The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. Originally published by Warner Books, 1989. Approx. 320 pages.
Did you ever consider that the monsters, boogeymen, and other fantastical, grotesque creatures we envision are actually security devices? Identifiable, somewhat other-than-human manifestations of all the attributes we can easily point at and say "See that? That there is the face of evil." Why is it that we do that? We do it for so long, we do it so naturally, that we embrace the fallacy, the vain hope, that these values come from these monsters, as if our world would be utterly devoid of them.
We should only wish.
The truth is that the roots of these evil tendencies lay nowhere else but in our own black hearts, our own twisted minds. It is so convenient to paint an ugly face and say that it is the evil one. But no, evil is in us. It festers behind our flimsily constructed moral barriers; it oozes out in casual displays when there is general consent and allowance. And sometimes, true evil is right next door.
The Girl Next Door is a terrifying story. It is a true horror tale. It is not horror in that there is a demon, or devil, or slithering creature. It is horror because it tells what man can do to fellow man; or, as is the case here, woman to woman. And the horror aspect is amplified by its true crime underpinnings; yes, The Girl Next Door is based loosely upon (but fairly close to), the real life tragedy of Sylvia Likens.
The Girl Next Door is told from the first-person perspective of a boy named David, a seemingly normal All-American kid in the 50's, living in an idyllic little down in New Jersey. His house is on a row near the woods, and everybody knows everybody, all the kids play together, you know the deal.
Well, you also know going in that something bad is going to transpire. The opening chapters center on an adult David, and the whole account is being recorded as his testimonial. Or perhaps it is a confession.
Whereas David's house puts forward a semblance of normalcy (or at least a facade of one, since divorce for his parents is always seemingly on the horizon); his next door neighbors, the Chandlers are another story. There are three boys there; twins roughly David's age, and a younger urchin nicknamed Woofer, whose experiments with insects shows the hallmarks of a budding psychopath. Without a doubt, though, the most dynamic character at the Chandler's is the matriarch; single mother Ruth.
Ruth Chandler is a fantastically realized character. She is an aging beauty, who feels somehow that it is life that didn't meet her halfway. To her, her life has been a tragedy of circumstantial failures; she came from comfortable means and should have become elevated higher, she managed an office building when the men were fighting in World War II, only to find herself unemployed when they returned. Plus, her husband never made good on all his grand plans; he promised her the world and then handed her a desk globe. She condemns him as a lout, but a helluva man's man as well. The fact is, of course, that none of these portions of her past were as grand as her hindsight storytelling. All her confidence derives from regaling the ever-present clutch of pubescent boys with these tales of hers, as she drinks and chain-smokes her days away. The boys are infatuated with her manner and her looks; she's pretty hot as far as moms go, and the way she acts - she's one of the guys. She'll sneak you a beer or a cigarette, and you can always come and stay over. And so, she runs her home like a faded queen in her castle.
And then Meg and her little sister Susan arrive. Second cousins, they become orphans when their parents die in a horrific car crash. The girls did not emerge unscathed either; Meg (who is roughly two years older than David), carries a jagged scar down the length of one arm, and frail Susan is left in braces; most of the bones in her lower body shattered. Being a last family option, Ruth agrees to take them in. There is no way this could have been easy, though; her resources were already stretched thin with her own brood of boys (although, like most examples of American Trash, there is no shortage of beer and cigarettes in the house).
For David, meeting Meg is like a bolt of lightning hitting him straight in the heart. I do believe that this is what they refer to as a "sexual awakening". Ketchum writes these scenes fantastically; truly capturing emotions I haven't felt in almost thirty years, making you feel them like it was only yesterday. The awkward nervousness, the hesitations, the fear, the awe at the pure beauty and goodness of a young lady who seemingly stepped down from Heaven and into your life.
But, for some reason, things just don' t seem to click between the girls and their new mother figure, especially between Meg and Ruth.What starts out as tension and dislike for the beautiful teen descends into a cycle of hair-trigger punishments handed out for minor infractions.
