed on the reaction of the characters involved, not the action itself. When on-screen violence is shown, it provokes a response, but doesn’t repulse. Beneath all of the abuse, there’s an underlying theme of manipulation. This is explored in the relationship Ruth has with her own children. She indoctrinates them into being sadists, grooming their behaviour little by little. In handing over the reigns of exploiting the victim, the seeds of cruelty are sewn in.
And I wonder now if anything would have been different had she not been so pretty, had her body not been young and healthy and strong but ugly, fat, flabby. Possibly not. Possibly it would have happened anyway. The inevitable punishment of the outsider.
If you talked to the kids on the block it was clear that everybody had some notion of what was happening over there—some vague and others pretty specific. But nobody had any opinions about it. It was as though what was happening were a storm or a sunset, some force of nature, something that just happened sometimes. And there was no point discussing summer showers.
I hate Ruth
Ruth is (quite simply) a very disturbing and rebarbative individual. Ruth is a single mother who was a severe alcoholic, in lower middle-class, and easy to anger. She is also noted for being mentally unstable and only became an all-out sociopath once she took Meg and Susan under her care. Her inhumanity is emphasized when after witnessing her crimes, David compares her to a “zombie”, seemingly feeding on the suffering of others. Ruth was also extremely misogynistic and provocative, as she believed that all women were prostitutes who deserved to be treated like animals [never mind the fact that she herself was a woman] and men were stupid and that they only knew how to work and then abandon women when they were needed the most. She saw women as being cursed, and that the only way to “purify” them was by taking out their desire (i. e. removing their clitoris). She still expressed that belief even when she was in the process of being tried for Meg’s death, by stating that she “did a good thing for her”. During one of her “sessions” with Meg, she explained that she learned that women were garbage from watching her father beat and rape her mother.
“That fucking. That’s the thing. That warm wet pussy of yours. That’s the Curse, you know? Curse of Eve. That’s the weakness. That’s where they got us. “I tell you. A woman’s nothing but a slut and an animal. You got to see that, you got to remember. Just used and screwed and punished. Nothing but a stupid loser slut with a hole in her and that’s all she’ll ever be. “Only thing I can do for you is what I’m doing. I can sort of try to burn it outta you.”
Under Ruth’s care, Meg was subjected to scalding hot showers, eating dog feces and having a bottle inserted into her vagina. There is also a scene in which Ruth commanded Meg to open her mouth so she can smell her breath because Ruth suspected Meg had stolen food.
While the film adaptation doesn’t seem to give Ruth any clear motivations for her actions, it is heavily implied that part of the reason for her hatred towards Meg was that she was envious of her youth and her innocence, as she (Ruth) was older and ugly. This drove her to not only destroy Meg’s body, but she also tried to destroy her very innocence. It is also possible that Ruth is simply projecting her self-hatred and insecurities from her failed marriages, which took a toll on her personality and appearance, onto Meg, who was young and ironically a virgin, which Ruth constantly accused of not being.
When she mutilates Meg’s vagina with a hot iron, I nearly noped out. I know about FGM but I never expected to see it as a punishment method for being a “slut”.
Ruth also didn’t seem to care for her own sons and it was unknown if she abused them as well, yet was shown to be very negligent of them. She actually despises them, as they remind her of her ex-husband, and she even cites children as being something akin to a parasite that takes away a woman’s happiness. David even points out that, given the chance, she most certainly would have not only killed the two girls, but she would also betray/disown and kill her own sons, and not give the slightest hint of remorse. Aside from her lack of familial love, she was also unconcerned for the other neighborhood adolescents.
The others—even Ruth, for all the impulsiveness that had made her into and never had kids—the others had no imagination.
None. None whatever. They had no idea.
For everyone but themselves, for everything but the moment, they were blind, empty. And I trembled, yes. With reason. With understanding. I was captured by savages. I had lived with them. I’d been one of them.
No. Not savages. Not really.
Worse than that. More like a pack of dogs or cats or the swarms of ferocious red ants that Woofer liked to play with.
Like some other species altogether. Some intelligence that only looked human, but had no access to human feelings. I stood among them swamped by otherness.
The events that transpire are based on the infamous Sylvia Likens murder case. In 1965, the traveling Likens family placed Sylvia and her sister Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski. Sylvia was subjected to extreme torture at the hands of Gertrude and several neighbourhood boys that would end up ending her short life. Some of the acts performed on her were nothing short of inhuman. She was burnt by cigarettes, starved, beaten, and even forced to engage in coprophilia.
About the Author
If you’ve read a Jack Ketchum book, there’s a good chance you’ll never forget it. Ketchum, who was mentored by Psycho author Robert Bloch early in his career, is a household name to fans the world over for his disturbing work in the horror space, his horror novels adapted into a handful of films that are equally unforgettable.
JACK KETCHUM (November 10, 1946 – January 24, 2018) is the author of the novels Off Season. Hide and Seek, Cover, The Girl Next Door, She Wakes, Joyride, Stranglehold, Offspring , Red, Ladies’ Night, The Lost, and arguably, Right to Life. His short fiction is collected in The Exit at Toledo Blade Boulevard, Broken on the Wheel of Sex, and Peaceable Kingdom. His novels have been translated into Japanese, French, Greek, Russian, and Italian. In 1994, his story “The Box” won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, and his story “Gone” won the same award in 2000. Stephen King has said of him that, “no writer who has read him can help being influenced by him, and no general reader who runs across his work can easily forget him.” In his introduction to Off Season: The Unexpurgated Edition. Douglas E. Winter writes. “When I read Off Season , I knew that its writer was different, that he was working from that raw and risky perspective known as personal vision… [It was] the genuine article, its horrors insistent, visceral, and disturbing.” Ketchum lives in New York City.