As hard as it was to slog through that one, that was absolutely nothing compared to this one.
The Girl Next Door - Jack Ketchum
I have never had more trouble getting through a book than this one. This was one of the darkest, bleakest, most horrific, most crushing and deadening reading experiences I have ever had. It took me almost a month to finish it. Now I just feel... nothing but complete emptiness.
Many years ago when I was a teenager I watched, out of sheer morbid curiosity, the film version of this book, and I came away sickened and distinctly unimpressed with it. It seemed to me basically just sloppy, exploitative, deeply morally repellent shlock, and I felt bad for having watched it. Both it and the book were adaptations of something that happened in real life, an incident where a teenage girl was held captive and tortured and murdered by her caregiver, helped along by her children and several other neighborhood kids. I found myself wondering how it was morally acceptable to depict or dramatize something like that for the sake of entertainment. Of course, I was young and I didn't question myself for wanting to watch it in the first place, or think that maybe I was part of the problem. I knew what it was going to be about, after all; I was sickened by the bare thought of it and the fact that it was made; I knew there was something wrong with depicting as (technically) entertainment/art a real life person's torture; and yet I wanted to watch it anyway. I understood the irony in that, but I couldn't help myself.
This book is not that. I picked it up for the exact same reason I watched the film version years ago, proving, I guess, that deep down people simply don't fundamentally change. I figured it would be morally repulsive exploitative trash, so by my own standards what possible moral justification could I have for picking it up? But it's not. It's not "torture porn" like I was anticipating. Not even close. There's nothing exploitative about it. It's one of the most sensitive and humane books I've ever read, written in a way that extremely harshly interrogates the reader for expecting (or hoping) for anything else. As its title implies, we're not put in the head of the girl, Meg, herself, but of a boy, David, who lives next door to her. Meg's parents died in a car crash, leaving her and her physically disabled sister Susan to live with their aunt, Ruth, and their three cousins. David and Meg even have a sort of cliched trope-y "meet cute" thing by the brook at the very beginning of the book. Meg's story starts off as severe emotional neglect/abuse, then escalates to physical abuse, before culminating in severe physical and sexual torture, with our hero David as a passive observer almost every single step of the way. David, who we read about from the first-person perspective, keeps continuously visiting next door to witness what's happening, driven by sick fascination, by hormonal, voyeuristic excitement, by the exact same dark impulse which caused me, and presumably most other readers of this book, to pick up this book in the first place. We're sickened by David, by his desires, by his voyeuristic curiosity, and yet he's the reader, isn't he? The book never lets you escape from that; it never lets you forget it. I put it down more times than I could count, but I still finished it, and it knew perfectly well that I would. There is something seriously, seriously diseased in the human soul, and in my opinion no piece of art I've ever encountered illuminated it as well, and attacked it as ferociously and effectively, as this book did.
The sentences in it are short and simple. The prose is minimalist. The writing never calls attention to itself. Nothing about it is flashy. Nothing about either the writing or how the story is told is, for lack of a better word, "cinematic". Nothing is exaggerated. Nothing felt emotionally cloying or manipulative. Nothing felt forced. Nothing, absolutely nothing, felt, for even a moment, inauthentic. What resulted was a book more powerful and emotionally devastating than any I can remember reading. The story was presented so mundanely and unostentatiously, in such a low key and natural fashion, everything just kept naturally escalating, every single stage just kept leading inevitably to the next, and you knew perfectly well at every point where it was going and that it was never going to stop, that it was never going to tilt sideways, nothing unexpected, no shocking twists would come. All the characters were drawn beautifully, if vaguely, but that's all that was needed. We knew all we needed to know about them. We knew about Meg and Susan, we knew about Ruth, we knew about David and the other boys, we knew enough about them by the beginning to know, even if we knew nothing about the real life inspiration, that there would never come a point that anything was going to get better.
This book is horror at its most elemental, its most fundamental. It is horror that knows what it's supposed to do: not "scare" you, but horrify you. Damage your soul. It succeeded.
The most horrific aspect of the book is not Ruth, even though she's the catalyst for everything. She's quite obviously sick, and even though the book spends just enough time to tell us what's driving her and what she's motivated by, it doesn't spend much time trying to figure her out. Because she's not the point. The kids do most of the torturing. Her sons do it, David passively accepts it, eventually some of the neighborhood kids do it. Girls and boys. Eventually it becomes an open secret on their block, that there's this girl, Meg, whom they know, in some lady's basement who they can do anything they want to. It's all built up gradually; Ruth manipulates them all splendidly, but the scariest thing is is that she doesn't even have to try that hard most of the time. The kids are perfectly happy to do quite a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. The escalation is told so naturally that every single escalation is 100% authentic and realistic. Jack Ketchum, for better or worse, has a really good grasp on human psychology. I kept expecting some heightened moment, something that would ring false that would take me out of the story. But no. I was never given that.
There's a subgenre, I don't know if it has a name or not, of art that's all about trying to illuminate the darkness the lies underneath the rosy surface of American suburbia. That underneath the Leave-It-To-Beaver facade of middle class Americana, there's a disturbing underlying core. That's a favorite theme of Stephen King. David Lynch does that often. Many others. I think this book does that theme so well it blows all other attempts I've seen out of the water, and it does it without seemingly even trying or drawing attention to itself, or coming across as hokey. That sickness that lies inside so many people was opened up by Ruth and Meg, and it came flooding out. Even the sickness in David, our hero, who never actually did anything but still kept coming back.
A big theme of the book I appreciated is the complete, absolute, all-encompassing domination adults have over children, how children are subject to such a sense of powerlessness and dependence on them, and how adults present themselves as having unlimited authority and legitimacy towards them. The kids abuse Meg because they sense they have "permission" to. Ruth, an adult, gave them that permission. Meg didn't have permission to fight back, so she was punished for it. The laws of the universe and morality are dictated by adults, kids feel, especially when those laws line up with what they wanted to do anyway. Kids are supposed to endure humiliation. Kids are supposed to endure physical violence and trauma. Adults are supposed to control every aspect of their lives, and if they don't like it, like Meg doesn't, well, that doesn't really matter much, does it? This feeling is strengthened when Meg tries to tell the cops early on, and when they don't help her, their contempt for her grows, and their anger. She just illustrated as starkly as possible to them that adults truly, simply don't give a shit, and they took their feelings of powerlessness out on the only person they could.
Another obvious theme it touches on is, well, toxic masculinity, and how boys and girl perceive each other in general. The boys had some truly shitty attitudes towards Meg, who was older and pretty, even before Ruth entered the picture and entertained their notions that she should be their plaything. They felt entitled to her on a subtle yet primal level, which is another reason they didn't question it much when Ruth made her, in a sense, more available to them. David wasn't immune to this by any stretch. It's fascinating and nauseating to read how his perceptions of her change over the story. She starts off to him as an object of affection and yearning, somewhat intimidating, and then descends quickly as the abuse starts into an object of titillation, contempt, disgust, hatred, pure disdain for her personhood, an object of voyeuristic spectacle. A part of him realizes how unimaginably strong she must be to endure all she's going through, but it's easy enough to cast that feeling aside when he actually looks at her, and pretend she's contemptible to ease his insane guilt. David is in constant emotional turmoil, and it's extremely realistic, and it's why the book works: because this is really, genuinely, how people think.
This is easily one of the most well-written and effective books I've ever read. It's unbelievably, corrosively bleak, and I don't say that lightly. I'm not going to be able to stop thinking about it for a long time.