Of course, things only get worse from there on. On beneath the anger is a seething undercurrent of sexual tension. Tension from Ruth's boys directed at Meg, and Ruth's inability to deal with her star fading as Meg's continues to rise.
As the severity of the punishments and mental abuse escalate, Meg tries to seek help from a local police officer. This, of course, being a small town in a different time, offers no help whatsoever to Meg, and only leads to Ruth finding out about her plea for assistance. Here is where everything takes the dramatic turn for the worse.
In the basement of the Chandler house is a concrete bomb shelter, built by Ruth's husband during the Red Scare. Meg is moved down here so that more brutal and intricate punishments can be unleashed on her. And the frightening thing is, because we are the creatures we are, the punishments do indeed get worse and worse, and attract a wider swathe of participants: local neighborhood kids.
At this point even David is a silent participant. Guilty of doing nothing, he watches and witnesses. In a brutal show of honesty, we are told the full palette of emotions that these scenes evoke in him; from horror and fear to excitement, arousal, and, perhaps most frightening of all, a sort of indifference. For as the sheer volume of pain inflicted rises, it seems possible to desensitize yourself to the shock of it all.
Isn't that always the case, though? As soon as the venue changes to somewhere private, out of public view, these true, abominable aspects of ourselves can shine through? That's why the bomb shelter is such an apt metaphor for the dark caverns of our own hearts.
Jack Ketchum can write great slasher fiction, we all know this. I think there is a part of us that wishes we could write off this book as spinner rack horror novel exploitation, going for shock value by upping the ante and putting a child in danger. But it isn't. Too often, way too often we read or hear about extreme cases of cruelty. Where people can make a concerted effort to systematically torture someone. Even as I write this, not two hours away from me here in Upstate New York, six members of a church are being held for beating a young man to death over the course of a 14 hour "counseling session".
It all goes back to what I was saying before about morality. We are simply not moral creatures; we just all consign ourselves to silent, mutual agreements to not to certain things to each other in the hopes that we get extended the same courtesy. But take someone off that map, and all bets are off. Plus, couple this with the fact that assent spreads through crowds like a plague.
Back to the book, Ketchum has written it very well. The characters are all brought to real life; even the background ones. The setting and scenery are real to the touch as well. He shows a mastery of tone as well. Since he introduces the lingering knowledge that something bad will transpire right from the opening chapters, all mundane and normal things come with a sense of dread. He chooses situations that will reflect that "up and down" feeling; from David's first meeting of Meg to the utter terror of trying to go next door and talk to her, to the elation of going up in a Ferris Wheel together, only to experience the gut-churning descent.
Ketchum also sets a perfect tone in depicting the violence. In the beginning, it is a shock, even a sort of grand event, that matches the heady excitement of the assailants and audience. But as it continues, it is just numbing depictions, mind-numbing, soul-crushing, life-destroying. As it reaches a climax, you don't even wish for just a miracle or a rescue, just an end. Any kind of end. Any kind of respite for this poor girl.
David makes an identifiable and sympathetic protagonist. On paper, it is easy to hate him. Hate him for "doing nothing", for bearing witness, even for his understandable arousal. But remember what it was like to be his age; under the full authority of adults, and small town protocols. These were oppressive guidelines to abide by, and in the end, he really does try his best.
In fact, the only problem I have comes towards the end. This is where there is a sense of justice is exacted. Sorry, but that is too clean of a resolution. The fact that the real life perpetrator of these crimes, Gertrude Baniszewski, was allowed a life, and ultimate parole, perfectly shows us how truly warped this world's priorities are. Other than that, it is a great book. Not a book to enjoy, and not a book to hide from. Truly a heart-wrenching experience.
If you are so inclined, you can watch the movie based on the book here:
You can also watch the movie An American Crime, based upon the actual Likens case, here:
And here are some interesting photos and such from the Likens case:
Final Score: 9/10