50 Scariest Books: #19 – The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

So I knocked another book off of the 50 Scariest Books of all time list, putting me at a grand total of 19. I began the list with 11 already done, making this the 8th book as I tortoise my way to the finish line. I just might use my kindle app to complete the trek.

So far, the list encompasses many different types of scary. There’s the satanic scary (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), the supernatural scary (The Haunting of Hill House, It), the macabre scary (Books of Blood), and then there’s the type of scary found in The Girl Next Door. It’s the scary to be found in ordinary folks.

Stephen King approved! (image from goodreads.com)

The Girl Next Door follows the story of a boy navigating an impossible situation. Two girls move in next door; the older girl, a teenager named Meg, becomes a target for Ruth Chandler, the lady of the house, whose bitterness and sociopathy create a pathway to imprisonment and increasingly insane tortures for the poor girl. Ruth recruits her sons, their friends (including the narrator), and eventually many neighborhood children in participating in a crime that lurches steadily to its inevitable, dreadful end.

In the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book, Ketchum writes that he had wanted to write about sociopaths. “Sociopaths scare me and make me mad.” He drew on the true life story of Sylvia Likens, murdered in 1965 after enduring horrific torture by her guardian, Gertrude Baniszewski, who led her own children and others into committing the crime.

Sociopaths are all fine and dandy horror material, but what really scares me about sociopaths are the people who follow them, ordinary people who consider themselves “good.” Like the narrator in The Girl Next Door, a 13 year old kid who doesn’t necessarily participate in the torture, but witnesses it, and for a long time does nothing to stop it. He muses:

The truth is that it was me. That I’d been waiting for this, or something like this, to happen all along. It was as though something starkly elemental were at my back, sweeping through me, releasing and becoming me, some wild black wind of my own making on that beautiful bright sunny day.

The worst horrors of human history are perpetuated by ordinary folks. Hitler and Jim Jones would’ve been nothing without regular people to carry out the dirty work.

As for the sociopath, Ruth Chandler seems to grow fuzzier with each advancing torture, until she’s merely an instigator, leaving instructions that the kids are all too eager to carry out. In the end, she fades away, not the force but the figurehead. We never really flesh out this odious character; she is lost in the chorus of incipient henchmen surrounding her. As the narrator writes:

A presence that was a whole lot more than the lingering smell of her smoke in the air yet just as insubstantial. Like Ruth was a ghost who haunted us, her sons and me. Who’d haunt us forever if we pushed or disobeyed her.

The prose in the novel is spare. Direct. It doesn’t look away, except when it’s too horrible to look, and then the reader is left to the worst possible device: their imagination.

Let us hope that when the day comes, though it may not be fraught with such consequence, though it may not end in murder, though it may one of the those dozen daily choices that build us up or tear others down, that we have the courage to bat away that kool-aid and see the mad(wo)man for what he or she truly is.

*sordid details*

  • Fun fact! I read this book on my Kindle app. It turns out that anything you highlight transfers over to your Goodreads account and you can read it all in one handy list. But duh, Amazon = Kindle = Goodreads, so there you go.
  • Every time I type the author’s name, I feel like I’m spelling “Ketchum” wrong. I really want to type “Ketchup.” Because it’s delicious!
  • The story of Sylvia Likens was made into a movie in 2007 starring Catherine Keener and Ellen Page. An American Crime is sickening on all levels. Everything about this story is major moral suckage.
  • The Girl Next Door was made into a movie also in 2007 (not the one about the porn actress starring Elisha Cuthbert). The acting is pretty bad. And what kind of degenerate would want to see a movie like this? I mean, I watched it, but obviously I’m a terrible person.

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