Book Review – The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

When Dallas William Mayr (Jack Ketchum) died of cancer on January 24, 2018, in New York City at the age of 71, the Internet was ablaze with tributes to a man considered to be one of the all-time great horror fiction writers. Throughout his writing career, Ketchum was the recipient of four Bram Stoker Awards and three further nominations. He received the World Horror Convention Grand Master Award for outstanding contribution to the horror genre in 2011.

As I read the numerous eulogies, I realized I’d never read a single word penned by the man Stephen King once described as “Probably the scariest guy in America.” Not only had I not read a word, but I also didn’t have any of his titles on my to-be-read shelf…that being said, the next time I was within sniffing distance of a Barnes & Noble I made sure I remedied that deficiency and bought the only book they had in stock, “The Girl Next Door.”

Here’s the Goodreads and Amazon blurb –

Suburbia. Shady, tree-lined streets, well-tended lawns, and cozy homes. A nice, quiet place to grow up. Unless you are teenage Meg or her crippled sister, Susan. On a dead-end street, in the dark, damp basement of the Chandler house, Meg and Susan are left captive to the savage whims and rages of a distant aunt who is rapidly descending into madness. It is a madness that infects all three of her sons and finally the entire neighborhood. Only one troubled boy stands hesitantly between Meg and Susan and their cruel, torturous deaths. A boy with a very adult decision to make.

I should have done a little homework on what to read first, but I didn’t, so here’s my take on what’s probably the most thought-provoking, disturbing, and haunting book I’ve ever read. As I edit this piece I’m asking myself “Is this a book review or an angry rant?”

“The Girl Next Door” is based on the true story of the horrendous abuse, torture and eventual murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis, Indiana during October 1965. I think it’s fair to say Stephen King summed it up perfectly when he said: “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

First of all, I’m not going to fill you in on the Sylvia Likens story. That’s what Google’s for. Once you’ve done that for a little background information, you need to ask yourself “Are you ready for this book?”

By ready I don’t mean are you sitting comfortably in your favorite chair with a nice drink by your side. I mean are you mentally ready? Be brutally honest, because no matter what you think, you won’t be. Why? Because this book should have a health warning attached to it. I mean it. Read it at your own risk because it’s going to be one hell of a bumpy, emotional ride. Your stomach will turn and you’re going to be pissed off, really pissed off, smashing your fist into a brick wall pissed off.

As my regular readers knows, when I write book reviews, I try to refrain from giving away too much of the plot. There’s plenty of review sites that do that already. If you need any more background, read Ketchum’s note at the back of the book saying even he was disgusted by what happened.

The book delves into the ugliest possible face of humanity, child abuse and what happens when a supposed “good” person does jack shit to help someone in dire need of assistance. In the early pages, it felt like a coming of age horror, parts of it reminded of Paul Tremblay’s “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock.” But then the darkness fell like an all-enveloping black cloak. It became increasingly more uncomfortable to read because of Ketchum’s skill at describing the horrors going on in the story

This is where it gets tricky.Ketchum’s choice of subject matter is where I have the problem. Yes, Ketchum was a true wordsmith, there’s no denying that fact. His words pull you into the story, a story where you’re a helpless spectator watching horrors inflicted on someone truly innocent. The weirdest thing is that while it’s one of the most well-written stories I’ve ever read, I don’t have the courage to recommend it to anyone, because those well-written words will change you. Only you can decide if you’re ready to take that leap of faith because this is a brutal story of abuse, torture, and helplessness. It will be the most depraved thing you’ve ever read because the bad guys in this story are mostly children. Some things can never be un-read.

“The Girl Next Door” is not your typical “blood and gore” story. There isn’t much blood and gore at all in fact, but this book will leave a mental scar that’ll never heal. The words will turn your stomach, make your blood boil, and yank at your heart before taking residence in the deepest corner of your mind, right next to the other things you want to desperately forget. There were times when I wanted to scream out loud, as my frustration increased. It made me feel powerless, made me wish I had the ability to do something. It’s a brutal read that will stay in your head for the rest of your life and not in a good way.

If I was asked to describe “The Girl Next Door” in one word it would be “traumatizing.” Yes, Ketchum writes well and I may read more of his work in the future, but at this moment in time, I think this title has scared me away. In retrospect, this is a hard book to rate. I probably shouldn’t have even tried to review it, but Meg’s plight hurt me so deeply I had to.

The quality of Ketchum’s storytelling is superb. He did what every writer hopes to achieve. He dragged me, kicking and screaming, into that basement, made me angry, made me sad, made me feel helpless. And the real horror is things like this still happen today…

Knowing this was based on a true story, my heart aches for Sylvia Likens and all the other victims of child abuse we never hear about. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the spirits of these poor children. I believe there’s a special place in hell for people who torture children. Oh, by the way, when I offer my thoughts and prayers, I genuinely mean thoughts and prayers, not the empty gestures bandied around by celebrities and politicians who think that by saying it to a camera or tweeting it to the world before moving on to the next photo op, it actually carries some meaning or depth.

I recommend “The Girl Next Door” to nobody and everybody. Unless you’re a sick twisted bastard, no-one will enjoy it. There will be numerous readers who won’t finish the book. It’s filled with sick, sick things, sick things that once happened and are still happening in one shape or form, which makes it all the more painful to read.

I don’t know how to rate this book. Do I give it one skull or five? Is it a great book or is it garbage? All I know is it’s a book I’m never going to forget.

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