Jack Ketchum's 1989 horror novel The Girl Next Door is a deeply disturbing and subversive piece of genre literature. The story -- based on the real torture/murder of a 16 year old girl named Sylvia Likens -- is simple enough. Sisters Meg and Susan lose their parents to a car accident and are left in the care of their aunt Ruth. The older sister, Meg, becomes a target for abuse and Ruth, with the help of her three underage children, tortures and murders the poor girl. The abuse begins with name calling and withholding of food, but quickly escalates to the long brutal set-piece that comprises the novel's third act. This is really the centrepiece of the novel, and in this final act Meg is tied up, force fed shit, urinated on, burned with cigarettes, raped, beaten, branded, doused in scalding hot water, and ultimately circumcised with a hot tire iron. So, yeah, this is not a fun read. If slogging through nearly a hundred pages of detailed descriptions of this kind of stuff isn't your cup of tea -- and I certainly wouldn't blame you if it isn't -- then you'd do well to sit this one out.
Now, I imagine a lot of readers will be turned off by the last paragraph, and I get that. But there are a number of things worthy of praise about this book. First off, while Ketchum pulls no punches and while his descriptions of Meg's torture are detailed and graphic, the novel never revels in violence against women. Nothing about what happens is fun or glorified in any way. Ketchum cuts right to the heart of the evil at the novel's core, and he manages to carefully strike a balance where the novel describes in detail the exploitation of a young woman, but never really feels like an exploitation piece. (That was my reading, anyway; I gather that some readers have come away with a different impression.)
The second thing worth praising Ketchum for is his technical prowess as an author. He handles this story with incredible skill. The novel feels simplistic and straightforward at times (more on that later) but this is not because the novel is straightforward, it's because Ketchum is such a good story teller that he makes writing like this look easy. This book is a page turner and every chapter drives the reader ever deeper into the darkness. With a different subject matter I'm convinced that Ketchum would be selling books at the level of James Patterson or Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling.
The story is told from the perspective of David, a young boy living next door to Ruth. David's raison d'etre in the novel is to bridge the gap between the audience (who are horrified by what transpires) and Ruth's kids (who are titillated by what transpires). David is something of a voyeur; he is neither an active participant in the torture, nor is he blameless. Ketchum uses David's ambiguous and shifting moral stance to let us get inside the headspace of Ruth and her boys and the novel does an impressive job of making their descent into madness understandable. Of course misogyny accounts for much of the horror, but Ketchum also wants to make a broader point about the cruelty of children, mob mentality, and a sort of Milgram-esque submission to the cruel will of an authority figure. If there is a morally redeeming reason for books like this to exist, I think that that reason is to provide an answer to the question "how could people do such a thing?" that arises whenever we read true stories like the Sylvia Likens case. This appears to be Ketchum's goal with The Girl Next Door and, for better or worse, he accomplishes the fuck out of that goal.
It should be mentioned that this is also one of the most subversive novels I've ever read. Everything about the book is designed to make it look like it's intended for a young adult / child audience. The book is intentionally misrepresented in such a way that a casual reader would mistake it for an R. L. Stine book. You get this sense from the cover art, of course, but also from the prose style. The chapters are all very short, most are only a few pages. The prose style is straightforward and easy to read. This book about about rape and torture and murder is quite conspicuously written at a sixth grade reading level. I can easily imagine somebody accidentally buying this for their kid expecting something along the lines of Goosebumps. This intentional misrepresentation of the novel is a big part of why it's so effective; even having read the synopsis on the back you just don't expect that the story will be as nasty as it really is. This feeling of surprise persists throughout the novel, even though it's abundantly clear where things are going already from even the first pages of the book.
This, finally, brings me to the deepest problem with the book. The fundamental tension is as follows. On the one hand Ketchum aims to deliver some deep adult insight into real life horrors like the Likens case. But, on the other hand, by choosing to structure the book like a piece of YA fiction, it can't help but feel somewhat superficial. I was left with mixed feelings about all this. We don't come away from the unpleasant experience of reading this book with any deep insight into the psychological origins of the misogyny and rape and violence on display. To be fair: perhaps the roots of all this evil aren't particularly deep. I sincerely doubt that the family who murdered Sylvia Lichens were particularly thoughtful or complicated people. That being said, I left this book feeling somewhat empty. It's a feeling I don't get when I read Hubert Selby Jr. or George Bataille or Denis Cooper, for example, although those authors have all handled similarly nasty stories.
So... There you have it. I'm hesitant to say I recommend a story like this but Ketchum has certainly accomplished something interesting here.
Update: My claims about the novel misrepresenting itself as YA are almost certainly off the mark. I explain more in detail in the erratum for this post. Sorry and thanks to Sam Richard to schooling my ass.