Sunday, August 30, 2015

Peaceable Kingdom By Jack Ketchum

Peaceable Kingdom
By Jack Ketchum
Copyright 2001

Ketchum introduces this collection of short stories with a short dissertation on the nature of short stories. Primarily a horror writer, Ketchum says the short form offers the writer the chance to move about between ideas and genres without being attached to the subject matter for six months to a year. He promises this collection will include his standard horror fare along with a romance, a western, and some mainstream stuff.

The Rifle
A single mother finds an old rifle and ammunition in her son’s closet. The boy apparently stole it from his grandfather. He has been in trouble before for various petty offenses and is difficult and unruly at home. She decides to lay down the law with him and confront him at his clubhouse in the woods. There, she discovers her son’s true nature.

This story was a rather chilling portrait of a sociopath and a more chilling portrait of a family member of a sociopath who chooses to deal with her problem offspring. My introduction to Jack Ketchum is off to a fantastic start.

The Box
On a commuter train, a man’s young son asks a passenger to see what he has hidden in a gift box. After seeing what is squirreled away inside, the boy refuses to eat. Soon, he shares the secret with his sisters who also stop eating. As his son lays dying of starvation, the man takes to the rails to find the man and his mysterious box.

Absolutely brilliant storytelling. Ketchum employs an effective ambiguous end and his total lack of explanation is chilling.

The Box won the Bram Stoker Award in 1994 for best short story.

Mail Order
A wealthy New Yorker recluse orders from a porno magazine what he hopes will be a real, honest to goodness snuff film. He receives the package and inserts the tape. As the action unfolds, he’s struck by how much the woman victim looks like a former girlfriend – a former girlfriend he remembers well. He watches the end of the tape to its unsatisfying conclusion and puts it away. A week later, he has a chance encounter with that girl from his past. They decide to have dinner and rehash old times. She has done quite well for herself and the man finds himself attracted to her. She invites him up to her hotel penthouse where he finds himself the guest of honor at the making of a snuff film.

The telling was excellent. The description of the events in the pseudo-snuff film were intense. The twist was somewhat expected, but effectively deployed. However, the ending deserved just a bit more to ratchet up the horror. An enjoyable story nonetheless.

Train robbers sit while one of their own lay dying from a bullet wound in the head. They tell tales of bad luck and misfortune. The topper is the tale of Little Dick West who his doomed to lose many a gunfight.

I’m not much of a fan of westerns and this story was a western although it could have been set just about any time or anywhere. There was no real payoff at the end that I suppose was supposed to be chilling.

The Haunt
A Florida strip club is haunted by the spirit of a dead artist. The owner and a couple of his employees contact the spirit via Ouija board. After learning that he is compelled to act when summoned, they decide to make him part of the act – with disastrous consequences.

This was a pretty straightforward poltergeist story that was well told and generally entertaining.

Megan’s Law
A father learns that a convicted rapist has moved into his neighborhood just a few doors down. The story is told from the perspective of the father and the rapist.

Pretty pedestrian storytelling until you get to the twist. Then it gets good. . .very good.

If Memory Serves
A psychiatrist listens to the tale of repressed memories of rape and sodomy from the multiple personalities of a middle-aged woman. The woman recounts in ugly, graphic detail the acts performed on her person as a young child by her parents and neighbors who were part of a satanic cult. The psychiatrist gets a surprise at the end of the session.

This tale is violent and graphic. I don’t mind that if it is done with purpose and effect. The twist that was the story’s payoff didn’t make it worth the violence. Besides, tales of satanic rituals are so 1980s.

Father and Son
A father and his adult son live together after the father’s wife dies. One night, dad goes to the bathroom with tragic consequences.

This story moves quickly and has an ambiguous ending. It might be best termed experimental.

The Business
A middle-aged man envies his older brother who is much more successful in business and has a pretty fiancé. He plots his brother’s murder and his fiancé will be collateral damage. But an unpredicted turn of events fouls up the plan.

