On one hand, I’m relieved to find out that Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was inspired by a true story, because I don’t want to think that the man’s imagination is so demented that he dreamt all this up by himself.
On the other hand, I’m repulsed to find out it was inspired a true story, because the subject matter is so horrific, it sickens me to think people like this actually exist.
Originally published in 1989 but just now back in print from Leisure Horror, the novel starts out innocently enough, with the narrator David recalling the summer in the late 1950s when he was 12. The memories he evokes are nostalgic, reminiscent even of several Ray Bradbury works. But then David meets Meg, aka THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. With she and her crippled younger sister freshly orphaned, Meg has come to live with her distant aunt Ruth, a single mother to three scrappy sons.
Meg knows her new environment is going to be an adjustment, but she has no idea what she’s in for. Nobody does. With no reason at all (perhaps the most chilling aspect of this tale), Ruth utilizes her basement as a torture chamber for Meg. Soon her boys join in. Before long, so do other kids in the neighborhood, with the level of depravity and violence escalating every day. David bears witness to several of the beatings (not to mention other atrocities) and is rightly terrified, but also finds something strangely attractive about it.
If this book doesn’t dig right under your skin and bother you, you’re soulless. At times you will find it difficult to progress; at other times you will want to throw it across the room. But you won’t, because Ketchum does such a compelling job at ratcheting up the suspense that you absolutely must see what happens next, even if next makes you want to jump into the story and choke these bastards yourselves. I have to give him credit for sending a chill up my spine with Chapter 24, which consists of a mere seven words.
That alone is enough to give THE GIRL NEXT DOOR a solid recommendation (at least to the strong-willed), but Leisure sweetens the pot by throwing in some value-added extras. In addition to an essay by Ketchum about why he wrote the book, two of his short stories are included, one of which is seeing print for the first time. Too bad neither is lucid enough to be effective, but chances are anything that would dare follow the harrowing main feature would pale greatly in comparison.