Sometimes a book is so perfectly put together that, upon finishing, it benefits from a re-read. Such is the case with The Woman, a tale of exquisite sorrow. Having read the climax you will be sorely tempted to skip back to page one and appreciate the cyclical nature of this depraved tragedy. For longstanding fans of Jack Ketchum, it will come as no surprise that this book contains some of the most disturbing and graphic depictions of terror to grace fiction. Whilst The Girl Next Door managed to create suspense from start to finish with that ominous line early on – “nothing in my life has been right since the summer of 1958, when Ruth and Donny and Willie and all the rest of us met Meg Loughlin” – other Ketchum novels, by their nature, possess implied suspense. With Ketchum, events will take an invariable downward plunge. Off Season illustrates this point when, one hundred pages in, naked lovers are violently snatched by a horde of cannibals in a tome that is so daringly horrific it makes the video nasty equivalents look positively sterile.
Having cemented his reputation as one of the modern day masters of horror and suspense, Jack has a lot to live up to. His collaborative outing, with Lucky McKee, does not disappoint. Jack has long been a master of succinct, powerful language. When Strunk famously said, “a sentence should contain no unnecessary words” Jack listened. It’s his use of blunt, simple language that resonates and affects the reader. Whilst Jack’s work is unquestionably gory, it is minimalist and always packs a philosophical message underneath the reams of innards and blood. Think of it, if you like, as fiction’s equivalent to Martyrs.
The Woman is the sequel to Offspring but works just as well as a standalone novel. It is a cross between the underrated 5150 Elm’s Way, I Spit On Your Grave and the aforementioned Martyrs. The cinematic comparisons are wholly appropriate, not only was The Woman recently made into an award-winning film, but as a novel it is highly visual. As has become characteristic with Jack’s work, characters are introduced in the first fifty pages before anything disturbing and too out of the ordinary occurs. There are hints towards a darker past but it is not implicit until, well, you’ll see…
The Woman focuses on the Cleek family and the sole surviving member of a native tribe, The Woman. The Cleek family comprise of successful lawyer and mentally unstable chauvinist Chris, far too loyal and unquestioning wife Belle, teenage son Brian – who has a toolbox of social problems – troubled teenager Peg who can see through, and has witnessed, her Father’s dark side and the, as yet, untainted four-year-old Darleen. There’s also an extra addition to the family that is revealed deep into the story. The Cleeks and The Woman collide when increasingly erratic Chris Cleek captures The Woman and attempts to rehabilitate her back into human society. Unfortunately his unorthodox methods are detrimental to her well-being and the novel soon evolves into a fight for her survival. The irony that the Cleeks have become the more uncivilised and crazed party is not lost on Jack or Lucky who carefully juxtapose the Cleek family meltdown with the increasing human elements and empathy of the untamed woman.
Even at face value The Woman is much more than torture porn for a desensitised generation of yuppies looking for a quick fix. Whilst there are similarities and parallels between The Woman and The Girl Next Door, this is distinct enough to stand its ground as another essential Ketchum novel. It is an interesting exploration of the human psyche, our own endurance levels and confronts the question of what it is to be human. The most terrifying element of The Woman is its realism. Lucky and Jack do not deal in the fantastical or suspension of disbelief. The Woman is every bit as real as us and exposes the cruelty and perversity of mankind with all the subtlety of a pair of scissors clean-cutting a clitoris (remember Antichrist?). Try and domesticate those fortunate enough to be feral if you will, but if The Woman is anything to go by then we’re better left alone, untainted. Pure.