In my last post I talked about Jack Ketchum's 1989 horror novel The Girl Next Door. My review was almost entirely positive. I praised Ketchum for his technical prowess as an author, and also for the way he manages to get the reader inside the head space of Ruth and her children. While stories like this are not exactly fun to read, I do think this kind of literature is something that needs to exist. When sane people read about true stories like the Sylvia Lichens case their reaction is overwhelmingly to wonder "how can people do such things?" In my opinion this is not a question that objective journalism can answer, at least not in a satisfying way. I think the role of books like The Girl Next Door is to provide an answer that makes sense on an emotional level. Ketchum certainly accomplishes that goal in The Girl Next Door. Moreover, he does so without sensationalizing the misogynistic violence at the core of the story. So, yeah, this is not a fun read but it's definitely an accomplished book.
My reason for revisiting this review is to correct something: my claim that the book intentionally tries to misrepresent itself as YA fiction. I got the idea because, in my mind, everything about the presentation for this book makes it look like it's intended for children. The cartoonish "spooky tree is spooky" cover art reminds me of something you'd see on an R. L. Stine or Christopher Pike novel. I find the title font to be similarly cartoonish and cheesy, and the copy on the back cover only reinforces this impression. My interpretation was that Ketchum (or his publisher) were intentionally pairing this grim adult story with a goofy kid-friendly packaging because they were trying to make a subversive piece of art. This (erroneous) interpretation was bolstered by two things: (1) the fact that prose style would be accessible to a middle school student, and, (2) a comment Ketchum makes in the acknowledgements thanking the cover artist for "finally giving me the kind of cover I wanted".
When I posed on Facebook about this I quickly got some thoughtful push back from Sam Richard, a friend, an author, a reviewer at Splatterpunk Zine, and an editor at Weirdpunk Books. Sam pointed out three things:
- Ketchum almost certainly had no say in the cover art, marketing, back cover copy, etc, for this novel. All of that would have been handled by the publishers.
- YA horror fiction wasn't really the same cultural force in 1989 that it is today. Indeed, the earliest Goosebumps books are from 1992, several years after The Girl Next Door was released.
- The goofy cartoonish cover art for this book is actually pretty much standard for 80s paperback horror fiction.
In summary: I took the book out of proper historical context and I was ignorant about the aesthetic of 80s horror paperback fiction. I was thinking about this from the perspective of a reader first coming across the book in 2017, and this led me to over-interpret the choice of cover art. My bad! Sorry for the misleading post and thanks to Sam for schooling me.
I decided to leave my original review intact because I want to use that misinterpretation as a launching point for a future post about the importance of cover art on books and records. I hope to get to that soon.