I have really enjoyed most of the stories in this volume. However, this one reads like a college comp class submission. It is not badly written. It just comes up short in character development and/or plot.

Mother and Daughter
A man recounts his youth when his father left him, his mom, and his sister to fend for themselves. Mom responded by covering up all the mirrors in their home which doubled as a bed and breakfast from which the family earned their living. His sister was angry because, being a teenage girl, she liked to look at herself. With the passage of time, the son moves onto college while his older sister remains behind to help mom run the bed and breakfast.

This tale is far superior to father and son because it develops strong sympathy for the sister who sacrifices her health and life to care for her mother. Not my type of story, but I enjoyed in nonetheless. Being new to Jack Ketchum, I am pleased to see he is multidimensional.

When the Penny Drops
A man loses his wallet in Greece. It is returned to his hotel with a mysterious note telling him to return the favor to someone someday. Years later, he loses a ring at a bar. It is returned to the bartender with the same cryptic note. When his wife is shot and killed as an innocent bystander, he feels the desire to return the favor.

The writing in this story was so rich and textured with brilliant character development. I thought for sure it was going to be a feel good story. But the end is anything but feel good.

Rabid Squirrels in Love
A former addict and mental patient recalls how she met the love of her life while working at a mental hospital. Her beau, an orderly at the hospital, has a taste for violence. She reflects on their relationship and his peculiar hobbies.

This story was a cheap shot not well executed. While the story was mildly engaging, the “twist” such as it was with its in your face shot at the pro-life movement was under par for even a high school short fiction submission. Politics aside, it was poorly executed.

A squirrel hunter wounds a squirrel and brings it home. His children nurse it back to health and it becomes the family pet, living in the house and going out during the day. The boy of the family wonders where his pet goes during the day. He finds out with tragic results.

This read like something published in Yankee magazine. Its pace is leisurely. The story is heartwarming and the narrator tells it well. The end is predictable enough, but the superb narrative makes up for it.

A pair of fraternal twins develops a bond beyond what normal twins have after their father is killed en coitus by a jealous husband. They move to Manhattan and live together as a couple while owning a restaurant. When the dead rise, the happy days are over.

It’s not a zombie story. The walking dead are only a prop to tell a story of tragic and taboo love in one of the most forlorn narratives I’ve ever read. Fantastic!

Amid the Walking Wounded
A man develops a severe nose bleed and is taken to the hospital. He is treated and released, but is soon forced to go back. Life passes by and he is confined to his hospital bed as an observer.

This story was atmospheric, but the plot petered out as the atmosphere developed. It needed more plot.

The Great San Diego Sleazy Bimbo Massacre
A woman conspires with her next door neighbor to murder her husband. They agree to split the insurance, but have trouble agreeing on the manner of murder. They try several poison attempts and fake accidents. One night, they decide to bludgeon him to death. It all goes according to plan until the 911 call.

I really enjoyed this story, but was put off by the ending. It just stopped -- like there was more to tell but Ketchum ran out of paper. A completely unsatisfying end.

The Holding Cell
A man is put into a holding cell after he is arrested for DUI. He notes the comings and goings of the various inmates between bouts of sleep. He’s allowed to call his ex-wife and arrange for bail. Then, he and another con notice there is something bizarre about this holding cell.

Ketchum knows how to write compelling prose. But once again, I’m disappointed by the ending. The twist was pretty evident as well.

The Work
An author hires a hit man to kill her as she killed one of the characters in her novel. It is a particularly brutal murder, but she hopes to find in death the fame that eluded her in life.

Here we get a little dose of that Jack Ketchum violence. But as with several stories in the book, it lacked a satisfactory resolution.

The Best
A condom full of DNA can be a scorned woman’s best friend.

Another unsatisfying short story. Many of Ketchum’s short stories are just a series of events that evoke no emotion.

A woman scorned seeks out and murders her former lover’s lovers. Eventually, she finds a woman who is her match physically and mentally. She learns some hard truths about herself and her former lover.

