Do you like to be scared? Maybe you’ve worked your way through the back-catalogs of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and now you want to read from a different letter of the alphabet for a while. Or maybe you’re feeling jaded and numb, because all those other horror lists have the same damn books by the same damn authors on them and you’d really appreciate a little variety. Since we’ve entered the witching month of October, why not let us take you on a guided tour of hell? Keep your hands and feet inside the article at all times, and if you feel faint, just tell yourself: “It’s only a book…it’s only a book…” This week’s entry is “Off Season” by Jack Ketchum.
There are two books entitled “Off Season” with authorship attributed to Jack Ketchum (pseudonym of Dallas Mayr). The stories are basically the same, the characters are the same, and yet they’re two wildly different books. Does that seem strange? Allow me to explain. The first was published in 1980 by Ballantine. This was Ketchum’s initial outing–though he had spent time in the world of publishing and editing, “Off Season” marked his debut as a professional author. It also very nearly marked the end of his career. The 1980 edition of “Off Season” was accepted by Ballantine but when the editors read the completed story they nearly had a heart attack. Ketchum’s penchant for violent description and imaginative ways of retelling the old legend about the cannibal clan living on the outskirts of civilization horrified them. Ketchum being a first-time writer with exactly zero clout, Ballantine strong-armed him into re-writing large sections of the book, excising gore, wiping away cruelty, and even changing the fate of a major character whom Ketchum had slated for the cannibal family’s dinner table.
Despite toning down the ferocity, “Off Season” (which carried the tag line, ‘The Ultimate Horror Novel’ on the original paperback cover) found itself the victim of an enormous backlash by both critics and readers alike. If we can cross genres for a moment, “Off Season” is to novels as “Psycho” was to motion pictures. No one had seen anything like it before. Naturally the first response of polite society to something that intrudes as brashly as “Off Season” was to circle the wagons and start shooting at anything that looked remotely suspicious. Ballantine abandoned their planned ad campaign and publishing push, and despite strong sales of the novel, let the first printing sell through and shelved the manuscript. Ketchum struggled to recover from the hamstringing for years, and fortunately never gave up writing.
Fast-forward twenty-five years to 2006, and we find the other “Off Season”. Published by Leisure, it tells the same story of six friends who travel to the backwoods of Maine and get ambushed by a family of cannibals, only this time it’s the version Ketchum intended. Uncensored, unedited, it’s the real deal: the story Ballantine was too scared to tell. Times change, tastes change, and horror evolved from a sliver of the marketplace to a publishing juggernaut with the breakout success of Stephen King. Always on the look for the next best thing, Leisure found considerable success in printing the works of talent both new and old. They picked up Jack Ketchum and said, “How about you tell us what really happened in ‘Off Season’?” Ketchum agreed.
“Off Season” is bloody, violent, brutal, unflinching–everything you want in a story meant to horrify you. Ketchum wields his pen like a doctor wields a scalpel, with the same clinical detachment that allows a surgeon to open a chest cavity and examine the viscera with a cool eye. There’s no sense of moralizing or editorializing by him either: Ketchum as author is simply recording the events as they happen, leaving it to readers to draw their own conclusions. Whether he’s watching one of the protagonists go about making breakfast for herself in the morning, or focusing his lens on the family gutting and dressing a kill in preparation for supper, Jack’s the consummate documentary film maker; even if you’re looking for him, you’ll never know he was there.
The power of “Off Season” comes from Ketchum’s ability to ratchet tension like nobody’s business. After a quick prologue to establish an idea of what’s to come, he spends the next half of the book (well over one hundred pages) teasing, teasing, teasing the reader. We meet Carla, we meet all five of Carla’s friends who drop in on the cabin for a period of vacation and relaxation, and because we’ve read the back of the book we know–we know–shit’s going to hit the proverbial fan. The longer it goes, the more tense with expectation we get until Ketchum reveals he’s through with the foreplay and is well and truly ready to fuck us.
When he cuts loose, the results are savage, animalistic, unrestrained. The last half pistons away at the reader’s nerves, refusing to let up, refusing to be tamed, refusing to calm down until the act is over. Mark my words, it ain’t over until Jack says it is, and even then you’ll wonder if there ever could be an end to the mayhem, burning, and dismemberment. You don’t read “Off Season” so much as you struggle to simply survive it, all the while wondering if maybe there isn’t something wrong with you because there’s nothing to make it enjoyable.
Given the titles we’ve looked at already over the past several weeks it might be hard to imagine (especially if you’ve been reading along) how a story written in 1980 could compare to more recent genre titles. While modern authors like Wrath James White and Ronald Malfi certainly fill their works with enough blood to bloat a vampire, they all owe an enormous debt to Ketchum for blowing the doors open nearly four decades earlier.
Most disturbing scene: The first person to fall victim to the cannibals (outside of the prologue) is not who you suspect. No matter how carefully you’ve been paying attention there’s no way to see it coming, and when it does your jaw will hit the floor. ‘Authors can’t do that!’ your brain will protest. But somewhere in the back of your mind, you’ll hear a soft snicker. That’s Ketchum, laughing at you just as he laughed at me, as he laughed at everyone who’s seen a horror film, thought they knew the rules, and discovered how very wrong they were. Just when you think things can’t possibly get worse, they do. And it goes on…and on…and on…