Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Joyride by Jack Ketchum (includes bonus novella Weed Species)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Author Jack Ketchum's specialty is fictionalizing the exploits of real-life criminals, something he has done to great effect in The Lost and Off Season, and especially in the book most consider his masterpiece: The Girl Next Door. The paperback reprint of Joyride (which includes the novella Weed Species) continues this tradition with different but equally disappointing results.

When Wayne — who always wanted to kill someone but never had the guts — sees Carole and Lee murder Carole's stalker ex-husband Howard, he knows these are some people he'd really like to hang out with. So, he kidnaps them and, inspired by their gumption, sets off on his own spree.

If this setup sounds vaguely familiar, Ketchum found inspiration for Joyride in an unlikely source — Emile Zola's classic La Bete Humaine — though the two authors take a different approach. (Other character details were pulled from Ketchum's usual source, the multivolume Bloodletters and Badmen by Jay Robert Nash.)

Originally printed in 1995 in the U.S. (and the U.K., where it was called Road Kill) and rereleased in a limited edition by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2007 with a new afterword from the author, Joyride differs from Ketchum's usual style in that it eschews graphic sex and violence for the most part. Sometimes it hardly seems like a Ketchum novel at all. The suggestion and actions are there, but the loving descriptions of carnage and mayhem are mostly absent. Instead, the author includes his characters' thoughtful inner monologues on the different qualities of their relationships. Sheer suspense regarding how far Wayne will go carries the reader to the end, and even with that, it was a struggle.

Weed Species, however, is extreme to its detriment. A novella spanning about 80 pages in hardcover (the Cemetery Dance limited edition includes a handful of full-page illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne), it starts right off by chronicling Sherry's Christmas gift to her boyfriend Owen: her teenage sister to rape and a camcorder to film it. This opening scene would have put the author firmly among the "extreme horror" crowd if he weren't in fact a founding member. In it, Ketchum clearly portrays the couple as irredeemable. Later events only serve to underline this fact.

Sometimes it seems as if in Weed Species Ketchum is only out to disturb us; he has said he does this by disturbing himself first. The book's theme can be summed up in three words: "cruelty begets cruelty" (an idea underscored by the book's title and illustrations and by the actions of another of Owen's victims; she survives only to hurt another).

This underlying story behind the story would have been served better by a shorter rendering. Ketchum's need to stick to reality (Owen and Sherry are also based on real people) prevents him from giving Weed Species the satisfying punch of an ending it requires to circumvent these flaws. As a result, it feels like purposeless sensationalism, though it contains some of the author's most brutal and visceral prose yet.

Many people have attempted to thread their horror with social commentary, and Ketchum has done it so much better before that it's difficult to recommend this to any but his most hardcore fans. Weed Species and Joyride thus make an interesting pair. Put together, they seems like two parts of a whole, but taken separately, each feels as if it is missing something vital.


Chris said...

Nice blog! Lots of stuff here that I'm looking forward to sifting through.

I linked to your blog from a discussion about Louis L'Amour from a blog you had apparently visited. I'm doing a blog right now about reading Louis L'Amour, and I must say, I'm a bit apprehensive that I'll begin finding him repetitive too! That said, I'd love it if you'd stop by and maybe even link to my blog from yours. You can click on my name above or go to


Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for dropping by. My advice is to vary your Western reading with other authors, to keep the style of each fresh with each reading. I recommend Max Brand and Will Henry to start.

Chris said...

I think that's a good idea. I'm stopping by the library this afternoon. Any Brand or Henry titles you recommend?

Craig Clarke said...

I love all Brand, but the one that got me into him was The Whispering Outlaw. Also, Beyond the Outposts (reviewed here on the site) was the best book of any kind I read last year.

With Will Henry, I'd start (as I did) with Winter Shadows (also reviewed here on the site).

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