Wow! This story was a fantastic mix of softcore erotica and implied violence. It makes up for the last woman scorned story.

The Exit at Toledo Blade Boulevard
The tale of four vehicles and their occupants traveling Interstate 75 near Sarasota, Florida. Three of them will encounter one whose driver has a deathwish.

This story was a group of short character studies woven into a plot that – unlike I-75 – goes nowhere.

Chain Letter

A chain letter becomes the source of all religion and faith in the land. Receive the letter, you can take responsibility for the sins of all those whose name appears above yours on the letter. Or, you may pass on the responsibility for their sins and yours by forwarding the letter to someone.

A quite chilling, atmospheric tale. There was enough plot to make it interesting, but the atmosphere was incredible. Love the perspective switch as well. It worked wonderfully.

One afternoon, many years ago, a stoner couple contemplates the pros and cons of living forever. As life moves on and they confront their own mortality, the cons weigh heavy on the man’s mind as his wife battles cancer.

I honestly did not see the end coming. Ketchum did not tip his hand at all and the twist was as realistic as it was shocking. I had to reread the last sentence just to make sure I got it right.

A woman whose child was snatched from her car and gone forever decides this is the year she is going to put out candy for Halloween. She is disappointed when no kids show up, knowing that she is shunned in the neighborhood. Finally, three kids show up and leave her with a haunting remark.

Making the reader feel sorry for a woman whose child was stolen from her is shooting fish in a barrel for an author with any skill. Yet, Ketchum walks that fine line between sorrow and lugubriousness.

Closing Time
In the wake of 9/11, an armed robber preys on bars in Manhattan. An advertising artist laments a breakup with his mistress. His mistress, a bartender, struggles to get over their broken relationship. The lives collide.

This was a near perfect story with wonderful character development and a plot that was well paced and kept you guessing. The unusual manner of telling was reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino.

The Rose
A man takes his “girlfriend” who is a girl he has abducted years earlier, to get a tattoo of a rose on her shoulder blade. Some time later, when they make love, he learns the truth of the cliché “every rose has its thorns.”

This was a creepy, lurid tale effectively written.

The Turning
A man of wealth and means walks across Midtown Manhattan pondering what will happen when the unwashed masses inhabiting the city all become vampires.

This mildly dystopian story is an undisguised metaphor for the class struggle. It was well written and served its purpose.

To Suit the Crime
Two men discuss the nature of crime and punishment in a future society where judges are free to mete out sentences tailored to make the criminal suffer the same pain and fate as their victim.

Just a bit of splatterpunk here. Not my cup of tea, but it is well written and intriguing.

Lines: or Like Franco, Elvis is Still Dead
A tourist picks up a local woman in a bar. They wind up on a beach, making out, when they witness a murder by shotgun. The woman calls the police and the man ends up bewildered by the turn the case takes.

The story moved along nicely with good first person narration. However, like several in this collection, the story had an unsatisfactory resolution.

The Visitor
As a zombie crisis unfolds in the land, a man and elderly man’s wife is bitten and infected. She dies in a hospital and the old man visits with those who take her place, one after another as the crisis gets worse.

A different spin on the over-done zombie subgenre. While not outstanding, the story and its main character have their charm.

A woman, who is pursuing her ex-husband in the courts, is confronted by a large snake in her back yard. The snake seems to take a personal interest in her and makes her life miserable.

The metaphor is made crystal clear from the title and the last paragraph. The story would be especially tense for those who fear snakes. Even for us who harbor no phobias of slithering serpents, the story was a lot of fun.

A group of barflies learn of a strange ritual occurring nightly in a nearby forest. Creatures, great and small, predator and prey, have united around a fire. Each night, the animals’ rituals grow in complexity and intensity and the men and women gathered fear that massive change is in the air.

Like too many stories in this volume, the story starts with a really interesting premise that Ketchum fails to see through. I loved the characters and the writing. But the story just stopped without a satisfying conclusion.

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