Sunday, April 19, 2009

Red by Jack Ketchum

Major Spoilers Follow.

Perhaps best-known for the bleak semi-true crime story The Girl Net Door, Jack Ketchum has a reputation for being an extreme horror novelist. I picked up Red to see if his reputation was deserved and, while his other books are probably more extreme, Red was more of a morality tale than anything.

Avery Ludlow is a sixty-seven year-old widower who's had a tough life. His wife Mary and youngest son Tim are dead, gruesomely killed by his eldest, Billy in a fit of drunken rage. He runs an old general store that barely sustains him, but besides the store has nothing in his life except Red, an old dog who has himself seen better days. One morning while out fishing, three boys approach him, demanding his money. When he has nothing to give them, they shoot and kill Red just to be cruel, and walk off laughing. The rest of the book has Ludlow following the boys and trying to extract first an apology and then, when that fails, justice.

Because of Ketchum's reputation, I thought I knew where the story was headed from the outset. Old man with nothing to lose takes bloody and over-the-top revenge on the family who wronged him. I spent the middle section of the book watching Ludlow stymied at every turn, and waiting for the moment when his fuse finally disappeared inside his cherry bomb, but the moment doesn't come. While Ludlow does eventually take more drastic measures than, say, I did when my dog was poisoned by next door neighbor, he never picks off the family members one at a time, never tortures the maid, never burns down McCormack's house. The slow burn in this story is even slower, and even when pushed into more extreme action in the finale, Ludlow feels reads like a man possessed. His actions and reactions seem realistic and even, in context, slightly understated for a man in his position.

Of course, the story does end in bloody recompense for the boys and their family, and justice is served, but none of it comes directly by Ludlow's hand. That's where the morality of the story lies: The family is eventually undone, not by Ludlow's machinations, but by their own greed, paranoia, and bloodlust. Blood begets blood, or something like that. Red was a taut, pulpy little thriller, and I just wish I'd read it before I nailed my neighbor's cat to her barn door.

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